Summer Grilling Tips
Chef Jeff Tunks and Burger Tap & Shake photos: Scott Suchman David Guas burgers photo: Johny Autry

Improve Your Grill Game: Local Chefs and Experts Offer Summer Grilling Tips

With warmer weather finally with us, it’s officially grilling season. This year, though, it’s time to kick up your grill game a few notches. Say goodbye to overcooked, lifeless burgers, or those same old hot dogs, with expert insight from some of DC’s finest behind the grill.

Grilling 101
“Part of improving your grilling skills comes with knowing your piece of equipment,” says David Guas, chef and owner at Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar & Eatery, and host of the Travel Channel’s American Grilled series. “Knowing how to gauge your grill’s temperature comes with practice and experience. It’s also always helpful to remember that you can control the power and intensity of the flame by increasing or decreasing the amount of oxygen exposure.”

You need to take care of your grill, too. “Not cleaning the grill properly before cooking” is one of the most common mistakes that Chef Roberto Hernandez of Toro Toro sees.

“It is very important to have a clean and well-oiled grill before cooking any meats,” he says. “This will prevent the proteins from sticking to it, and also will give you those nice grill marks like you see on TV.”

One of the most important aspects of grilling is knowing when your food is actually done.

“Experienced cooks can tell the doneness of a steak simply by touching it,” Hernandez adds.

That’s going to take some experience, of course.

“If you are new to grilling, I would suggest using a meat thermometer as an initial gauge,” Guas says. “Then once you know the internal temperature, you can use your hand to determine the doneness. Eventually, as you become more familiar with your grill and the cuts of meat you are working with, you won’t even need a thermometer.”

Hernandez advises that a medium rare steak is between 130 and 135 degrees, and medium is between 140 and 145 degrees. Go beyond that and you’re “killing your steak,” he says. Once you know the basics, you can also learn how to do more with your grill.

“A common mistake home-grillers can easily make is forgetting to zone the charcoal,” Guas says. “It is really important to create zones within your grill so that you can create grill marks with direct heat, and then utilize the indirect section of the grill to cook things thoroughly.”

Another technique to learn is smoking with different types of wood. Guas encourages creativity but offers a few suggestions, such as using the fruitiness and sweetness of cherry and apple woods for chicken and fish, hickory wood for larger cuts of meat or certain fish such as salmon, and strong mesquite smoke for Texas-style barbecue.

“But you have to be careful, because the strength of its flavor can overpower many foods,” he warns. “I often blend a medium wood like hickory with a sweeter wood like cherry or apple to balance the flavor.”

Mastering the Burger
The burger is the centerpiece of most summer cookouts, and despite its seeming simplicity, it takes some experience and insight to truly master. Chef Jeff Tunks of Burger Tap & Shake will help set us straight.

“Quit playing with your meat when making burger patties,” he advises. “Avoid over-handling and working the grind together. The reason being the heat from your hands will begin to melt the fat and affect the final product. The best burgers are a loosely packed patty, which allows the fat to melt and gives the patty a better texture.”

Once the burger is on the grill, avoid hyperactive over-management and let the grill do its job.

“Less is more during the cooking process,” Tunks says. “So try to avoid over flipping, pressing [and] touching. Be patient and let it achieve a good sear and char. You want a juicy burger.”

When using ground beef with less than 20 percent fat or other lean meats, be sure not to overcook burgers in order to preserve their flavor.

“You really need to cook between medium rare and medium,” says Tunks about lean meat burgers. “Anything more and you are gambling with a dry burger. Also, let the burger rest a minute before adding it to your toasted bun so that the juices can redistribute.”

That resting rule applies to all meats.

“Have you seen those commercials where they are slicing a piece of beef and it’s running juices all over the cutting board? That is because the meat was not well-rested before slicing,” Hernandez explains.

Toppings, Marinades & Seasonings
On the burger front, there’s no need to get fancy with spices.

“When it comes to seasoning, the key is to keep it simple,” Tunks says. “Apply kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper liberally on both sides. Adding salt and pepper after you start the cooking process will never taste as good as a pre-seasoned burger.”

The best way to expand flavor is to get creative with toppings.

“It’s all about the toppings,” says Tunks. “Some favorite recent combinations include garlic and black olive, tzatziki with feta, Korean gochujang BBQ sauce with kimchi, fire-roasted hatch chilies and smoked onions with chipotle.”

As far as steak goes, keep in mind that marinades aren’t always necessary.

“I always like to remind people that a quality cut of beef does not need to be marinated,” Guas says. “I love the simplicity of preparing beef with coarse salt and black pepper, especially with a skirt steak or ribeye. Marinades typically come into play when you have a tougher cut like tri-tip or game, like quail and pheasant.”

When you are creating a marinade, follow this simple rule from Guas.

“As a guiding principle, I tend to treat a marinade like a salad dressing. It should consist of three parts oil with one part acid.”

For sauces, Guas recommends a summertime staple from his own home.

“A family favorite on the grill is skirt steak with chimichurri sauce,” he says.

Expand Your Repertoire
You know your grill, you’ve mastered the burger, and your marinade and topping game is strong. Now let’s expand your repertoire with different meats or overlooked cuts.

“I recommend a cut of tri-tip beef,” Guas suggests. “It’s a cheaper cut of beef, but delicious and packs an impressive amount of flavor.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Guas has a favored special occasion splurge in mind as well.

“In my opinion, you simply cannot top a cowboy cut bone-in ribeye,” he says.

Hernandez suggests a splurge of his own for those willing to pay.

“I would definitely go for an A5 Wagyu beef,” he says. “Wagyu is categorized in 12 levels [of] marbling, A5 being the perfect ratio between fat and muscle. Pretty expensive product, but trust me when I tell you it is worth every penny.”

For a more everyday type of selection, Hernandez has something else in mind.

“I would say my favorite meat for grilling is the hanger steak,” he says. “Back in the day, butchers would save this cut for themselves. All around, it’s the perfect steak for the home griller.”

When the sea beckons, Guas offers a few more choice picks.

“It’s also hard to beat trout or local Chesapeake rockfish,” he says.

You can get more adventurous with your burgers, too.

“At Burger Tap & Shake, we really have fun and a lot of success with our Burger of the Month,” Tunks says. “In the past, we have featured lamb, venison, duck, rabbit and wild boar. My personal favorite, which I cook weekly at home, is bison – always at medium rare.”

Check out the chefs’ locations, listed below.

Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar & Eatery: Two area locations in Arlington, VA and Capitol Hill; www.bayoubakerydc.com

Burger Tap & Shake: Two area locations in Tenleytown and Foggy Bottom;www.burgertapshake.com

Toro Toro: 1300 Eye St. NW, DC; 202-682-9500;www.RichardSandoval.com/ToroToroDC

Chef Jeff Tunks and Burger Tap & Shake photos: Scott Suchman
David Guas burgers photo: Johny Autry

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Jake Emen

Jake Emen is a freelance writer focused on food and drink, as well as travel and lifestyle. Currently based outside of Washington, D.C., he has been published in a wide range of print and online outlets, including Whisky Advocate, Eater, Vice Munchies, Liquor.com, Tales of the Cocktail, Washington Post Express, Distiller, Roads & Kingdoms, Time Out, Tasting Table, Destination Weddings & Honeymoons, and a range of others. He also runs his own site, ManTalkFood.com, and can be followed on Twitter, @ManTalkFood.