New kitchen toys always get me excited about cooking—sometimes a little too excited. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the novelty of it all and want to immediately dive into challenging recipes and elaborate projects, but every new method and appliance has a learning curve, which is why it’s usually best to start small and build your confidence before tackling something big and expensive.
When I first got my Weber Kettle, I couldn’t wait to smoke some meats, but doing it successfully hinges on being able to manipulate and control the air flowing through the charcoal grill. This takes some getting used to, so I dialed my immediate goals back a bit and focused on some simpler proteins.
In addition to hot dogs (which are almost too easy) I now feel completely confident cooking exactly two things on my Weber Charcoal grill—flank steak and chicken thighs. Mastering these two simple proteins has made me more relaxed around my grill and its vents, and each protein helped in its own way.
The steak helped me get a grasp on what really hot coals look and act like, and the chicken made the importance of two-zone grilling click into place. If you’re also a brand new grill baby, I highly recommend both meats as a good starting point for your own grill journey.
To get used to searing, fire up a flank steak
Flank steaks are thin and lean, and do best when cooked quickly over high heat, which is what makes them such great candidates for grilling. (You can pan sear one inside, but it can get quite smokey.) Cooking a flank is a great opportunity to get comfortable with very hot coals—it may seem straightforward, but it can be intimidating at first.
Flank steaks are also a little bit forgiving, provided you don’t overcook them into oblivion. The tenderness of the meat depends on how thinly you slice it—always make sure to cut perpendicular to those long muscle fibers—and even slightly overcooked flanks can taste tender and juicy when sliced properly and tossed with a board sauce. To make your first flank, you will need:
- 1 flank steak weighing around two pounds (Start with a smaller cut until you gain confidence—messing up two pounds of meat doesn’t feel as bad as messing up four.)
- The ingredients for a board sauce, if using
- Neutral oil, such as vegetable
- An instant-read meat thermometer
About an hour or two before cooking, salt each side of your steak heavily and then let it hang out in the fridge. Once you’re ready to get grilling, fill a chimney with charcoal and set it on your grill grate over something flammable. I use the Weber lighter cubes, but crumpled up newspaper works fine, too. (If you are using the cubes, you can light them and set the chimney on top; if you are using paper, set the chimney on top and then light it through the grates.) When you see a deep orange glow coming from the inside of the chimney, and the top coals are just starting to get ashy on the corners and edges, dump the coals onto one side of the grill and place the grill grate on top. Make sure the bottom vent is fully opened up, and go get your steak.
If your flank is lopsided, you can cut it into two portions or, if you are feeding a group of people who all like their steaks served at different degrees of doneness, embrace the fact that some portions will be more done than others. Blot the steak with paper towels and lightly coat it with a thin layer of neutral oil. (If you have cut your steak into two pieces, put the thick one on the grill about three minutes ahead of the thin one.)
Grill the steak for 3-4 minutes on each side, until you get a nice dark crust and the steak reaches an internal temperature of 125℉-135℉, depending on how well done you like your meat. (If you have someone in your crew who doesn’t like any pink in their meat, serve them the very ends.)
If you are serving your steak with a board sauce, pour the sauce onto the cutting board, place the hot steak on top of it, and slice the meat thinly—aim for 1/8th of an inch—across the grain, tossing the slices of meat with the oil, herbs, and the steak’s own meaty juices to make your sauce. If you’re not using a sauce, let the steak rest for five minutes before slicing thinly across the grain.
Chicken thighs will make you appreciate both zones
One of the keys to cooking effectively with your grill is really understanding the importance of a two-zone set up. To put it in indoor kitchen terms: The zone that’s directly over your coals is like a stovetop burner, and the side across from the coals is your oven. You can use these two zones just like you would your actual stove and oven to reverse sear almost anything, including some very delicious, immensely forgiving chicken thighs.
As I’ve mentioned previously, chicken thighs are a great beginner’s chicken, no matter how you cook them. Their high levels of fat and collagen mean they stay moist at high temperatures, so nothing tragic will happen if you underestimate just how hot your grill is and cook them a little over 170℉. (I do, however, recommend getting a thermometer with a probe that sits inside your grill—those little round ones on the top of your grill dome are just not that accurate).
I like to marinate my thighs overnight, but a few hours will work if that’s all you have (miso, buttermilk powder, and yogurt are my faves). Either way, let the chicken hang out in the fridge until you are read to toss it on the grill. To make grilled chicken thighs, you will need:
- Chicken thighs, as many as you want
- A marinade of your choice
- An instant-read meat thermometer
Mix up your marinade and slather it on your chicken. You can do this by adding everything to a freezer bag and tossing it together, or placing the thighs in a deep baking dish or pan and pouring the marinade over them and tossing to coat before covering with plastic wrap. Let the chicken hang out in the fridge for at least a few hours, ideally overnight.
Fill a chimney with charcoal and set it on your grill grate over something flammable. (If you are using the cubes, you can light them and set the chimney on top; if you are using paper, set the chimney on top and then light it through the grates.) When you see a deep orange glow coming from the inside of the chimney and the top coals are just starting to get ashy on the corners and edges, dump the coals onto one side of the grill and place the grill grate on top. Put the dome on the grill, make sure the bottom vent is fully open, and adjust the top vent so it’s about 1/3 of the way open. Let the temperature stabilize for 10-15 minutes and go get your chicken.
Wipe off any residual marinade with paper towels, then place the chicken on the indirect heat side of your grill (across from the coals) skin side up. Place the dome back on the grill, making sure the vented side is over the chicken (across from the coals) to allow the indirect, oven-like heat to flow from the coals to your food.
Let the chicken cook for 10 minutes, then check the temperature to see how it’s coming along. If it’s getting a little too hot too quickly, close the top vent a little more to calm it down. Flip the chicken over, place the dome back on top, and let it cook for another 10 minutes, then check the temp again.
Keep doing this—flipping and checking—until you reach an internal temperature of 150℉. Leave the dome off, and move the thighs over the coals to crisp up the skin. Flip them every couple of minutes until they have some nice color on both sides and reach their final temp of 165℉, though don’t sweat it if they get a little higher than that. I’ve had chicken thighs get as hot as 178℉ and—thanks to all of that very helpful and forgiving collagen—they were perfectly delicious.
Updated at 4:33 pm EST on 05/14/21 to include a note about lighting your starter.