People have debated the merits of using a lid on their grills as long as grills have been around. While it is true that the earliest BBQ grills were used primarily to grill steaks and burgers, grilling connoisseurs over the years have experimented with more and more food types. Today, people are just as likely to grill fruits and vegetables as they are to grill meats. They are also just as likely now to cook a thick roast on the grill as a few hot dogs. There’s no doubt about it, backyard grilling today is a sophisticated art form.
Grilling with the lid open or shut has spawned at least as many arguments as which came first, the chicken or the egg? Experimentation with degree of doneness and flavor, along with basic science, has dictated the reasons why a lid should be closed while grilling.
It is still true that any meat or vegetable that cooks fast should be grilled over an open flame. In the case of hamburgers, hot dogs, steaks, and chops, a fast searing results in an appetizing presentation in addition to the perfect degree of doneness. Most grill aficionados agree that a steak crusty on the outside and rare in the middle is the gold standard of grilling, and you can’t get that combination by cooking the steak with the lid closed.
However, if you are planning to cook thick cuts of meat, such as roasts, or bone-in duck or chicken, or if you want your food to have a smoky flavor, you should grill with the lid down. Here’s why:
• A closed lid, just like a closed oven door, increases the temperature inside the grilling unit. The increased heat in the air works in conjunction with the heat generated by the coals. This combination ensures that a thick cut of meat will cook evenly, remain moist, and not get burned.
• A closed lid prevents too much oxygen from reaching the coals. The more oxygen, the hotter the coals and the better chance for flame-ups that burn the food rather than just searing it. Adjusting the air vents and keeping the lid down allows you to fine tune the internal temperature of the grill.
• A closed lid retains flavored smoke. Wood chips added to the coals for the purpose of imparting a smoky flavor won’t work with an open lid; the flavored smoke has to permeate the meat in order to impart the flavor; if you grill with the lid open, your smoke flavor will simply dissipate into the air.
Flare-ups are going to happen no matter how much you fiddle with the air flow vents. To alleviate the flare-ups, put all the coals on one side of the grill; sear the meat, then transfer the meat to the other side of the grill and continue cooking with a closed lid. The grease drippings won’t fall onto hot coals, which cause flare-ups, but the meat will continue to cook and stay moist. You can then put foil-wrapped vegetables, such as potatoes, on the coal side. There will be no drippings and the vegetables will cook evenly.
Cooks have been admonished for years about not basting the meat with a sauce until the very end of the cooking cycle; that was because the sauce would splatter and cause flame-ups. By searing on one side of the grill and removing the meat to the side without coals, you can continually baste the meat; imparting great flavor without the risk of burning the exterior of the food.
When cooking with a closed lid, which imitates a conventional oven, it’s best to use a grill thermometer, just as you use an oven thermometer indoors. After all, you wouldn’t shove a beef roast into the oven and cook it without knowing the temperature.
The best way to figure out whether or not you need to cook your food on the grill with the lid down is to think about how you would cook that food indoors. If you would cook it on the stove top, leave the grill lid up. If you would cook it in the oven, or sear it first and finish it in the oven, then cook with the lid down.