You get the hamburgers and hot dogs. We’ll grill the experts. Here are tips from recent barbecuing and grilling books that should help make your Fourth of July meals a flaming (or, er, glowing) success:
Clean machine: Most experts stress the importance of maintaining clean, lightly oiled grill grates. The editors of Bon Appetit go beyond that in “The Grilling Book” ($45, Andrews McMeel), suggesting using a toothpick to make sure all burner holes on a gas grill are clear of debris. “If the burner holes are clogged, the flame will be low or nonexistent and heat levels will drop dramatically.”
Fueling the fire: Turns out that sustainable seafood expert Barton Seaver knows his way around a fire, and he recommends choosing briquettes over lump charcoal. In his new book, “Where There’s Smoke,” ($30, Sterling Epicure) Seaver writes that briquettes are predictable, smooth, and burn evenly — “I always know what I am going to get.” While briquettes may not produce as much smoke flavor as lump charcoal, he writes, he makes up for that by adding wood chunks or chips to his cooking fire. Don’t use quick-burning briquettes, he writes, and invest in a chimney lighter rather than using lighter fluid, which imparts a “chemical and lingering” taste.
The Heineken Scale of Meal Management: The most common mistake people make in grilling? Grill gurus Cheryl and Bill Jamison, in “100 Grilling Recipes You Can’t Live Without,” ($16.95, Harvard Common Press) say that people forget that they’re supposed to be cooking, not just chilling with friends. “Too often when we’re grilling, we don’t regulate the intensity of the fire or adjust it appropriately for different foods, and we judge the cooking time on the basis of how long it takes to drink a beer…No one would ever try to bake a pie by guessing about a good temperature and then letting it cook until they’re ready for dessert.”
Hands over gadgets: Most guides recommend the “hand test” for gauging grill heat — holding your hand a few inches above the cooking grate and counting the number of seconds it takes before you have to pull your hand away (The range typically runs from 1-2 seconds for high fire to 5-6 seconds for medium-low.) That method may sound “a little primitive for our technological age,” but it beats any modern gadget, the Jamisons wrote. “The thermometers built into the hood of many grills register only the oven heat when the cover is closed, not the true grilling temperature right above the fire. In open grilling, the gauges don’t measure anything.”
Go garden: There’s more to the grilling life than meat. Pitmaster Myron Mixon makes a smoky Caesar salad with grilled romaine hearts in his latest book, “Everyday Barbecue” ($24, Ballantine Books). He drizzles a teaspoon of olive oil over the cut sides of 4 romaine hearts, sprinkles them with salt, pepper, and a teaspoon of spice rub, then grills them until charred in spots, about 20 seconds, before flipping them and grilling the other side. The editors of Southern Living, in their “All Fired Up” cookbook ($24.95, Oxmoor House), grill cut lemon halves (later juiced and added to water, sugar, and rosemary sprigs) for grilled rosemary lemonade. Food writer/burger king Josh Ozersky makes a surprising stand for grilling veggies, writing on Rachael Ray’s website that it makes them taste, oh, about 200 times better than when boiled or steamed. He writes that “Vegetables don’t slow cook on a grill. They brown and blister. You need to cut them about as thick as a thriving magazine…You need to oil them, because oil makes them blister quickly, and helps keep them from sticking. And you need to salt them liberally with kosher salt, because you need to sprinkle everything with kosher salt that you plan on putting in a grill.”
Secret Weapon: Bon Appetit says it’s a homemade basting brush made with herb sprigs. The editors suggest taking a big bunch of hardy herb sprigs, such as a combo of rosemary, oregano, and thyme, and tying them together at the stems with kitchen twine. “Dip herbs in olive oil and brush the meat continuously as it cooks. The aromatic oils from the herbs mix with the caramelizing meat to create unexpected, incredible flavor.”
Knowing when to hold the salt and when to fold the salt: A nicely marbled steak needs nothing more than salt and pepper for seasoning, to avoid distracting from the “great beefy flavor,” says meat master Bruce Aidells in “The Great Meat Cookbook” ($40, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.) He says he’s talking about cuts like grass-fed or USDA Prime rib eye (bone-in rib eye is his own favorite), New York strip, porterhouse, or filets. Other steaks cut from less tender parts, he says, can benefit from marinades, dry rubs, and spice pastes.
Cooking without flare: Flare-ups from dripping meat juices can wreck a great meal in seconds, warn barbecue champions Ardie Davis and Paul Kirk in “America’s Best BBQ Homestyle” ($19.99, Andrews McMeel.) To avoid flare-ups, they recommend keeping a cool zone on the grill “so that you can move meat back and forth from flames to cool zone as necessary.” Trimming excess fat from the meat before cooking it helps too. For excess flare-ups in a charcoal grill, they write, you may need to remove the meat from the grill and mist the flames with a water-spray bottle. Once they die down, return the food to the grill and carry on. (Don’t mist flames on a gas grill; instead, close the lid and wait for the flare-up to die down.)