Millions of us enjoy outdoor cooking. It's part of the rhythm of our lives, as natural as the changing of the seasons. Guys whose only time spent in the kitchen involves searching for beer in the refrigerator jump at the chance to cook dinner on the outdoor grill. Why? It's just plain fun, and a great social activity, gathering in the backyard with friends or family for a relaxed cookout. Becoming a competent backyard chef doesn't require any prior cooking skill or experience. You can start with the basics, such as grilling burgers or steaks, and as you gain confidence, expand your repertoire to more complex dishes. You can experiment with spice rubs and sauces, until you create your own signature recipes.
If you pay attention to what your doing, grilling or smoking meats is difficult to goof up. It doesn't require exact measurement of ingredients, such as baking does. In fact many a backyard grillmeister has discovered his or her best dishes after uttering the phrase: "What if we try this..." The major challenge is "doneness," recognizing when to take the foods off the grill so you don't end up with dry, grey overdone meats, scorched fish or undercooked chicken. But that just comes with experience. You reach the point where you don't have to cut into the steak to see if it is medium-rare. You just know.
These days, the sky's the limit in terms of the types of dishes you can prepare outdoors, and the flavors you can produce: even desserts can be prepared on the grill. Grocery store shelves are crammed with exotic marinades from every type of cuisine.
Let's not forget the most important part: grilled or barbecued food just tastes better than food cooked in the oven or on the stove. Searing meat over a high flame adds that delicious crust or "char" flavor. And what's better than the rich flavor of meats slow cooked over wood smoke?
Smoking or Grilling
Generally speaking, grilling refers to cooking foods quickly in an open cooker, over high heat. Smoking is a process of cooking more slowly, over a low heat, often with the cooker closed. But these processes are not mutually exclusive. You might sear a pork tenderloin over high heat, and then move it off the fire and let it finish cooking more slowly, adding wood chips to the fire to give it additional flavor, and closing the lid on the grill unit. Many outdoor chefs have two distinct cooking units: a gas or charcoal grill and a meat smoker. But many grills can serve double duty as smokers.
Enjoy yourself but keep safety in mind
Take precautions when you're grilling. Keep food icy cold until you're ready to grill. Salads and side dishes should be kept in a cooler until ready to serve. Don't cross contaminate utensils, plates, or the grill surface.
A fire extinguisher in easy reach is a must. It's also a good idea to have a pitcher of water nearby and a bowl of ice cubes. If you do burn your hand plunge it into the ice cubes for fast relief. And of course keep the grill out of busy pathways.