Grilling basics: Chars and stripes forever

Dan Pelosi is an In The Know cooking contributor. Follow him on Instagram and visit his website for more.

One of the great joys of summer is grilling outdoors. One of the great disappointments of summer is realizing you have no idea how to grill outdoors. Don’t worry, honey, that’s why I am here! Let’s talk, grill to grill, about all the ways you can host a classic hamburger and hot dog hang sesh with your friends — without any stress.

Credit: Dan Pelosi

Before You Grill

It all starts with the meat, and I like to keep it JUICY. For hamburgers, that means an 80/20 ground beef mix. That means 80 percent is lean, 20 percent is fat — most of which is rendered while cooking but ensures your burger doesn’t dry out while it grills. You can buy preformed hamburger patties, but if you want to make your own, just make sure you don’t make them thick in the middle. In fact, if you press an indentation into the center of the patty, it will help it cook more evenly and prevent the burger from shrinking. As for hot dogs, those are a bit easier because you just get to pick the ones that call out to you at the market. For me, that means girthy and short over long and skinny — but that’s just a personal preference. 

Don’t forget your buns! For me, there is only one option here, and that’s the classic potato roll. You may be frustrated that you can’t buy the exact amount of buns like you can with burgers and dogs. My advice here, before you have a breakdown, is to under-buy the rolls. There is always someone who boldly (and smartly) will make a double burger or who is happy to eat a hot dog without a bun! If you do end up with extra buns, toss them in the freezer for later. Easy peasy. 

Bring your meat to room temperature before you grill. This will help it cook more evenly. Ideally, you will take your meat out of the fridge 30-60 minutes before it hits the grates. I like to place my meat, unpackaged and separated, on a tray or plate to easily carry it out to the grill. I place another tray or plate underneath it, so I have it ready for when the meat comes off the grill. 

Prepare your garnishes. I keep it simple here, preparing a tray of butter lettuce, sliced tomatoes and avocado. Doing this work while your meat comes to room temperature means your guests are not waiting for you to slice tomatoes while they stare at your perfectly grilled burgers and dogs getting cold. 

Credit: Dan Pelosi

Condiments are important but stick with the classics. Ketchup, mustard and relish are classics for a reason. If you can get your hands on some horseradish, even better. Have them ready to go in easy-to-use containers, so your guests can gleefully top their meat. 

I have a big secret to share, and that’s my Secret Burger Sauce recipe. This is the classic burger sauce you have had many times before but didn’t know it was so easy to make at home. Combine ½ cup mayo, ¼ sweet relish, ¼ cup ketchup, 1 tablespoon sriracha and a handful of freshly chopped dill in a bowl, and there you have it. You can make it in advance and keep it in the fridge; the flavor only gets better after time. I frequently serve this as the only condiment at my barbecues, and not a single person complains. It’s that good, even on hot dogs. 

Credit: Dan Pelosi

Preheat the grill. Keep the lid down for 15 minutes or so and bring your grill to about 450-500 degrees. This will make sure that your meat sears properly on the grill when it hits the grates. 

Clean your grill. The heat from the grill will help release any excess food from the grates. You can use an onion cut in half with a fork stuck in it to rub on the hot grates. This will release the juices and steam from the onion and help dislodge what’s left on your grates.

While You Grill

Social distancing. No matter what size grill you are working with, resist the urge to overcrowd it. Grilling your meat in batches is the best way to entertain, I think. It also establishes your position as a grill master who feels comfortable hanging by the grill for a while, preferably making bad jokes while sweating profusely. Okay, maybe that’s just me. Either way, don’t rush it. Guests will enjoy the fact their second burger is fresh-off-the-grill. You can also take note of how much more meat to grill based on what your guests are eating. Perhaps you should hold out and do a second round of grilling later in the day. Everyone loves a comeback! 

Keep the lid down. It’s extremely tempting to open and close the grill as you cook but try to resist. Keeping the lid shut helps cook food more evenly, regulates the temperature of the grill, and limits oxygen, which reduces flare-ups

Brush mustard on your burger patty. This is an easy way to add flavor to your burger without adding anything to the meat mix itself. If you are an In-N-Out burger fan, you may recognize this from their secret menu. Brush some mustard on top of your patty once you place it on the grill, then brush some onto the other side after you flip it. 

Credit: Dan Pelosi

If meat is stuck, don’t move it. The meat will naturally release itself from the grill grates when it’s ready, so don’t force it. Trust me on this, I promise! Try to only turn your meat once, not just for aesthetic reasons (those stripes!) but also because it helps cook the burger more evenly. 

Don’t smash or squeeze meat. Save your smash burger fantasies for your skillet — or for Shake Shack. Using your spatula to smash your burger onto the grates means your burger loses juices that keep it, well, juicy, and that those juices will cause David Blaine-level flame flare-ups

Grill your burger for 4 minutes for medium-rare through 10 minutes for well done. Undercook meat slightly. It will keep cooking due to residual heat when removed from the grill. You can ask your guests how they like their burgers, but don’t let this stress you out. Tell guests you are happy to throw their burger on for a few more minutes if they like it cooked more but don’t overcook all your burgers just to please one guest. 

Can I have a cheeseburger? Yes, absolutely. It’s best to add the cheese on top of your burger about 1 minute before you are ready to take the burger off the grill. It will melt just enough while on the grill and will continue to melt once it’s off the heat from the heat of the patty. 

Wait, aren’t we also grilling hot dogs? Yes, we absolutely are. Hot dogs are the MVP of your grill, as you basically just wanna char the heck out of them, rotating them as they grill. How char you go is up to you. If you want a more high-maintenance hot dog tip, slice the dog in half lengthwise and grill it split open! It looks fancy and tastes just about the same. 

Let the meat rest. Once it’s off the grill, it’s best to let the meat rest for 10-15 minutes before you eat it. This will allow the juices to settle back into the meat, making it juicier! Cover the meat with foil if you can to keep it warm. This is also a great time to grill your buns. Keep an eye on them they get dark fast!

Credit: Dan Pelosi

After You Grill

You nailed it! Relax and enjoy your guests and grilled masterpieces. It takes little else besides some sunshine and good conversation to round out your hamburger and hot dog feast. But if you want to add a few more things into the mix, I highly suggest a bag of ruffled potato chips, a delicious slaw, some cold watermelon slices and a cooler full of cold beverages. Minimal effort, maximum impact! That’s how summer should be! 

Credit: Dan Pelosi

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