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Use these tips to become a backyard grill master 

We spoke with Black barbecue experts to find out everything the novice griller needs to know before getting started

The summer solstice has come and gone, which means two things: first, that the summer is officially upon us, and secondly, it’s grilling time! For those of us who can use coaching on the subject, we reached out to some superstars of barbecue to pick up a few tips should this be the year you attempt to taste the sweet nectar of the grilling gods. 

All across the United States, men and women are dusting off their grills, if they aren’t already in use, preparing themselves for the Super Bowl of home grilling: the Fourth of July. The reason Independence Day has become the ultimate cookout event is rooted in history. Right after the American Revolution, Americans celebrated Independence Day with large public dinners. In the South, those celebratory dinners transitioned into large outdoor barbecues.

“Particularly in Virginia, all big outdoor events were associated with barbecues. This goes back to the 1800s,” said African American culinary historian Deb Freeman. Once we gained our freedom, we, too, started celebrating the best way we know how – communal food gatherings.

“Every significant gathering in the African-American community, whether celebratory or somber, involves food,” said Freeman. “And at these get-togethers, the food itself is almost secondary, as who is in charge of making the dishes is arguably more important.” 

Masters of the grill hold an ungodly amount of power once the temperatures start rising. No one wants to be the reason the ribs were inedible since that stench doesn’t wash off easily. Grillers relish this time of the year because it allows them to strut their stuff while the rest of us wait with bated breath and a paper plate. 

Knowing how to grill is the soft skill everyone needs to impress friends and family during these hot summer months, but no one thinks about it until the holiday rears its head. We’re here to help the uninitiated grill like a pro.

First, pick a proper name

According to Erica Roby, a champion competitive grill master, newbies looking to be blessed by the grilling gods must name themselves.

“If you want people to take you seriously, you’re gonna need a customized apron with your grill-name on it.” You read that correctly. “You got to name your grill and give yourself a barbecue persona. Because once you step behind that grill, you must become a different person to get the job done!” 

Choose your grill

There’s no shortage of options. But pitmaster and restaurant consultant Rasheed Philips said, “You gotta do charcoal because no one has ever said ‘Mmmmm…I love the delicious taste of propane!’”

Philips implored people to resist the urge to buy lighter fluid, which can leave a lingering taste in your food.

Darren W. Carter, the founder of The Unknown Black Pitmasters, agreed. “Many people don’t let the chemicals burn off completely, and you can taste that in your food.” He suggested they consider buying a chimney starter instead. “Chimney starters can ignite charcoal with newspaper or other non-chemical kindling sources.”

There are alternative ways to light charcoal using things most people already have in their homes. Philips said a paper towel soaked in olive oil could do the trick. And many Black households have a container filled with leftover grease in the kitchen. He suggested putting that used oil to use. “Pour that leftover grease from the counter directly on the charcoal. Or soak the paper towel with the fat of that grease, stuff it under the charcoal and you’re good to go!”

Be easy on the charcoal

Here’s a word to the newbie grillers – using that whole charcoal bag is unnecessary. “It’s not one use only. People can get a couple uses out of their charcoal,” said Philips.

Unless you’re cooking a thick slab of meat, Roby suggested that two handfuls of charcoal are usually enough. Should one find themselves in need of more heat, then add a few more coals via the chimney starter or by hand. You can also open the vents along the bottom of your grill. The vents let air flow through, allowing your coals to burn hotter. 

But what should the neophyte griller be cooking in the first place? “Pre-frozen hamburgers are your best friend,” said Philips, because the novice griller doesn’t have to measure anything. “Just take them out the box, and put them on the grill.” Roby agreed and noted that they are still edible even if overcooked.

Use two-zone cooking

Pitmaster Rasheed Philips watches over his work with a close eye.

Correy Overton

So, the grill has been named, and custom aprons have been procured, as have the charcoal and a non-chemical fire starter. Now, armed with information on the proper amount of charcoal to use, it’s time to start cooking! New grillers can employ Philips’ next suggestion: two-zone cooking.

Two-zone cooking means putting charcoal on only one side of the grill. This strategy creates a “hot zone,” which receives direct heat from the fire, and a “cool zone,” which receives indirect heat. Why? It’s part of the plan to handle random flare-ups. 

When meat is cooked over direct fire, it causes the fat to render. This fat drips onto your coals, which can cause flames to leap up and over the grill grate. According to Philips, leaping fires cause most newbies to panic, rushing to close the grill lid to shield themselves from the fire. All that does is trap that black smoke inside the grill, permeating the food. Instead, utilize “cool zone.” “When flare-ups happen, just transfer the meat to the side of the grill with no charcoal,” said Philips. The indirect heat is hot enough to cook your frozen patties. He recommended putting those patties on the indirect heat side. “Move them over to the direct heat when you’re ready to sear the burger patty.”

Clean the grill

Competitive grill master Erica Roby takes her time with every meat she prepares.

Dorothy Beam

The last tip is what separates the contenders from the pretenders. “Clean the grill immediately after cooking. It’s easier to clean off the debris while your grill is still warm,” said Roby. If the grill is nasty, nothing cooked on it will taste good. “It’s one thing to have a seasoned grill, it’s another thing to have a dirty grill.” 

First, put down the metal brush. Roby cautioned they should never be used. “With metal grill brushes, over time with repeated use, the metal fibers loosen then fall off the brush.” And those fibers settle on the grate, which means they may end up on your next piece of meat. 

Instead, cut a lemon or other acidic fruit in half, and rub the pulp side up and down the grate of your grill while it’s warm. Acid cuts fat, so adding this step will help remove the pieces of meat left during the grilling process. Then, instead of using that metal brush, reach for the aluminum foil. Roby said to rip off a sheet, crumble it up in a ball, then start wiping the grates. The method is a safer way to remove every piece of fat and meat from the grill. 

There’s much more to learn, but these suggestions should put new grillers on the right path. The most important part about grilling out for July 4th is spending time with your loved ones. No need to try and chef up some wagyu beef, especially if this is your first rodeo. Cook hot dogs and frozen hamburgers and enjoy the day. So long as everyone is fed, having fun, and the house hasn’t burned down, this should be a wonderful start to your grilling journey.

KJ Kearney is a James Beard-nominated social media influencer and community organizer from North Charleston, South Carolina. A proud HBCU graduate, he primarily writes about Black food and the culture and history that surrounds it.