Food & Wine's Best Barbecue and Grilling Tips from the '70s, '80s, and '90s

From Martini butter and fruity hot sauce marinades, to the nitty-gritty on DIY smokers and cooking fuel, Food & Wine has been sharing expert advice (and the occasional poem) for live-fire cooking since 1978.

A person grilling vegetables and meats
Photo: Paul Bradbury / Getty Images

Cooking outside with fire? Great. Let's get the semantics out of the way so we can get to the good stuff. Depending on where and with whom you grew up, you might call the flame-kissed food — and the gathering at which it is served — a barbecue, BBQ, cookout, grill out, or some other term. Plenty of purists will bawl until the cows come home that it can only be called "barbecue" (or BBQ, bar-b-cue, bar-b-que, barbeque — see, we can't even agree on that, and it's fine, I promise) if it's meat that's been smoked at a low temperature for a very long time. If that debate is something that fuels them, huzzah, but while they're standing there arguing, everyone else is getting their hands on the burnt ends, ribs, brisket, and sides.

Humankind has been sizzling food over fire for millennia, so Food & Wine being on the scene for 44 years might seem like small, ash-cooked potatoes (and scroll down for a great recipe for those), but we've been licking up grilling and barbecue advice from chefs, pitmasters, and our own test kitchen since our second-ever issue in July 1978. Sure, there may have been some regrettable counsel along the way (quoting James Beard's advice to use paint thinner as an accelerant, say) but we learn, we evolve, and in the spirit of all the best grillers we know, we want to share.

These are some of the best morsels of grilling and barbecue advice Food & Wine shared in the 20th century.

The 1970s

Butter your burgers. (July, 1978)

Optimally, burgers should be cooked briefly and fairly close to the heat, just enough to provide a crisp, browned exterior and a rare, juicy center. Otherwise, they may dry out. Mixing the beef lightly with some ice water, or placing a small piece of ice in the center of the patty (as suggested by )arnes Beard), will help. spreading each burger lightly with soft butter before grilling will form a dark, flavorful crust. Large, thick burgers (1/4 to 1/2 pound each) will stay more juicy than thin ones. — Food & Wine Test Kitchen founder Richard Sax

Match the flame to the game. (September, 1979)

Chez Panisse uses Mexican charcoal, made from mesquite wood. The French often use oak or other hardwood.and grapevine cuttings impart a pleasing flavor. Hickory, famous for grilling, is good, but makes a very hot fire, and must be used carefully. Pine and other resinous woods should not be used, as they give foods an undesirable flavor. Once the fire has been started, it must be tended carefully to reach and maintain the required temperature.

Hot fire: The coals are red and there is still some flame. This stage is usually reached about 15 minutes after the fire is started.

Medium fire: The coals are still red with some gray edges, and will flare up, with little or no flame, when the marinade drips on them.

Low fire: The coals are gray, with a light coating of ash, and emit little or no flame when the marinade drips on them. — chef and author Alice Waters

The 1980s

A new way of sea-ing. (September 1981)

The first morning we went fishing in the lagoon to catch our lunch, several speckled sea trout, approximately a pound each. Carmen showed me how to barbecue the fish in an unusual and clever way. The fish is placed, ungutted, unscaled and unseasoned, in a wire rack directly on a bed of hot charcoal. The fish is cooked until a thick black crust is formed on both sides and is then dropped into a pail of sea water and peeled under water. The thick, charred skin and scales are removed. The meat is then pulled off the bone and eaten plain or seasoned lightly with lemon juice and a bit of peanut oil. The flesh is moist and salted just enough from the washing in the sea water, a fascinating and ingenious way to prepare fish directly out of the water with a minimum of equipment and ingredients. — Jacques Pepin, chef

Jimmy Stewart, actor (July 1981)

Hamburgers and hot dogs, without a doubt. I'm reminded of the time prior to World War II when F.D.R served hot dogs to the King and Queen of England at his home in Hyde Park. That's American!

—Jimmy Stewart, actor (July 1981)

Booze up your butter. (May 1984)

After grilling steaks. top with a slice of one of the following butters, serve at once.

Martini Butter: Makes 1/2 cup. Blend 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened, with 2 tablespoons each finely chopped onions and stuffed ripe olives. Add 1 tablespoon gin and a few drops of vermouth, a little at a time, beat until well blended. Turn mixture out onto a sheet of wax paper; shape into a 2-inch roll. Wrap tightly in aluminum foil and chill until firm. Cut into slices and serve on just-grilled meat (good for grilled fish, too).

