King Of The Grill: Five Steps To Meaty Perfection

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The Fourth of July is upon us, and there's no better way to enjoy it than with a few friends and a whole lot of food. And nothing says America quite so well as fireworks in the sky and the smell of some home-cooked barbeque floating through the air.

While your neighbor is busy making craters with yet another pack of bottle rockets, fire up the grill and follow these tips to make sure your Independence Day isn't celebrated on an empty stomach.

Charcoal vs. Gas
This debate has some fierce partisans, but a gas grill can make things pretty easy. If you've got one of those, you barely need to worry about lighting the grill and getting things going.

With a charcoal grill, you can either go with self-lighting briquettes or traditional untreated charcoal. For the self-lighting, all you should need is a match, as the charcoal is pre-soaked in fluid that will help them ignite.

If you're wary of your food tasting like lighter fluid, you can opt for traditional untreated charcoal. In this case, it's a good idea to invest in a lighting chimney, as this will greatly speed up the charcoal lighting process.

Wood Chips
One possible twist to an otherwise normal recipe is the addition of wood chips.

Special hardwoods such as apple or hickory are commonly sold in bags of small chips that can be spread with the charcoal, typically after being soaked in water. These slow-burning woods will produce aromatic smoke that will flavor the meat and give it a distinct "grilled" flavor. Use caution, however, as grill manufacturer Weber notes that "smoke-cooked foods often look much different when done than other grilled or oven-prepared foods." For example, apple wood can give chicken a red hue even when it's completely cooked, so be sure to use a meat thermometer to judge when the food is done. Watching fireworks is a lot less fun if you're busy worrying about salmonella.

Wood Smoking
As you become more adept at grilling, try experimenting with wood smoking. There are endless flavors and combinations, and when done in the right way, you can add a twist to any traditional recipe that you won't be able to get with other cooking methods. Weber's tips Web site on smoking provides information for some common wood types.

Method
You can use either direct or indirect heat, and each has its advantages depending on the meat being prepared. Direct heat grilling is the more well-known style, wherein the meat is cooked directly over the heat source, be it charcoal or a gas burner.

Direct heat works well for foods that require short cooking times, such as hot dogs, hamburgers, small steaks or kabobs. Simply place the meat over the evenly spread charcoal or adjusted gas burner, and let it cook. Be sure to monitor the temperature and flip when necessary to ensure that all sides cook evenly.

Indirect heat involves cooking the meat on an area of the grill to the side of the heat source, so that it gets cooked less quickly. With charcoal, this is typically accomplished by arranging the briquettes in a circle around the outside of the grill and placing the meat in the middle section.

This is best for thicker meat such as pork or beef roasts, whole chickens or ribs. Indirect grilling prevents the problem of a thick cut of meat searing on the outside while the inside is still raw, leading to underdone grilling and severe disappointment on the part of the hungry partygoers.

Menu
Of course, all the cooking knowledge won't help if you can't get a menu together. And not every celebration has to involve the plain old burger and hot dog, either. After all, our Independence Day only comes along once a year, so feel free to go all out behind the grill.

Food Network(SSP)offers several regional recipes more unique than typical backyard fare. Also, noted food Web site Epicurious.com offers a tips and recipes page that will turn even the most novice burger-flipper into a tong-wielding pro.

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