Women across America traditionally are the head chefs at home, but when it comes to grilling they tend to leave the task to the men in their lives. That's exactly why Elizabeth Karmel started her website, Girls at the Grill.
Growing up near Lexington, N.C. (pop. 18,391), Karmel was weaned on what she calls the original barbecue—pulled pork. Soon after she moved away, she realized there's no place like home and taught herself to make that very dish.
In fact, Karmel isn't a classically trained chef. She learned the basics of barbecue in the hot seat. Girls at the Grill was born from her experience handling public relations for the grill manufacturer Weber-Stephen Products and working the barbecue competition circuit. While the general idea behind her website is women teaching women, Karmel notes its really about educating everyone to think of the grill as another everyday cooking essential, like an oven or stove. Her motto is "If you can eat it, you can grill it."
"The question that confuses most people is the difference between grilling and barbecuing," Karmel says. Her general rule of thumb is if it takes less than 20 minutes to cook over direct heat, then it's grilling. "But barbecue is also more than just low and slow cooking;" according to Karmel, "you've got to add wood smoke for it to be authentic. Once you understand that basic principle, you're good to go."
Karmel's expert knowledge on outdoor cooking led her to write her first book, Taming the Flame, released in 2005. She calls it her love letter to barbecue and grilling. Her follow-up book, Soaked, Slathered and Seasoned, looks at all the ways to inject flavor into food, from brining and marinades to sauces and spice rubs.
So, what about the age-old question: gas versus charcoal? Karmel gives them both due respect. Unlike some purists who look unfavorably at gas grills, Karmel sees herself as an equal-opportunity cook and uses whatever best suits the time she has available.
In addition to managing her website, writing cookbooks and developing her line of grilling accessories, Karmel is the executive chef at Hill Country in New York City—considered by homesick Texans and aficionados to be the restaurant with the most authentic barbecue in town. This summer, she plans to tackle barbecue's close cousin—fried chicken—with the opening of Hill Country Chicken a few doors from the namesake's sister restaurant. But have no fear: Home is where the heart is, and Karmel always will stoke her love for the element of fire.
Direct heat vs. indirect heat
Karmel says to think hot and quick versus low and slow to figure out the best cooking method. Setting food directly over the heat source is called direct heat cooking. When food is placed opposite the heat source, meaning the coals are piled on either side of the food or just the outer gas burners are turned on, it's cooked using indirect heat. Delicate foods, like shrimp, cook quickly over a hot flame. Ribs, on the other hand, take time to get falling-off-the-bone tender, so stick to indirect heat for them. There's also combo cooking, where meat is browned over direct heat, then finished off low and slow over indirect heat.
As Karmel says, "you wouldn't make a roast with the oven door open, and the same goes for grilling. Keep the lid closed; otherwise, you'll lose the heat needed to cook your food properly."
Building your fire
Gas grills are foolproof. Open the lid, turn on the propane tank and light all the burners according the manufacturer's instructions. If cooking with indirect heat, leave the outer burners on and turn off the center burner once the grill is preheated. This will better circulate the air for even cooking.
Charcoal grills impart a distinct flavor and are well worth the extra time. Karmel recommends using a chimney starter piled with briquettes. Place crumpled newspaper under the chimney starter and light using a long butane lighter. Briquettes are ready to be dumped in the grill when they're covered with a white-gray ash.
Preheating is key
Whether you're cooking with direct or indirect heat, before you get started you must preheat the grill. Gas grills heat relatively quickly, in about 10 minutes. Charcoal fires take more time, at least 20 minutes or more to reach the white-ash stage. You can use the preheating time to prep your grilling ingredients.