Smoky and tender with just a bit of bite, grilled vegetables can be the star of a cookout if you know how to cook them right.

By Margaret Eby
June 26, 2020
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Summer in the era of the novel coronavirus is a different kind of season. The block parties and outdoor concerts are gone, and taking a vacation involves a whole different set of pandemic logistics. But the simple pleasures of summer remain: warm evening walks, slices of watermelon pulled straight from the fridge and eaten over the sink, and grilling whenever possible. 

Your first association with grilling might be meaty things like steaks and burgers. Those foods are definitely wonderful, but they’re not the only options, of course. Vegetables are excellent on the grill (and fruit, too)—as long as you avoid ending up with vegetables that are charred on the outside and raw on the inside, or so overcooked that they’re unrecognizable. Here’s how to grill any vegetable with resounding success, armed with our handy quick reference chart.

Victor Protasio

Cut ‘Em Up

Like all cooking, grilling is about surface area. The more you have, the quicker your food cook. Cut your vegetables into even pieces for best results. You don’t have to cut them up—a whole ear of corn on the cob is perfect the way it is. But it’ll speed things up and they’ll cook more evenly. You can also cut them according to what you want to use them for. Thin zucchini planks only need a tiny amount of time to get charred and cooked through, and larger slices will take longer, but be sturdier. Also be aware that larger chunks will be easier to move around on the grill with tongs, and smaller pieces will need to be put in a foil packet to prevent them from falling through the slats and getting lost. You can also use skewers to organize chunks of vegetables together, to maximize your efficiency. Don’t worry about mixing them up—it’s actually better to keep all of one kind of vegetable on a skewer, since they’ll cook at the same rate, You can always pull them off the skewers and arrange them back onto them later. 

Oil and Add Flavorings, But Don’t Salt

Give all your vegetable pieces a nice coating of oil before they hit the grill, too, but wait to salt them until after they’ve come off the heat. A good everyday olive oil. Like California Olive Ranch, is a safe bet. Canola oil or coconut oil will work too, and they’ll bring different flavor aspects to the grilling. Wait to season things until after the grill, though—salt pulls moisture out of vegetables, meaning that it’ll be harder to get that great grill marked, charred exterior.

Use a Grill Thermometer to Gauge Temp

Use the thermometer in your grill or a separate one to make sure the grill is as hot as you want it. For grilling vegetables, you don’t want it as hot as it can get—more in the medium range. That means roughly 400 to 425 degrees Fahrenheit is usually the sweet spot. 

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Direct vs. Indirect Heat

Direct or indirect heat are both cooking methods that you can use for vegetables, and which one is optimal depends on the vegetable. Direct heat is what it sounds like—you’re cooking the item directly on the heat source, in this case a grill. Direct heat is when you put something on the slates of a grill directly over the gas or charcoal. Indirect heat is when you cook something adjacent to the heat source, rather than directly on it. So if you wrap potatoes in foil and put them on the grill, that’s indirect rather than direct heat.

A combination of these methods is often a good bet for vegetables that take longer to cook through, like wedges of cabbage or half-heads of cauliflower. Use the direct heat of the grill to get a good sear on the vegetable, and then move it to indirect heat so it can cook through more gently without scorching. 

On charcoal grills, you’ll want to set up the grill a bit differently in order to get indirect heat. Once your briquettes are going, use a rake to push them to either side of the grill, leaving a spot in the middle open. That spot is where you can put food that you want to get more indirect than direct heat, as it’s adjacent to the charcoal rather than directly on top of it. 

On gas grills, you can light all the burners to wait until the grill comes up to the cooking temperature you want. Then turn off a row of burners while leaving another one on. Placing your vegetables above the unlit burners, rather than the lit ones, will cook them using indirect heat. 

Closed Cover or Open Cover?

Whether you want to keep the grill cover closed or open while you’re grilling has to do with what you’re cooking. If you’re cooking small or delicate vegetables, anything sliced smaller than ¾ inch, keep the cover open. If it’s larger you’ll want to close the lid to help it cook through. 

When you close the lid of a grill, you’re essentially creating an oven, where hot air will circulate and help cook the food. That’s useful for thicker steaks or big hunks of dense vegetables, like a whole potato, for example. You can also use both methods. Sear the outside of your larger, thicker vegetables with the lid open, then move it to indirect heat and close the girl cover to allow them to cook all the way through. Thinner vegetables like asparagus won’t need as much time to get cooked in the middle, so you can just sear them with the lid up and trust that they’ll be done. 

Season with Salt Once You’re Happy With Their Level of Doneness

When you’re happy with how the vegetables have cooked and have transferred them to a serving platter, now’s the time to season them. Sprinkle some salt and crack some black pepper over them, and maybe add a squeeze of lemon—grilled vegetables don’t need much more than that.