Primal Grill with Steven Raichlen
Season 3 in High Definition
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Primal Grill is filmed at Esplendor Resort in Rio Rico.
Grilling Tips

Fish poses a challenge for even the most experienced grillers.   It is notorious for sticking to the grill grate, for falling apart when you try to turn it, and for being either over- or under-cooked.

Here are five tips for fearless fish grilling:

  • Oil both the fish and the grill grate very well.   Use a basting brush for the former and a tightly folded paper towel dipped in oil for the latter.

  • Fish breaking apart when you turn it?  Use a nonstick fish grilling basket, which makes turning easy, or grill the fish (whole fish or fillets) on cedar planks, a method that requires no turning at all.

  • “Grateless grilling,” which involves suspending skewers of food between two strategically-placed bricks on the grill grate, is another good way to grill fish.
    Cut steak-like fish (tuna, halibut, swordfish, etc.) into cubes, skewer, and suspend the skewers over the heat by resting the ends on the bricks.  Small whole fish can also be grilled this way.

  • Use a wide spatula (oiled) made especially for fragile seafood to turn whole fish, steaks, or fillets.
  • Fish is done when it flakes easily when probed with a finger, or when a thin metal skewer inserted into the thickest part is hot to the touch if left there for 20 seconds.

    Rubs There are two kinds of rubs, and both are used in America and other countries with grilling cultures to boost the flavor of barbecue or grilled foods.  Wet rubs, sometimes called spice pastes, are similar to marinades, but generally thicker.  Dry rubs are just that—a mixture of dry spices that are literally rubbed into foods before grilling.

    One  very versatile dry rub is the “Four-Four” rub,  made by mixing equal parts coarse salt (kosher or sea), black pepper, paprika, and brown sugar.  Experiment with various combinations to come up with your own unique rubs.

    Dry rubs can be made ahead of time and stored for several months (away from heat and light) in covered containers or resealable plastic bags.  Make wet rubs immediately before slathering them on the food to be grilled as many wet rubs contain tender herbs that deteriorate after a few hours.

    You can use a rub in two ways.    Apply it right before grilling and it serves as a seasoning.      Apply it several hours or even a day ahead and it cures as well as seasons the meat.  

    Pork ribs (especially “baby backs”) are America’s most popular ribs.  But increasingly, beef, veal, lamb, and even bison ribs are appearing in the marketplace.
    They can be direct grilled, indirect grilled, spit-roasted, smoked, or even braised on the grill top in a flavorful sauce.   But never boiled.

    Here are some things to know for success with ribs:

  • If the butcher has not already done so, remove the tough, papery membrane from the bone side of the ribs as it impedes the absorption of spice and smoke.  Loosen the membrane over a middle bone by working the tip of a screwdriver, butter knife, or an instant-read meat thermometer under it.  Then grip the membrane with a paper towel or clean dishcloth and remove it.

  • Do use a dry rub or a wet rub [REFERENCE WEB MARKER FOR RUBS HERE?] to give the ribs another layer of flavor.  Apply before you set up your grill, or let the ribs cure for a of couple hours. 

  • Keep ribs moist during cooking and add flavor by spraying or mopping the ribs with a thin sauce called a mop sauce.  It can be as simple as beer, or can incorporate whiskey or rum, apple juice or other fruit juices, vinegar, water or broth, etc.  Apply after the first 30 minutes of grilling., and every 15 minutes after that.

  • Use a rib rack to increase the capacity of your grill.  (Most standard-sized kettle grills can only accommodate two racks of ribs.)  This has the added advantage of allowing the now-upright ribs to baste themselves as they cook.

  • Smoke the ribs, if desired.  Soak wood chips or chunks in beer or water to cover for 1 hour, then drain.  Throw a handful on the coals (replenish as desired) or in a smoker box, if you own a gas grill.  When done, a pinkish ring near the outside of the meat—it’s called a smoke ring—will be evidence of your grillmanship.

  • If smoking ribs for several hours, wrap them in foil for the last hour to keep them from drying out.  Before serving, remove the foil, apply sauce (if using), then grill them directly for a few minutes to crisp them up.

  • Apply barbecue sauce the last 5 to 10 minutes of grilling, then sizzle the ribs directly over the fire.  Watch carefully so any sugars in the sauce don’t burn or scorch.

  • When done, the meat will have pulled away from the ends of the bones by at least 1/4 inch, and the ribs will be tender enough to pull apart with your fingers.  (Contrary to popular belief, “falling off the bone” tender is not the objective of the pros.)