Bloody Mary Butter: Makes 1/2 cup. Follow recipe above, using 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh tomato pulp and I tablespoon finely chopped celery (instead of the onions and olives) and 1 tablespoon premium vodka and 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce (instead of the gin and vermouth). — Ceri Hadda, writer and psychiatrist

Stephanie Curtis, cookbook writer (June 1985)

Almost overnight, video cookbooks have become as trendy as mesquite grilling.

—Stephanie Curtis, cookbook writer (June 1985)

I heard it through the grapevines. (July 1987)

According to barbecue expert Phillip Stephen Schulz grapevine clippings add a lightly sweet, earthy flavor to meat, game, poultry and fish. He advises that the clippings be soaked in water for 30 minutes, then placed on the fire when the coals are at the appropriate temperature for whatever you are cooking. Alternatively, if you are fortunate enough to have a large quantity of clippings available to you, use them unsoaked for a hot, smoky fire that will lend a much stronger flavor to quickly cooked items such as small, white-fleshed fish. — Elizabeth Schneider, writer and podcast host

Flanks for the great steak-grilling tips. (July 1987)

Flank steak must be grilled over high heat; cooled coals won't do. Like other fibrous cuts of meat, flank steak should be eaten rare to medium-rare and, more importantly, must be sliced immediately, since the meat toughens as it cools. — Phillip Stephen Schulz, author of Cooking with Fire and Smoke

A song of fire and ice cream. (August 1987)

In really torrid weather hot food can seem heavy, and cold can seem dull; but a meal that's both seems just right. Cold soup sparkles before a hot grilled entree just as warm bread and a cool crisp salad bring out the best in each other. To make a simple grill and/or salad supper really special, bring it to a hot and cold conclusion — rich French vanilla ice cream on rum-basted broiled bananas, perhaps. Or caramel ice cream slowly melting over caramelized apple slices. Or warm poached peaches with ginger ice cream. Best of all, coconut ice cream with skewers of grilled pineapple and papaya can make the hottest city night seem like a festive tropical evening.

I allow my guests to concoct their own midday meal. I give them a grill, a bottle of Tuscan olive oil and another of wine vinegar, rough slices of good country bread, and bowls of various chopped salad fixings such as olives, ripe tomatoes, red onions, roasted peppers and fresh herbs. When they're hungry, guests grill their own bread and compose their own toppings for it, creating their own versions of bruschetta. — Leslie Newman, screenwriter and cookbook author

Henry Beard and Roy McKie, authors (July 1985)

Barbecue: Primitive summertime rite at which spirits are present, hunks of meat are sacrificed by being burnt on braziers by sauce-smeared men wearing odd hats and aprons with cabalistic slogans, and human flesh is offered to insects.

—Henry Beard and Roy McKie, authors (July 1985)

Cook high, not dry. (July 1988)

Since all fish dry out quickly on a grill, the best cuts to use are steaks or filets that are at least one inch thick. Smaller fish such as trout, butterfish or whiting should be left whole, but have your fishmonger butterfly and filet them (leaving both halves connected along the back) because they're easiest to handle that way. For cooking really small fish, as well as shellfish, I recommend a hinged fish basket, which comes in various shapes and sizes. These wire baskets, when oiled, can be placed directly on the cooking grid and be neatly turned over without fear of losing a precious portion of seafood to the fiery coals below.

Marinades and dry rubs add enormous varieties of flavor to fish. However, since fresh fish are naturally tender and juicy and need no tenderizing, marinating is for flavor only. Over-marinated fish, particularly if the marinade is acid based (soy sauce, lemon juice or wine), will disintegrate once they hit the fire. Therefore, all marinades should contain some oil to keep the fish from drying out during cooking. With dry rubs, remember to brush the fish lightly with oil before putting it on the grill.

Fish should be turned only once, so make a point of grilling the "public" or photogenic side of a filet first. Since fish continues to cook when it is removed from the heat, it is very often overcooked by the time it reaches a dinner plate. The best method for testing doneness at the grill is to insert the tip of a metal skewer into the thickest part of the fish. If the skewer slips in easily (with little resistance) and the flesh looks opaque, it's done. Crab, lobster and shrimp will take on a reddish hue and be firm to the touch when thoroughly cooked. Bivalves like mussels and clams essentially cook in their own juices and open when they are ready. — Phillip Stephen Schulz, author of Cooking with Fire and Smoke

Make a grate decision. (August 1988)

