LIGHTING UP Hot tips for outdoor cooking

Current research shows that three out of four American households own a barbecue grill. More than half use a gas grill; yet more than half also own a charcoal grill.
Gas grill ownership is on the rise but many gourmet cooks favor charcoal for the best all-around flavor. On a charcoal grill you can use fragrant wood as a fuel or add herb sprigs to the coals to enhance flavor.
Respect lighter fluid. Don't overuse highly combustible lighter fluid, which can lead to serious fires. Apply evenly on briquettes and allow to soak for a few minutes before lighting. Never add fluid to hot or even warm coals.
Start with a hot fire. Briquettes generally take 25 to 30 minutes to reach the desired temperature. Start grilling when a light gray ash covers the coals.
Stop peeking. A common mistake outdoor chefs make is constantly lifting the lid to check the food while it's cooking. Heat escapes every time the lid goes up, increasing cooking time and chance of flare-ups.
Let the vents work. Vents on the top, sides and bottom of the grill are there to help circulate air during grilling.
Don't keep flipping. Whether cooking hamburgers, chicken, steaks or fish, turn the item once, halfway through the grilling time. This helps seal in juices and keep burgers from breaking apart.
Reach for tongs. Long-handled tongs do a better job than a fork for turning. Using a fork releases juices and flavor.
Fire and water don't mix. Don't use a spray bottle to snuff out flare-ups. Steam vapors can cause burns. And, cool water sprayed on a hot grill can damage the finish. Prevent flare-ups by trimming meat of fat.
Use skewers to cut down on serving tasks. Soak wooden skewers in water for 30 minutes before using and they won't burn. To keep food from slipping off during cooking use two skewers instead of one.
Buy thick steaks. A steak that is at 11/4 inches thick improves chances of success. Remove steaks from cooking source about two minutes before you think they are done. The temperature continues to go up as the steaks sit off the heat source.
Source: The Old Farmer's Almanac 1999 Home Owner's Companion
The Memorial Day holiday is the traditional start of summer and the barbecuing season. Bigger, better and more user friendly grills are on the market. Today's backyard chefs are making everything from seared cheese to roasted vegetables as Americans grill more than ever. Search for grilling or barbecuing on the Internet and you'll find thousands of sites about equipment, sauces, marinades, recipes and cooking techniques. A survey noted that Americans:
Spend nearly 2 billion hours grilling each summer.
Grill 2.3 times a week on average.
Play host to 1,786 million cookouts.
Spend 61.5 minutes when they cook on the grill.
Own more gas grills (58 percent) than charcoal grills (42 percent).
Prefer the taste of charcoal but need the convenience of gas (42 percent).
Source: Weber Grillwatch Survey
Here's a quick guide on how to tell how hot your grill is burning. Hold the palm of your hand six inches above the coals that have been arranged in a pyramid in the center of the grill If heat forces you to pull your hand away within:
2 seconds: The grill is hot -- at least 400 degrees. Use at your own risk. Keep a close watch on items being cooked. This can be a great temperature to grill if you are able to control the heat by raising or lowering the cooking surface.
3 seconds: The grill is medium-hot -- at least 350 degrees but no more than 400. This is a good temperature to cook thin cuts of meat and fish and to start the cooking process if you will be using indirect heat.
4 seconds: The grill is medium -- at least 300 degrees but no more than 350. This is the ideal temperature to cook thicker cuts of meat and seafood.
5 seconds: The grill is medium-low -- at least 250 degrees but no more than 300. This is an ideal temperature to smoke or slow cook.
For thicker cuts, sear meat or seafood at medium-hot temperature and then cook indirectly until the grill has cooled to medium.
The lower the temperature you use and the thicker the cut you choose, the more imperative it is to check the internal temperature before serving. Bone-in meats take longer to cook than boneless.
If you are slow cooking or smoking, don't wait until the temperature is medium-low to add charcoal. Begin adding when the grill is medium.
Pre-heat on high for 10 minutes after starting the grill.
Once the grill is hot, clean cooking surface with a wire brush.
Set knobs to the desired cooking temperature and start grilling.