Foodies and food scientists alike have brought us everything from readily available gluten-free doughnuts, to the deep fried Snickers bar. So it’s no wonder our nutritional radars have gone a little wacky. Which is why I’m glad it’s grilling season.
True, it is possible to do some damage at a cookout if you load up on chips and treats and potato salad and the like, but at the heart of any outdoor shindig are some core components of a healthy diet: meat and vegetables.
Add in some of that fruit salad that’s been shyly sitting in the corner, and you have yourself a plant-based meal that’s hard to beat.
So with summer officially here, and the Fourth of July holiday just around the corner, we checked in with Zach Lutton, chef and owner of Zedric’s, for some tips and tricks when hitting the grill. Here’s what he had to say:
What’s the biggest mistake most people make when transitioning from cooking on an oven or stove-top to an outdoor grill?
Probably moving around the proteins way too much and not letting them sit and develop grill marks. The same goes for vegetables as well. You don’t want to overcook, but you do want to see some good color.
What are some general guidelines to following when cooking beef or chicken?
You want to think about the Maillard reaction, which is basically that chemical reaction between the acids and the heat which results in the protein getting caramelized on the outside. It gives meat or whatever else you grill a lot of flavor. To get to that point, it’s important to keep things on the grill long enough to get that good color… I’d even say that grill marks may not be as important as getting a good crust on the meat without burning it. As far as cook times go, for steaks you’re looking at about three to five minutes per side, depending on the heat. I tend to cook beef at about 120 degrees, and chicken I cook at about 160, then pull it off the grill and let it sit out for a few minutes before serving.
And what about vegetables?
You’re looking for that same caramelizing reaction, and some good color. I also look for grill lines on veggies to make sure they’ve cooked all the way through. And that’s one of the great things about cooking on a grill is that you can roast just about anything; from zucchini and tomatoes and onions, to eggplant and mushrooms. Everything can turn out well if you have a little patience.
Fish or shrimp?
If you’re going to grill fish, you want something hearty, which is why a fish like tilapia may not be the best choice. So I stick with good cuts of salmon, swordfish and tuna which all tend to work well. I cook them at about 120 degrees, and since I tend to like my salmon medium rare, I only cook it for about two minutes each side. And tuna I sear and cook even less – about a minute per side.
It seems like people are constantly wrapping things in foil before setting them on the grill. Thoughts on this?
I think if you’re going to wrap anything in foil, you might as well just cook it in the oven! The grill was made so that the flames can hit the meat – it’s this great, primitive way of cooking that can help add a lot of flavor. If you have something wrapped up in foil, you lose that.
Speaking of flavor, what’s your favorite marinade and what are the guidelines for how long to let things set?
You know for me I stick with the basics and rely almost exclusively on fresh crushed black pepper and some good kosher salt. I like to use that on just about everything I put on the grill, because I want to maintain the fresh, natural flavor of whatever it is I’m cooking… In the event I need a marinade, I like to use fresh lemon juice, some garlic, olive oil, salt, pepper, rosemary and thyme. It works great on chicken. As for time, I’d say let it sit overnight, but I’ve also had things marinate for two to three days and come out great as well.
What about prep work?
You definitely want to keep the grill clean, and may even want to coat the grate with a little oil as well so things don’t stick. Another trick is to spray your proteins directly with a little light cooking oil to make sure they don’t stick to the grill when you try to flip them over… And get and actively use a meat thermometer.
What’s your favorite thing to grill?
I love cooking portobellos and zucchini, red onions, tomatoes and carrots, and cutting those up into strips. That with a good rib-eye is hard to beat. I coat the meat pretty heavily with a mix of salt and pepper to give it a good crust and cook it over oak until it’s nicely marked. That’s definitely one of my favorites when I’m at home… At the ranch I’ll cook up brussels sprouts in a cast iron pan that I’ll saute in some bacon fat, add in some onions and a little balsamic vinegar, and it comes out awesome.
As a busy chef, will you actually be grilling on the Fourth of July?
Absolutely! We’re going to put together an Argentinian grill, so we’ll be cooking on a huge piece of sheet metal and we’ll be cooking whole rib roasts and plenty of chicken. I love cooking outside. It should be a blast!
Tom Trevino is a writer, artist and wellness coach based out of San Antonio. His column, “The Feed,” covers anything and everything related to health and wellness. He holds a B.A. from the University of Texas at San Antonio, with certification and training from the Cooper Institute. He has a fondness for dogs, NPR, the New York Times, and anything on two wheels. When he’s not writing, training, or cooking, you can find him wandering the aisles of Central Market.