Features that count for charcoal grills: somewhere to put the lid if it does not tilt back and stay open when you want it to, an easy way to get the spent ashes out of the grill, wheels, heavy-duty construction and easy assembly. Features that count for gas grills: fuel tanks that are easy to disconnect and reconnect, an electronic ignition system, controls that are situated away from the heat (so you won't burn yourself), shelves, more than one cooking grid — two small ones, rather than one large one (easier to remove and clean), racks, heavy-duty construction. Features that count for electric grills: long cord, a good-size cooking area, cord storage and heavy-duty construction. — Mardee Haidin Regan, author of The Bartender's Best Friend: A Complete Guide to Cocktails, Martinis, and Mixed Drinks

Ear's to summer corn. (August 1988)

If you have the barbecue going, here's another way to make great corn on the cob. You can pull back the husks without detaching them and remove the silk. Then wrap the leaves back around the corn (you can secure them with a twist-tie if needed) and soak in cold water for about 10 minutes; this will prevent burning. Or you can husk the corn, brush it generously with melted butter and then wrap each cob in aluminum foil. Grill the corn, turning occasionally, until tender, 15 to 20 minutes (or roast in a moderately hot oven for 20 to 25 minutes). — Richard Sax

Mindy Heiferling, chef and writer (July 1989)

Whether you spell it barbecue, barbeque, bar-b-que or BBQ, well-seasoned meat, slowly cooked over coal to a state of succulent perfection, is something that is near and dear to most Americans' hearts.

—Mindy Heiferling, chef and writer (July 1989)

The best marinade plans. (June 1989)

If the food to be grilled is frozen, thaw and pat it dry before marinating.

For marinating food, choose nonreactive containers (such as glass, glazed ceramic, stainless reel or self-sealing plastic bags). Keep food submerged in the marinade and turn it frequently.

Never put a hot marinade over food (it may partially cook the food). Marinade should always be cool.

If food is to be marinated for more than one hour, put it in the refrigerator. Return the food to room temperature before grilling, or the cooking time will be altered.

Discard any leftover marinade, which will contain juices from the meats marinated in it, or reuse it for the same purpose right away.

For fish or other delicate food, use a hinged grilling basket or fish grill to hold the marinated food. Be sure to coat the basket with vegetable oil and preheat it on top of your grill for a few minutes.

Set up your grill in a well-ventilated area. Arrange all the charcoal (the amount depends on the size of your grill) in a pyramid on a grate, which will allow air to circulate under the charcoal.

For extra flavor, soak a branch of fresh herbs, or even a few loose bay leaves, in water and add to the fire just before the food is done.

Watch the fire. Keep a spray bottle or squirt gun nearby so that if the fire flares up from the drippings, you can douse the flames with water. — Jim Fobel, author of Jim Fobel's Big Flavors

The 1990s

A fire so nice, you'll use it twice. (June 1990)

Thrift may have been our original inspiration — it always seemed such a shame that when fish or chops came off the grill, the coal continued to burn for a good long while before they died out. Or perhaps it was the notion that we would save time by cooking two main dishes in tandem. Some foods need the searing heat of glowing, ash-white coals, whereas others benefit from longer, slower cooking over less intense heat. So if you've built a nice fire anyway, why not make the most of it and use it twice. Think of it simply as cooking over two different heats.

When the coals are white, the intense fast-fire heat Iasts about 30 minutes — plenty of time to produce a crusty exterior and moist interior for fish, boneless chicken, all manner of kebobs, cut-up vegetables and quick-cooking meats, such as beef filet, shell and porterhouse steaks, and lamb, pork and veal chop. For the next hour and a half or so, the slow fire is just what's needed to render larger cuts of meat, such as shoulder of veal, pork roast, very thickly cut steaks and poultry on the bone, tender and juicy.

For a fast fire:

Soak two or three pieces of mesquite or two handful of mesquite chips in waterfor one hour.

Use a grill large enough to hold about four pounds of briquette in order tosustain slow cooking for a long time.

Mound the four pounds of charcoal in a pyramid that stands about four and a halfinches at the peak.

Light the coals (we use an electric starter) and let them burn until they just turn white, about 30 minutes. Level the coals to a thick, even layer.

Drain the mesquite and distribute it evenly over the coal. Set the grill in place; it should be about three inches above the coal.

For a slow fire:

After cooking the first round, scrub the grill with a wire brush.

