Grilling 101: 2 Tampa Bay Chefs Share 6 Tips For Summer

The summer is ubiquitous with grilling -- so much so that a 2011 study from the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association found 86 percent of U.S. households own a grill or smoker and a 2009 study revealed 45 percent of them grill at least 1-2 times a week during the summer months.

Whether you're a casual griller or a self-proclaimed champ, there are always a few things you can learn to raise your grill game. Before you fire up those coals, two Tampa Bay area chefs have some tips and ideas to impress guests at your next backyard barbecue.

Clearwater-based chef Ryan Mitchell acquired his skills through more than 18 years of on-the-job training. Mitchell, a business graduate from Appalachian State University, will grill just about anything he can get his hands on, and after turning out roughly 200 steaks a night as chef partner of Fleming's Steakhouse in Tampa and serving as the the chain's regional chef for the state of Florida, he's had plenty of practice.

The Refinery's co-owner and chef Greg Baker has a gift for turning familiar dishes on their head. Baker, a Western Culinary Institute graduate, and his wife Michelle traded in their jobs as personal chefs for the restaurant life and opened their Seminole Heights eatery in February 2010. Their prolific creative output and dedication to supporting Tampa Bay growers and farmers has drawn praise from food lovers and critics alike, culminating in Baker's 2012 James Beard Foundation nomination for "Best Chef: South."

If you're thinking your kitchen equipment and know-how pales in comparison to these chefs, don't worry. Follow their tips and your friends will be calling you 'Grill Master' in no time.

Tip #1 -- Choose Your Grilling Methods Wisely

The perfect execution of grilled food depends entirely on the method you choose. When doing steak or thick cuts of fish like salmon and mahi mahi use direct heat, placing the slab directly on the grill's grates.

"If you were to put a fish like trout on the grill, it'd likely fall apart, " Mitchell says. Use a sauté pan or cast iron skillet instead.

Skip the pan for seafood such as lobster and oysters -- all you need is their shells.

Cut a lobster tail in half down its back and carefully remove the meat from the tail. Dot with lightly salted butter, herbs and lemon slices before replacing the meat and grilling shell-side down for about 6 minutes. Grill oysters until the shell cracks open, resulting in a juicy, medium-rare appetizer.

When it comes to meat, everyone has a preference on which cuts they prefer and how they like it cooked, but some fare better than others on the grill. Mitchell likes a rib-eye for the ample marbling of fat.

Don't be afraid to use whole cuts, either. The ideal cooking method for a whole tenderloin or rib-eye starts with searing at your grill's highest heat to lock in the flavor. Once both sides are seared, place it on the upper rack of the grill and lower the temperature to 200 degrees for a slow-cooking finish.

It also helps to pay attention to your grill's hot and cool spots.

"You always want to start on the hottest spot to get a good char," Baker says. "Finish on the cooler side so the temperature of the meat has a chance to stretch, the juices are absorbed and your food cooks without going to the point of burning."

Tip #2 -- Avoid Rookie Mistakes

Despite what you might've seen and heard, resist temptation to press down on your meat with a spatula. It may look fun, but nobody likes a dry burger.

"You're squeezing all the juices out and putting them into the fire," Mitchell says.

Which leads to Baker's next piece of advice and perhaps the most important for beginners: Leave your food alone.

"People think when they throw something on the grill, they have to fuss with it," he says. "Just leave it alone for a few minutes to get that charred flavor you expect from grilling."

Tip #3 -- Keep It Simple, Keep It Fresh

The best way to accentuate that charred flavor is to use as few ingredients as possible, and since you're using fewer components you want to use the best available.

Make sure your meat and produce is fresh and purchase from local growers when you can. Not only are you supporting Tampa Bay farmers, you're getting ingredients grown in season at their peak flavor. You could even go a step further and use things from your own garden.

Tip #4 -- Eat Your Vegetables

Asparagus, portobello mushroom caps, summer squash, zucchini, red onion, bell peppers and tomatoes are old standbys for grilled veggies, but have you ever tried grilled okra?

Toss them in oil and salt before piercing with wooden skewers that've been soaked in water for an hour to prevent burning. Skewer each end so it resembles a ladder rung and grill each side for two minutes, Baker recommends.

If you're looking for the perfect salad to start off your meal, try halved hearts of romaine on the grill -- cut side down -- for a minute or two until you've got a nice char for the makings of a non-traditional, but delicious, Caesar salad.

Baker recommends getting a few of those giant Florida avocados currently in season, quartering, pitting and grilling them skin-on for 5-10 minutes. Cook flesh down on the hottest part of your grill and move to a cooler side once you've developed a nice char.

Grill off some green onions, slice your avocado and toss both of them with a quick vinaigrette -- Baker suggests mixing olive oil, salt, pepper, honey, red wine vinegar, cilantro and chilies -- and you've got a simple summer salad packed full of flavor.

Tip #5 -- Get Creative!

Spice up boring burgers with a piece of smoked gouda or onion slices stuffed in the middle. The grill will steam the onion inside, seeping flavor into every bite of the burger, Mitchell says.

Baker suggests cutting watermelon into high wedge shapes, brushing it with olive oil and salt and grilling with the rind on for a minute on each side. It's just enough time for the sugars to caramelize, but short enough to keep the flesh of the fruit cool on the inside.

And craft beer isn't just for drinking anymore. Try marinating your steaks in it. Mitchell likes a mixture of Cigar City Brewing's Madura Brown Ale with soy sauce. He allows the meat to marinate in the refrigerator for at least an hour and a half but no longer than 24 hours.

Bring your meat to room temperature so it doesn't bring down the temperature of the grill and ensures you'll get a nice char. Eat with an ice cold bottle of the brew of your choice and enjoy.

Tip #6 -- There's Always Room For Dessert

You've got a salad and a crowd-pleasing entree with sides, but what about dessert? If you haven't tried a grilled peach yet, you don't know what you're missing. Baker prefers drizzling stone fruit like plums and nectarines with honey and grilling flesh-side down for a minute. The high sugar content of the fruit intensifies on the grill and serves as the perfect sweet ending to your summer meal.

Now that you've got the basics under your belt, start planning your own grilled menu for summer, stay safe and, remember, friends don't let their friends press down on their burgers.

Matt Spencer, a University of South Florida grad, is a native Floridian who enjoys sharing his love for Patty Griffin, browsing produce stands, spending hours in record shops and gawking at the ice cream selection in grocery stores. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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