Top Grilling Tips and the 15 Easiest Grilling Recipes
Whether you’re brand-new to grilling or just want to stop torching the chicken, we’ve got the tips and recipes to make you a backyard champ.
Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links, meaning if you follow the link and make a purchase, Yummly makes a commission.
Do you hear it, that siren call of our ancestors? Must. Cook. Food. Over. Fire. When the sun comes out and wafts of smoke and sizzling meat start drifting in from the neighbors’ yard, the call can be darned near irresistible. And yet if you’re a beginning griller, getting from concept to competence can feel a bit intimidating.
As a food writer with 20-plus years of grilling experience, I’m here to tell you that once you get your mitts around some basic grilling tips and techniques, you can make a meal your family and friends will rave about. Building the fire, controlling the heat, knowing when the food is done: You can master these. Of course, I’ve included some easy and highly Yummable grilling recipes for you to practice on, as well as advice for things like grilling tri tip, general grilling tips for steak, and tips on grilling chicken. So grab your tongs—let’s get grilling.
1. Choose the best grill
The answer to “which is better, gas or charcoal,” is whichever grill is right for you: Both produce great food. If you’re buying a new grill, keep in mind that gas, aka propane, is the easiest to use; all you do is turn the knobs. Charcoal grills create a little more smoky flavor, but you’ll need to interact with the fire to get the perfect heat.
2. Get the right fuel
For a gas grill, you need a tank of propane (head to a big hardware store; you can exchange it for a fresh tank when it’s empty). There are several choices in charcoal. Briquets, which look like little pillows, are much easier to use than lump charcoal (big, irregular pieces of charred wood). I like natural hardwood briquets, which don’t have additives like coal products. Avoid briquets with lighter fluid added, and don’t buy liquid lighter fluid; it gives food an off-flavor and is bad for the environment. Wood chips and chunks add extra smoke and can be used with either type of grill, but we’re going to keep it simple and skip them here.
3. Assemble some essential grilling tools
At a minimum you need a pair of long grilling tongs and a wide spatula; some long, heavy mitts; a grill brush; and a few sheet trays. Use one set of sheet trays to carry your raw ingredients and gear from the kitchen to the grill. Save a clean sheet tray (or a platter) for the cooked food. For a charcoal grill you also need a chimney starter, some newspaper, matches or a lighter, and a second pair of tongs for the briquets. A bottle of beer to sip while you preside over the fire? That’s purely optional.
4. How to light the grill
For a gas grill, you’ve likely figured out how to attach the propane tank to the hose under the grill and have turned the knob to open the valve. Now open the grill lid (don’t light the grill with the lid closed, or you risk singed eyebrows). Click the igniter button and turn all the knobs in front to high. Once everything is lit, close the lid and preheat the grill at least 10 minutes.
For a charcoal grill, take the lid off and remove the upper grate (the cooking grate). Open all the vents underneath the grill and on the lid. Set a chimney starter on the lower grate (aka the fire grate) with the open end up. Crumple 2 full sheets of newspaper and stuff them underneath the chimney starter. Fill the open end of the starter with charcoal briquets and ignite the newspaper. Let the briquets burn until they’re just glowing red on top, 15 to 20 minutes.
5. How to build the fire (basic): direct heat
Perfectly grilled food—kissed by fire on the outside, juicy and neither raw nor dry inside—starts with the correct fire arrangement. The most common set-up is where your food is right over the fire; that’s called direct heat.
For a gas grill: After lighting and preheating (above), you’re good to go.
For a charcoal grill: Using mitts, dump the chimney of hot coals onto the fire grate and spread them in a single even layer, using grilling tongs. (A full chimney is the right amount of fuel to cover the grate and cook for about half an hour.) Set the cooking grate in place and let it heat for a few minutes.
6. How to control the heat and get the right temperature
In addition to fire arrangement, you want to think about temperature. Just as you wouldn’t bake a cake in a 500-degree oven if the recipe says 300 degrees, you need to adjust your grill temp according to the recipe and to what you’re cooking. If your grill doesn’t have a thermometer, test the temperature by how hot the fire feels. And remember to grill with the lid closed to keep heat from escaping and help prevent flare-ups.
For a gas grill: Just turn the knobs. To cool it quickly, open the lid for a bit.
For a charcoal grill: Too hot? Let the fire burn longer, or try closing the vents halfway (remember, they’re under the grill and on the lid). If the fire is too cool or if you’re cooking longer than 30 minutes, you’ll need to add more briquets (ideally, ignite them in the chimney on another fireproof surface and add about 10 at a time to the fire).
