Mario Batali‘s cookbook, Italian Grill, is a must-have for any food enthusiast who craves that little taste of the outdoors during the hot, Canadian summer. In this exclusive excerpt, Batali outlines the four basic grilling techniques that will lead to consistently exceptional meals. What’s the one thing everyone needs to remember? Keep a lid on it!
Mario Batali‘s grilling techniques
Cover the grill! You may be tempted to keep a close eye on that big juicy steak as it cooks, but, in a word, don’t. With the exception of thin fish fillets, sliced vegetables, and other foods that cook very quickly, almost everything should be cooked with the grill lid down, to keep the heat and flavorful smoke inside. You could think of covered grilling as roasting over coals. And remember that there’s no need to keep turning and moving the food around as it cooks, except to avoid flare-ups. When searing meat, give it a chance to develop nice dark grill marks. No matter what you are grilling, it will cook more evenly and more quickly if you leave it alone — turn it only once, or as directed in the recipe.
Some of the recipes in this book tell you to oil the grill before putting the food on it. You can use a long-handled basting brush or a clean rag dipped in oil to do this (you may want to hold the rag with tongs). Lightly oil the grate just before putting the food on it. In some cases, you many need to brush the food with oil too — or oil the food instead of the grate.
Direct and indirect grilling
Although a hot fire is essential for many recipes, not everything should be grilled over high heat. And some foods, such as big cuts of meat and whole birds, should be grilled over indirect heat so they can cook to the desired doneness without incinerating the outside. Some recipes use both direct and indirect heat: a piece of meat may be seared over the hottest part of the grill, for example, then moved to the cooler part to cook through.
Grilling over direct heat means cooking the food over the hottest part of the fire. It’s what you want for thinner cuts, for fish and shellfish, cut-up chicken, sliced vegetables — i.e., when you want to sear the food, giving it great colour and a delicious flavour. For direct cooking on a gas grill, after preheating the grill, leave all the burners on high, put the food on the grill, and cook as directed. For a charcoal grill, leave the coals in a mound for very intense heat, or spread them out a bit if you need a larger cooking area. Have all the vents open so there is plenty of oxygen to feed the flames.
For indirect cooking on a gas grill, preheat all the burners on high, then turn off the center burners if you have three, or one of the burners if you have two. If the recipe calls for it, turn the other burner(s) down. Put the food over the cooler part of the grill to cook — and be sure to cover the grill. There are various options for cooking over the indirect heat in a charcoal grill. The simplest is to move all the hot coals to one side of the grill and cook the food on the other, cooler side. Or divide the coals and mound them on two opposite sides of the grill, leaving the center bare, and cook over the center part. In either case, it’s a good idea to put a drip pan filled with a little water under the cooler part of the grill to prevent the dripping from burning. A third option, if you are cooking something like chicken thighs, is to leave the hot coals in the center of the grill and arrange the food around the cooler perimeter.
If you’ve ever wondered how chefs make those beautiful patterns of grill marks that adorn grilled salmon fillets and fish steaks, chicken breasts, and other cuts, it’s actually really easy. Put the food on the grill and let it sear or cook long enough to get well-charred grill marks. Rotate it 90 degrees and cook a few minutes longer, and you will have that distinctive crosshatch pattern. Turn the food over and continue cooking as directed.
If you have never tried spit-roasting because you think it is difficult, expensive, and/or intimidating, you will be surprised to find that it’s none of these things: it’s really easy, a rotisserie attachment is by no means a huge investment, and spit-roasting is lots of fun! The results are delicious, and the technique — and delicious results — will amaze and impress your guests. Some high-end gas grills come with a rotisserie attachment, and many manufacturers offer an attachment as an option. Relatively inexpensive models that fit most grills (charcoal as well as gas) can be purchased online or at some hardware stores. In any case, you’ll want to buy a well-constructed model with a sturdy spit that can support big birds and roasts. Fortunately we no longer have to turn the spit by hand — nowadays a small electric motor, attached to one side of the grill, does all the work. You simply skewer the food on the spit, securing it with the clams that are part of the setup, lay the spit over the grill, and insert the end of it into the motor housing. Cover the grill and turn on the motor — that’s all there is to it!
You’ll need to review the specific instructions for the model you buy (and check your grill manual for additional information), but basically spit-roasted food is cooked over indirect heat in a covered grill. Generally the food should be brought to room temperature before it is grilled, since it will not be cooking at a high temperature. Be sure to set up a drip pan under the center of the rotisserie to catch the juices; you may need to pour a little water or other liquid, such as wine, into the pan to prevent the drippings from burning.
Cooking on a piastra
Cooking on a piastra is a time-honored technique throughout Italy, especially in Friuli and along the Adriatic Coast. Alla Piastra essentially means cooking on a flat griddle over a hot fire, and the same method is popular throughout the Mediterranean. Cooking a la plancha is a favorite way of preparing fish in Spain, and in Greece, cooking a satz, a sheet of metal, is centuries old. Today the free-form sheets of metal used in ancient times have mostly been replaced by griddles made of cast iron or another metal. You could use a regular stovetop griddle with a smooth surface as a piastra. These are readily available in housewares shops, some hardware stores, and online; a large rectangular griddle that fits over two burners is a good choice. An old-fashioned cast-iron pancake griddle would also work, although these are on the smaller side, or even a quarter-inch-thick slab of slate. But best of all is my piastra, which is made of thin but durable, and remarkably light, granite and, at 10 inches by 14 inches, gives you a generous cooking area.
The advantage of a piastra is that it gives you a very hot cooking surface — hot enough to make mussels dance when they are tossed onto it. It’s a fun and easy way to cook many foods from shrimp to calamari. I also use one to “grill-bake” flatbreads such as schiacciate. Just be sure to give the piastra enough time to get really hot — let it preheat, covered, on the hot grill for at least 10 to 15 minutes.