If the fire burns down too low before the food is cooked, throw a handful or twoof charcoal onto the coals and continue grilling. (If a change in the weather or the situation makes it preferable, you can finish the cooking in the oven.) — Karen Lee and Alaxandra Branyon, authors of Chinese Cooking Secrets

Put some pep in your step. (June 1993)

To roast peppers, preheat the broiler or a grill. Arrange the peppers on a broiler pan or grill rack and roast 2 to 3 inches from the heat, turning as necessary, until charred in places and the skin is blistered. Transfer the peppers to a bowl, cover tightly to keep the steam in and let cool. Peel off and discard the skins. Cut the peppers in half and drain the juices into a bowl. Discard the stems and cores and scrape out any remaining seeds with a spoon. Slice the peppers. Strain the juices and use them to add flavor to salad dressings. — Michele Sciolone, cooking instructor and cookbook author

Roy Blount Jr., author (July 1990)

Here is the closest thing to a religious poem that I have ever written:


To Cooking Out over an Open Fire in the Open Air

with Crickets Going

Geechy Geechy

Food gets brown, wood gets rose,

Eyes join hands with ear and nose

To handle all of this that goes

Fume rise

Juice drop

Fpss pif


To thee oh Lord we lift the praise

For all this air in which to braise.

—Roy Blount Jr., author (July 1990)

Sea the difference. (June 1994)

For cooking small fish and filets, an open grill works best. For large whole fish, a covered grill is ideal; the hot air inside creates an oven so the fish cooks through before the skin chars. Italians use an all-wood fire to bring out seafood's best flavor, but charcoal works well too and is more convenient. Prepare a four-inch bed of coal covering an area somewhat larger than you intend to grill over. Tuscan cooks start the fire with pinecones. — Erica de Mane, chef and cookbook author

Keep your eyes on the pies. (July 1994)

10 steps to great grilled pizza:

1. Make the pizza dough.

2. Assemble all your topping Ingredients.

3. Prepare a fire, using natural charwood (also called hardwood charcoal or lump charcoal).

4. Set the grill rack three to four Inches above the coals. The fire is ready when white ash begins to appear on the coals.

5. Place a piece of pizza dough on a large, lightly oiled unrimmed baking sheet. Spread and flatten the dough with your hands until It Is 1/16-inch thick. Do not make a llp. The thinness of the dough Is key; the shape and size are unimportant, so don't worry If It appears more rectan- gular than round. Be careful not to stretch the dough so thin that holes appear. (Don't despair, however, If small holes do form. Simply avoid drizzling oil Into them.)

6. Working as close to the grill as possible, gently lift the dough off the cookie sheet with your fingertips and drape It on the hot grill. Catch the far edge on the grill first, then guide the remaining dough into place. Within a minute, the dough will puff slightly, the underside will stiffen and grill marks will appear.

7. Using tongs, immediately flip the pizza crust over onto a warmed baking sheet, grilled side up.

8. Top the crust as directed by your recipe.

9. Slide the pizza back toward the hot coals but not directly over them. Use tongs to rotate the pizza frequently so that different sections are exposed to high heat; check to see that the under- side isn't charring.

10. The pizza Is done when the cheese Is melted and all the other toppings are heated through. Serve the pizza hot off the grill and begin again with another piece of dough. — Johanne Killeen and George Germon, F&W Best New Chefs 1988

Smoke 'em, even if you don't got one. (June 1995)

If you don't want to spend money on a new piece of equipment, you can adapt a standard kettle grill to do a manufactured smoker's job. Spread a small amount of charcoal (about 20 to 25 briquettes or 10 to 12 handfuls of lump charcoal) in a single layer on one side of the lower grate; heat the grill. Sprinkle soaked wood chips on top. Place a loaf pan filled with water next to the charcoal. Position the food directly above the pan on the upper grate, as far from the fire as possible. Cover with the lid so that the vent is over the food, and lodge a candy thermometer in the opening, with its head facing outside and its probe suspended in the air near the food. The thermometer lets you know if you are maintaining the proper temperature. Close the bottom vents most of the way to lower the heat and open them to raise it. Every hour, or whenever the temperature falls below 225°F, add charcoal that has been heated in a can (about one-third of the original amount) and extra wood chips. — Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison, authors of The Big Book of Outdoor Cooking & Entertaining

Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison, authors (June 1995)

In the Bar-B-Q Belt. it's an honor to be known as an Ol' Baster.

—Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison, authors (June 1995)

Use your melon. (August 1995)

Fruity hot sauce: The beauty of this sweet, peppery sauce is that it can be made with underripe, overripe or perfectly ripe melons. It makes about 2 cups. Use it to brush on pork ribs, chicken and vegetables before grilling or roasting, or serve it as a condiment at the table.