    The thick, red, sweet-smoky sauce most Americans think of as barbecue sauce , though popular, is only one example of the genre.  In Argentina, your steak would be accompanied by an intensely green sauce known as chimichurri.  In Southeast Asia, sates (tiny kebabs) come with peanut sauce.   

    Even in this country, regional differences abound: North Carolineans can’t imagine pulled pork without vinegar sauce, while in South Carolina, a mustardy sauce rules.  In Alabama, barbecued chicken might come with a white, mayonnaise-based barbecue sauce.

    Be creative.  When developing sauces, aim for a pleasing balance between sweet and sour with a compatible payload of spices and flavorings.    Turn up the heat with chiles, hot sauce, horseradish, or ground pepper.   Add a “wild card,” like blueberries, rhubarb, coffee, ginger, apples, chocolate, etc. 

    And if the flavors of the sauce aren’t coming together quite right, try adding a little water to smooth the differences and adjust the texture.

    Sauces, of course, can be sizzled, drizzled, or served on the side. 

    Skewers come in a staggering variety: metal or bamboo, or other natural materials like straight green sticks, branches of mature, sturdy herbs like rosemary, cinnamon sticks, etc.  Originally, meat was skewered on swords to be roasted over the fire.  In fact, “shish kebab” literally means “sword meat.”
  • A skewer soaked in water, contrary to instinct, will catch fire on a hot grill as quickly as an unsoaked one.  Here are two tips for discouraging burning: Thread the food to be grilled close together with only  a 1/4-inch space between them (and position the food close to the pointed end); make a grill shield by folding an 18-inch long piece of aluminum foil into thirds, like a business letter, and slip it under the exposed ends of the skewers.

  • Flat skewers, which come in various widths, are ideal for skewering foods that are likely to spin when turned, such as tomatoes.  Wide versions, such as the ones used for the kebabs called koftah in the Middle East, are ideal for holding molded, sausage-like, ground meat or fish mixtures, or even stiff mashed potatoes, as they do in Armenia.

  • In the absence of flat skewers, discourage food from spinning when turned by threading it on two parallel bamboo skewers.

  • Use separate skewers for meat and vegetables so you can tailor the cooking times.

  • Remove food carefully—especially from metal skewers—and never touch the skewers to your lips.  A warm piece of flatbread, such as pita or naan, makes a terrific “pot holder” for unskewering the food.

    Then, build a three-tiered fire and preheat one part to high—screaming high, actually—and one part to medium-high.  Leave one part unlit for a “safety zone” where you can move the steaks in case of flare-ups.  If using a gas grill, preheat one section to high (600+ degrees F) and another section to medium-high (400 degrees F); keep one section unlit.

    Choose the right steak:  The T-bone and Porterhouse give you two steaks in one—a meaty New York strip and a tender filet mignon.   

    Season the steaks right before grilling with coarse sea salt and freshly ground or cracked black peppercorns.     Why coarse salt?    It dissolves slowly, so a few crunchy salt crystals remain.

    Place the steaks (it doesn’t matter if they have a chill from being refrigerated) on the oiled grate, all lined up in the same direction. This might sound obsessive, but you’ll look and feel like a professional and the technique will help keep you organized.  After 2 minutes, rotate each steak either 45 or 90 degrees; this creates an attractive crosshatch of grill marks.

    Sear the steak until beads of blood appear on the surface, 1 to 2 minutes for a steak 1/2- inch thick, 3 to 5 minutes for one 1-inch thick, and 6 to 9 minutes for a thickness of 1-1/2 to 2 inches.  (NOTE: For a steak over 1-1/2 inches thick, it is best to start it over high heat and then finish it over more moderate heat.) 

    Turn the steaks using tongs or a spatula.  Never stab them with a fork or the juices will escape.

    Continue cooking the steaks on the other side, rotating after 2 minutes.  To test for doneness, press the top with your index finger: A rare steak will be softly yielding; a medium steak will be firmer; a well-done steak will be quite firm.  Alternatively, use an instant-read meat thermometer inserted through the side.  For medium-rare, cook to 140 degrees F; cook to 150 degrees F for medium; for well-done, look for a thermometer reading of “UGH!”, which translates to anything over 165 degrees F.  Try to avoid cutting into a steak to gauge doneness.

    Top with a piece of butter or drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil.

    There is nothing like the aromatic flavor of wood smoke to take grilled or barbecued food from the ordinary to the sublime.

