Grilling FAQ: Gas Vs. Charcoal, Dry Rubs, Temperature, BBQ Sauce

Expert grillers weigh in on burning questions about cooking over fire

May is Grilling Month at Tasting Table.

Cooking food over fire is so simple—primitive, even—that everyone just naturally assumes that they're doing it right.

They're not. At least not according to anyone who's ever successfully flipped a burger on a grate and served it to someone who didn't complain.

We tapped a couple masters of the flame—author, hunter and "modern pioneer" Georgia Pellegrini and chef Jeremiah Bacon of Oak Steakhouse and The Macintosh (we're in awe of the size of their wood-fired grill) in Charleston, South Carolina—to weigh in on a few flame-cooking issues that tend to spark a debate.

And of course we couldn't help holding our food editor Andy Baraghani's feet to the fire, either:

Let's get the most historically heated debate out of the way. Devotees of gas grilling assert that it's cleaner and more convenient. Charcoal fans maintain that higher potential temperatures and rich smoke render their method the winner.

Bacon: Local wood would be his first choice, but after that he opts for gas because the temperature is more consistent, with fewer dramatic hot spots. And if he sees briquettes at a buddy's house, "I'll make it work, but it's not my first choice. It's that smell!"

Pellegrini: Local wood, too, but she's a charcoal champ: "For flavor purposes and high heat that lets you cook the outside quickly." She's recently experimented with new, gas-grill technology that delivers extra taste through steel bars, which catch and vaporize meat drippings back up to the grate, but right now she's Team Lump.

The TT Take: Wood, of course, but barring that, we'd go with lump charcoal. As Baraghani says, "It's always about flavor!" While he admits that gas is a simpler solution, the 500-degree-plus possibility of charcoal makes it his go-to every time.

And no matter which method you choose, you must have the right gear: Read Char & Away: Essentials for Open-Fire Cooking.

When you're dropping significant cash on a high-quality piece of meat to throw on the grill, you should pay extra attention to the details.

Pellegrini: She likes a marinade with a solid base of acid, rounded out by aromatics like garlic, cloves, orange or lemon peel and rosemary. "Moisture is always a good thing, and it breaks down the muscle tissue," she says. As an avid hunter, she tweaks the blend depending on the animal, its season and diet.

Bacon: Nothing gets between him and his ribeye or New York strip: just some salt, tellicherry pepper and maybe a hit of herbed butter when it's finishing. Enjoy.

The TT Take: When it comes to a rib eye or strip, Baraghani is with Bacon, "Maybe a dry rub but for the most part, salt, maybe some pepper. Call it a day."

Get the TT method for the perfect steak.

Granted, this is based in personal preference, but folks feel the feelings on the matter, so we couldn't resist asking.

Pellegrini: "I like my meat with the pulse still beating," she says. She takes her cuts and patties extra thick, and cooks them quickly over high heat to negate the possibility of any overdone-ness—a crime against the animal, in her book. "People have a fear of undercooked meat, but I feel like too much makes you lose the flavor!"

Bacon: Mid-rare-plus because of the way the fat in a great cut of meat will begin to render. If he's not the one cooking it, he'll preventively ask for medium: "Most people don't cook it correctly, and they think rare equals raw And some people like rare lamb or duck, but to me, that just chews like bubble gum."

The TT Take: Baraghani goes medium-rare most of the time, but never past. "The meat gets stringy," he says (and makes a pretty terrible face, which has us sure we're never grilling for him again).

Once you've reached your desired doneness, here's which wines pair best with your grilled goods.

People practically come to fisticuffs over the matter of sauce on grilled or smoked meat. That didn't quite happen here, but...

Bacon: Mustard sauce all the way—not a surprise seeing as he hails from a region of the country where that's practically a religion. "It's Carolina gold!" he crows. He'll allow for a tomato-based sauce on a piece of beef, but his enthusiasm wanes when it comes to vinegar. "It's...OK. But that's the last one I'd leave on the table."

Pellegrini: She'd pick up that vinegar first. "I like a little tang to balance out the fattiness of my meat," she says.

The TT Take: Baraghani proclaims, "Vinegar all the way! It cuts through the fat and you need it for your dish to be well-rounded."

Green peppercorn, chimichurri, romesco: We've got all the steak sauces you need right here.

Few foods are closer to the heart of the backyard griller than a flame-licked burger—but you always have to account for (and bear with) the griller's taste.

Pellegrini: Her mantra is that you should come hungry and wearing clothes you don't mind getting messy. "If you're eating meat, you should go big and you should go juicy," she says. Her patties are loosely hand-formed, not flat, not spherical, not "too precious" and they definitely out-heft the bread, which she says is only there to hold the whole thing together. "It's meat and is meant to be a little sloppy and delicious."

Bacon: He keeps his patty tight by tossing a big scoop back and forth between his hands "like a baseball" until it's solidly packed. Then he'll press down a thumbprint divot in the center, knowing that it'll pop back out when the meat heats up. The way the fat renders into the meat "will change your life."

The TT Take: Baraghani says, "Too much meat is just not enjoyable, but ultra-thin is no fun either." His burgers are hand-formed, "not a meatball or a dense patty, not too tight and not too loose," shaped into a thick round and pushed down in the center.

This way to burger heaven: Here's how to cook, and build, the perfect burger.

Heated enough for you? Bacon and Pellegrini will both be demonstrating their whole hog technique at the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival on May 30, so feel free to grill them in person, or in the comments below.