In a medium nonreactive saucepan, combine 4 cups of 1-inch cubes of peeled cantaloupe or orange fleshed honeydew, 3 chopped shallots, 1 chopped Scotch bonnet chile, and 2 tablespoons sugar. Boil over high heat until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 8 minutes. Transfer to a blender and add 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar and 3/4 teaspoon salt. Blend until smooth. Let cool, then refrigerate in a glass jar for up to 2 weeks. — Marcia Kiesel, former F&W Test Kitchen supervisor

An expert gets grilled. (June 1997)

Q. Do I need a grill with a hood?

A. It depends on what you're cooking. For large roasts. whole birds or other slow-cooking foods. you need a hood. Energy-efficient hoods keep in the heat and smoke. which continually circulate around the food. yielding moist and smoky dishes. Covered grills are also convenient in windy, damp or snowy weather. For quick-cooking foods like shrimp. chop and vegetables, an uncovered grill is just as good.

Q. What's the simplest, cheapest thing I could buy to make charcoal grilling easier?

A. A chimney starter. Here's how it works. You put crumpled newspaper in the bottom of a coffee can-shaped container, pile charcoal on top and then light the new paper through the holes around the bottom. Once the coals are fully lit. you dump them into the fire box (the part of your grill that holds the charcoal). For larger grills or slower-cooking food, use two chimney starters simultaneously. Coals ignited in a chimney starter burn more evenly than those lit with either lighter fluid or an electric starter, so that you can better control your cooking.

Q. What is indirect cooking, and do I need a special grill to do it?

A . Indirect cooking means that food is positioned at some distance from the heat source and is cooked with radiant heat. This technique works with any grill. Grilling directly over the heat is great for quick-cooking food like hamburgers and steaks, which cook to medium rare just by being seared on both sides, but longer-cooking food like roasts or whole birds tend to burn long before they are done. For the best results with these foods, use indirect heat: when using a gas grill, place the food to one side of the burner: on a charcoal grill, rake the coals to one side and place the food on the other. Or combine the two methods. Briefly sear the food right over the heat to seal in flavor and caramelize the surface, then move the food and continue grilling indirectly. — Deborah Krasner, author of The New Outdoor Kitchen

Linda Burum, author (July 1991)

Food trends are fickle, but one thing is certain: American will alway relish food grilled over embers.

—Linda Burum, author (July 1991)

Be a chicken champ. (July 1997)

1. Don't marinate your chicken or ribs in barbecue sauce or oil before grilling; the second you put that sugary-sauced meat over heat you'll have a flare-up worthy of a flamethrower.

2. Flare-ups do occur, so keep a plastic squirt bottle filled with water on hand to control the fire. But don't overdouse the flames or you'll have a cloud of soggy smoke cooking your food.

3. When you're barbecuing chicken, your only chance of getting crisp skin and juicy meat is to render the fat from the bird. Do this by starting the chicken skin side down over a moderate fire and cooking it slowly. Don't add the barbecue sauce too soon — the skin will turn black in a matter of seconds. Wait until the food's almost cooked through, then brush with the sauce and finish over low heat, turning and basting.

4. Make sure you use enough barbecue sauce. If it doesn't stick to your fingers when you eat your chicken or ribs, you didn't use enough sauce. — Dean Fearing, chef

Make that chicken quicker. (June 1998)

Having spent more than my fair share of time standing over the grill, waiting for barbecued chicken to cook all the way through, I've found a few shortcuts over the years to speed things up. First, I choose a tender cut of meat that cooks quickly. Then I try to make it thinner, so that it cooks faster — pounding boneless chicken breasts or butterflying pork tenderloins. Finally, I look for a marinade that doesn't require the long standing time so many recipes call for. Highly acidic mixtures can ruin the texture of meats that soak in them for too long but can deliver great flavor when the marinating time is just 10 to 20 minutes. Intense spice rubs are another great quick way to season food for the grill: smoothed out with a little oil and then spread over the meat, they require no standing time at all.

Potatoes cooked in the coals: Use 1 1/2 pounds small red potatoes; cut them in half if they're bigger than 1 inch across. Divide the potatoes between 2 large doubled sheets of heavy-duty foil. Drizzle each batch of potatoes with 2 teaspoons of olive oil and sprinkle each with 1 tablespoon of minced rosemary, 1 minced garlic clove, salt and freshly ground pepper; seal the packets.

Spread out the coals — they should be medium hot — and set the packets on top. Cook the potatoes for about 25 minutes, or until tender when pierced with a knife; serve hot. — Jan Newberry, writer and editor

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