    True smoking is an indirect method of cooking over low temperatures (typically 225 to 250 degrees F) where the food cooks next to—not directly over—the fire.   The source of the smoke can be wood chips, chunks, pellets, branches, trimmings, or logs. 

    The most popular smoking woods in America are (in ascending order of flavor) cherry, apple, oak, hickory, and the strongest of all, mesquite.   But Americans are following the lead of international grillers, and are using olive and grapevine clippings, twigs of rosemary, and even wine barrel staves to flavor their grilled foods.

    While smoking is imminently doable on a kettle-type charcoal grill, gas grills are generally too well-ventilated to be effective with this cooking method.  (Yes, your gas grill came with a smoker box, which implies otherwise.  But trust me on this.)   Even if you have a multi-thousand dollar stainless steel gas super-grill, invest in an inexpensive charcoal kettle grill to do your smoking.

    To smoke on a charcoal grill, set it up for indirect grilling with a mound of coals on opposite sides of the grill.  Throw a handful of wood chips or chunks (soak in water for an hour first) directly on the coals, put the food to be smoked in the middle, close the lid, and adjust the vents.  Smoke should come out of the vents almost immediately.  For large cuts of meat, you may have to add more wood chips or chunks after the first hour.

    Smokers are available in a variety of styles and price ranges, from electric pellet-fed smokers to Texas-style offset smokers to the huge commercial smokers that can be set digitally but that use whole logs, set in a chamber to the side or back, to generate smoke.  For more information and opinions, visit the Barbecue Board

    Grilled vegetables can be much more than the chunks of peppers, onions, tomatoes, and mushrooms (usually undercooked) typically used as spacers on shish kebabs.   Potatoes (both white and sweet), whole onions, corn,  eggplant, fennel, fingerling potatoes, squash, endive, and even lettuces are good candidates for grilling or smoke-roasting.  In fact, one of our most oft-requested recipes is for barbecued cabbage.

    Quick-cooking vegetables should be direct grilled, while denser vegetables, like potatoes and cabbage, respond best to indirect grilling or smoke-roasting.  Whole onions are sensational when spit-roasted until “squeezably” soft.  You can buy special metal grill rings to hold round-bottomed vegetables upright, or make your own by twisting a length of crumpled aluminum foil into a doughnut-shape.

    Here are some additional tips:

  • Indirect grill whole heads of garlic by wrapping them loosely in aluminum foil and drizzling them with olive oil; cook until soft and tender.  Squeeze out of the skin.
  • Direct grill peeled cloves of garlic by impaling them on toothpicks.

  • Direct grill long slender vegetables, like asparagus spears or green beans, by pinning them together, raft-like, with bamboo skewers or toothpicks.
  • Throw sweet potatoes, eggplant, onions, or peppers directly into the embers to cook; turn periodically with long-handled tongs.

  • For a spectacular appetizer or first course, grill a colorful array of bell peppers, onion quarters, and thinly sliced zucchini or yellow squash.  Peel and core the grilled peppers, then cut into quarters.  Fan the vegetables out attractively on a large platter, drizzle with a good vinaigrette, and top with slivered fresh basil.  Serve with grilled garlic bread.

  • Grill still hot after a grilling session?  Grill vegetables for the next day’s meal.


    Man’s first efforts at cooking his food were probably inspired by a fortuitous lightening strike in a wooded area, a spontaneous “campfire” that spawned infinite possibilities in the primitive human mind and literally changed its evolutionary path.

    Modern man still retains his passion, and in many parts of the world—preference—for food cooked over a wood fire.

    If you prefer grilling and smoking with actual logs, it is advisable to cultivate a local source as wood is expensive to ship.  Use dry, well-cured woods only, and store them away from the house. 

    Always use hardwoods, such as alder, maple, pecan, locust, oak, hickory, apple, cherry, or mesquite.  Avoid resinous softwoods like pine and fir as they produce too much soot and unpleasant—even dangerous—residues.

    Wood chunks are more readily available, and are a cinch to light in a chimney starter: Simply ball up three or four sheets of newspapers in the bottom (or use a paraffin starter), fill the chimney with wood chunks, and light the papers.  You should have blazing wood chunks in 15 to 20 minutes.  Dump them in your charcoal grill and spread them out evenly over the bottom, adding fresh chunks as needed.
    Keep in mind that wood can produce a hotter fire (and a lot more creosote) than charcoal, so always keep the grill uncovered.  And as always, never desert your post. 

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