High heat (450 to 550 degrees Fahrenheit; you can hold your hand 5 inches above the grate 2 to 4 seconds): Use high heat for thinner pieces of protein like boneless chicken breasts and chicken thighs, skirt steak or burgers, and sockeye salmon, as well as quick-cooking, juicy vegetables such as sliced onion, bell pepper, and zucchini.
Medium heat (350 to 450 degrees Fahrenheit; you can hold your hand 5 inches above the grate 5 to 7 seconds): Here’s the sweet spot for somewhat thicker meats like chicken pieces on the bone and New York steaks, where you want to be sure they cook to the center without carbonizing outside. Choose this range for sturdier and drier veggies, too: carrots, say. Aim for the lower end when you have somewhat flammable foods such as fatty proteins (king salmon or rib-eye steak), foods that were in an oily marinade, or a sugary barbecue sauce. (And don’t brush on barbecue sauce until foods are nearly cooked through, so that it doesn't burn.)
Low heat (250 to 350 degrees Fahrenheit; you can hold your hand 5 inches above the grate 8 to 10 seconds): This is the ticket for long-cooking foods such as ribs, or eggplant cooked to silky squishiness for baba ganoush.
Okay, it’s time to put these tips together and grill over direct heat. Let's start with recipes with tips for grilling chicken. Closet Cooking makes a 15-minute recipe for boneless skinless chicken breasts with the flavors of tacos and the option of store-bought or homemade seasoning. If you prefer bone-in chicken thighs, the Sunset recipe uses an herbaceous blend called zaatar in a quick citrus marinade. Serious Eats marinates chunks of boneless thighs with sweet and salty Thai flavors and skewers them.
Burger fans, The Classic Burger from Sunset has bread crumbs to hold in the juices and is ready for your favorite fixings. If you love grilled salmon and are looking for a quick, healthy recipe, try this one for sockeye salmon from The Lemon Bowl, which, as you might expect, features lemon zest and juice. Dreaming of thick grilled pork chops? Yummly readers give Pork’s Italian-seasoned recipe a major thumbs-up.
7. How to build the fire (next-level): two-zone cooking
Sometimes the perfect fire has both a hot (direct heat) zone with the fire underneath for browning, and a cooler area (indirect heat, with no fire underneath) where you slide the food to cook through without burning.
If you're looking for grilling tips for steak, or tips for grilling tri tip in particular, a two-zone fire is your friend for thick steaks like Serious Eats’ grilled rib-eyes and the Santa Maria Style Tri Tip from Simply Recipes. Try a two-zone fire for foods that take a long time to cook such as ribs, whole chicken, or turkey, and flammable stuff (bacon, for instance—see Serious Eats’ burger recipe). Some cooks also like to use this set-up so they have a just-in-case safety zone.
For a gas grill: Once you preheat the grill with all the burners on, turn off the center grill. (Or, if your grill has only two burners, turn off one.)
For a charcoal grill: When you dump out the ignited coals, arrange them on only half of the fire grate.
8. When is it done? How to avoid raw or overcooked food
If you’ve been following along you’ve figured out that building the fire and controlling the temp are key to successful grilling. Then there’s timing. Most recipes will give you a target idea of how long to cook food, but you want to check that it’s done just right.
You can cut into the thickest part with a small knife and see if it looks done, and feel if proteins like grilled chicken or grilled steak are getting firmer, or vegetables feel somewhat tender. The best way to check meat for doneness is with an instant-read thermometer. Slide it into the thickest part of the food not touching the bone. Chicken should reach 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Medium-rare steak is 130 to 135 degrees Fahrenheit. Keep in mind that the temp for protein foods will rise 5 to 10 degrees after coming off the grill.
9. How to keep food from sticking to the grill
When you're ready to fine-tune your techniques, preventing sticking is right up there. Start with a clean cooking grate. Remember that wire grill brush from the list of essential grilling tools? Dirty grates are a big reason food sticks to grills. Once the fire is hot and you’ve preheated the cooking grate, brush it clean before you set the food in place. Brush the hot grate again after the food comes off.
Don’t turn food constantly. Sure, it’s tempting to start poking and prodding food the second it hits the grill, but if you can resist the urge (and if the fire temp is correct), the food will naturally release when it’s ready to be flipped. Inhale the aroma. Look at the birds. Sip that beer.
Oil the food and the grill. Rub foods with a light coating of oil before they go on the grill to help prevent sticking. For extra assurance you can also oil a wad of paper towels and rub it on the grate using tongs.
10. Give it a rest
To enjoy grilled meats and grilled fish at their best, let them stand about 5 minutes before cutting and serving so the hot juices have a chance to settle back into the food.
More great recipes for beginning grillers
Grilled vegetables (including sliced portobellos you can leave whole for burgers), vegetarian grilling recipes, grilled shrimp, and yeah, one more grilled chicken recipe: Here you go. Happy grilling.