The official start of summer is here (well, almost), which means: BBQ season. And while everyone you know is probably grilling up a storm this weekend, cooking al fresco is actually perfect for any night of the week. You’ll enjoy the outdoors, you don’t have to clean your kitchen, and it’s a simple, healthy way to make flavorful food for you and your friends.

But if you’ve never grilled before, don’t be intimidated—it’s a lot easier than it looks. In fact, you might not want to cook any other way for the rest of the summer. Here are the basics to get you started.

Get Geared Up

First things first: What do you need? Well, a grill. If you’re just starting out, a gas grill is really the easiest platform. You might lose out on some flavor without charcoal, but gas grills are easier to control, easier to clean, and take significantly less time start-to-finish. Look for grills with at least two burners with 10,000 to 12,000 BTU’s per burner. You can never go wrong with premium brands like Weber or Beef Eater, but if you’re tight on space, check out some of these little guys.

After that, a meat thermometer the most important grilling tool I own. It’s like a timer for your oven—you wouldn’t bake cookies without a timer, and you shouldn’t grill meat without a thermometer. It’s essential to preventing food-borne illness—which will give you confidence that your guests wont go home driving the porcelain bus.

And next, tongs. While I only own one meat thermometer, I own 12 sets of tongs. I use tongs for absolutely everything (except fish—that requires a metal spatula). You'll need at least two sets, one for handling raw and half-cooked meat, and the other for handling your finished product. Look for ones that are easy to open and close, have metal tips, and are between 9 and 16 inches in length.

Get to Know Your Local Butcher

Despite being covered in blood and holding a sharp object, butchers are usually quite approachable. Get to know one of them at your grocery store—they can be a great resource for understanding what you’re eating, where it came from, and how to cook it. I’ve picked up some great grilling tips from my local meat guy.

 

Prep the Grill

Trust me on this one: Your herb-marinated chicken isn’t going to be complemented by the burgers from last week, so clean your grill every time you use it.

To do this, pre-heat your grill to high and wait 5-10 minutes to allow the grates to heat up. Then, take a grill brush and scrape away the leftover bits and pieces. (If you don’t have a grill brush, just crumple up some aluminum foil into a ball and use your tongs to brush it against the grates—works like a charm.)

Then, using your tongs, take a folded-up paper towel or rag and dip it in canola oil. Run the paper towel up and down the grates, cleaning and lubricating as you go. This will help prevent your grates from rusting—and it’ll give you those nice grill marks on your food.

Set the Heat

For most recipes, you’ll be using medium (350 degrees), medium-high (400 degrees), or high heat (600+ degrees). While your burner knobs will be a good guide for matching these temperatures, the built-in thermometer on your grill should have the final say on when you’re ready to start grilling.

If you don’t have a built-in thermometer (or don’t trust yours), you can use the “Mississippi Test.” Hold your hand a couple inches over the grates and start counting “one Mississippi, two Mississippi,” until you have to remove your hand from the heat. 2-3 Mississippis is high heat, 4-5 is medium-high, and 6-7 is medium. Seriously—it works.

What to Grill

Alright, now the good stuff: the actual grilling part.

Grilling Vegetables

Vegetables take on a whole new flavor after they’ve been grilled. There are actually a couple vegetables that I refuse to eat until someone grills them for me.

And they’re a great place for new grillers to start (hey, you won’t make anyone sick on undercooked eggplant). Pick any vegetable, toss it with some olive oil, salt, and pepper, and throw it on high heat. Squash, zucchini, or onion discs will take anywhere from 5-10 minutes, while grilled asparagus will only take 3-5 minutes. Sliced tomatoes are also delicious on the grill, and are done in 1-2 minutes.

Grilling Fruits

Grilled fruit is also super easy, and it makes for a great dessert. Halve some peaches and sprinkle them with nutmeg or cinnamon, then grill over medium-high heat until softened. Serve with ice cream (or whipped cream for a lighter option).

My personal favorite is grilled pineapple. Grill pineapple slices over high heat for 1-2 minutes per side. You can eat them plain, but I like to sprinkle on some red curry powder for a unique flavor. Sounds crazy, but it’s so good.

Grilling Proteins

Moving on to meats. As a general rule, the more fat a protein has, the more forgiving it will be on the grill. This means that steaksburgers, bratwursts, and skin-on chicken are good places to start learning how to grill meat. Of course, you can grill anything—fish, lamb, pork, you name it—with a reliable meat thermometer in your hands.

To know how long to cook your meat, follow the time guidelines from whichever recipe you’re using. Most recipes will call for turning the meat only once, which is ideal. However, if you notice one side getting scorched, you will want to turn down the heat and flip over the meat to keep it from burning, even if it’s a bit early.

After you turn the meat, go get a clean set of tongs! Then, start checking the temperature of the meat about five minutes before it’s supposed to be done. This way, if your steak decided to cook faster than usual (they do that sometimes), you'll avoid overcooking it. Put your thermometer into the thickest part of the meat, trying to get the tip right in the middle. (Check out Food Network’s great guide to proper meat temperatures.) Keep in mind that the internal temperature of the meat will continue to rise another 5-10 degrees as you let it rest, so you might want to take it off a little early.

Find Great Recipes

Once you’ve learned these techniques, don’t be afraid to start experimenting with flavors and recipes. Shop online for some world-famous BBQ rubs or pick up any book by Steven Raichlen for great grilling recipes from around the world.

You can also find a lot of simple grilling recipes and instruction on my grilling blog, Jim’s Mixed Grill, but if you’ve heard enough from me, the recipes below are sure to please.

  • Skirt Steak with Red Miso: A sweet, Japanese-style skirt steak that’s super tasty.
  • Grilled Chicken with Basil Dressing: A relatively simple recipe with lots of flavor from Giada De Laurentiis
  • Grilled Vegetarian Quesadilla: Steven Raichlen doesn’t mess around when it comes to his quesadillas.
  • If you can nail down these basics along with a few recipes, believe me: People will be inviting themselves to your cookouts all summer long.

    Photos courtesy of Taz and Jim's Mixed Grill.