WHEN IT COMES TO COOKING, the grill has long been man’s muse of choice. Even guys who tremble in fear at the sight of an omelet pan take to the open flame like disciples of Prometheus. And why not? After all, beneath those blackened grates lies a convergence of flavor and nutrition: a fire that melts fat and delivers heaping quantities of smoke and sizzle, the world’s greatest zero-calorie ingredients.
But that scorching Weber isn’t always the weight-loss weapon we want it to be. Consider this: We’ve found dozens of grilled dishes in the restaurant world with more than 1,000 calories per serving, from Cheesecake Factory’s 1,440-calorie pork chops to Chili’s Shiner Bock Ribs, which pack a belt-busting 2,310 calories per plate. Yes, it is possible to screw up food on the grill, and many well-intentioned cooks may be doing similar damage at home, choosing calorie packed meat cuts, coating them with sugary sauces, and serving them with a lousy supporting cast. These are all tactics that compromise the inherent goodness of the grill.
All that stops now. We’re here to restore the grill to its rightful place as a powerful weight-loss weapon. After testing hundreds of recipes for our newest book, Grill This, Not That!, we’ve developed six new rules of the grill that we guarantee will forever change the way you approach that cherished device in your backyard. Time to cook up some of the leanest, healthiest, and tastiest meat, fish, and vegetable dishes of the summer–and effortlessly drop pounds while you’re doing it.
RULE 1: Keep the Lean Cuts Juicy
A great marinade is a marvelous thing, but there’s an even simpler way to ensure that lean cuts like pork tenderloin, chicken breast, and shrimp come off the grill juicier, more tender, and seasoned all the way through: brining. Submerging pork, chicken, turkey, or shrimp in water enriched with salt and sugar helps to season the flesh from the inside out while plumping it up with moisture.
How long should you brine? The answer depends on the protein. Shell-on shrimp take just 30 minutes, while pork chops and chicken parts need an hour or two. A pork shoulder or whole chicken or turkey should soak overnight. And for even more flavor, you can customize your brine with additional seasonings (see below). No time or energy for a full brine? Just sprinkle kosher salt all over chicken, pork, or turkey a few hours before grilling.
Your Basic Brine–And Beyond
For a simple brine that works with any protein, combine 8 cups of water with 1/2 cup of kosher salt and 1/2 cup of light-brown sugar in a large pot.
Heat the mixture on high, stirring occasionally, just until the salt and sugar dissolve. Let the brine cool completely before using. Pour it into a large resealable container and add your protein of choice.
But why stop at basic brine? With this simple mixture as your base, you can add flavor with apple juice, honey, chilies, garlic cloves, bay leaves, orange peel, peppercorns, and/or rosemary, to name a few.
No matter what you use to flavor your liquid, make sure the brine covers the protein completely so it can penetrate evenly–and always keep both brine and protein covered and refrigerated.
RULE 2: Deploy Spice Rubs for Flavor
There’s no faster way to bring flavor to your grilled food than by using a spice rub. Most spices are nearly calorie-free vessels for powerful antioxidants, making a rub a healthier option than a heavy sauce. But you don’t need to use additive-laden store-bought rubs; a true grill-master develops his own spice blends.
Start with three basic ingredients: salt (kosher), sugar (light brown), and black pepper (fresh cracked, please!). Then you can tweak as you see fit. Cumin, chili powder, and cayenne are classics, but why not venture further afield? Try these grill-friendly spices: ground fennel seed for pork, cracked coriander on meaty fish like mahimahi, and chipotle chile powder for steaks. Our favorite grill spice of all, smoky Spanish paprika, adds a savory spin to everything from chicken thighs to sweet potatoes.
RULE 3: Make Salads Sizzle
If you’re using your grill just to sear steaks and char chicken, you’re missing out on some of its greatest virtues. The open flame concentrates flavors and creates new textures in summer produce. Here are three healthy ways to make the most of your grill.
1. Use fruits and vegetables–charred shiitake caps, blistered peppers, even grilled fruit–to ratchet up the flavor in your salad. A salad of grilled peaches with arugula, goat cheese, prosciutto, and toasted almonds deserves to be in your barbecue rotation.
2. Instead of pairing grilled meat or fish with chips, turn it into a protein-based salad. Pair grilled chicken with cherry tomatoes, green beans, pine nuts, and balsamic vinaigrette, or toss grilled tuna with asparagus, capers, olives, and honey-mustard dressing.
3. Light up your lettuce.
RULE 4: Add Smoke to the Fire
Grill marks on your food add great flavor, but nothing beats the savory depth of smoke. Fortunately, you don’t need the patience or the equipment to smoke a brisket, pork shoulder, or rack of ribs over hardwood for 8 hours. For rich barbecue flavor with minimal effort, add a packet of wood chips to your current grill setup. Here’s how to do it.
1. First, soak the wood chips in hot water for 30 minutes. (Not sure which wood to use? See our guide below Rule 3.) Then pack the chips into a small smoker box; Char-Broil’s Cast Iron Smoker Box ($16, charbroil.com) is a great option. You can also wrap the soaked chips in a foil packet poked with holes so the smoke can escape.
2. Place the smoker box or foil packet directly over the coals or flames just before you start barbecuing. Then add your protein and cook, keeping the grill lid closed to lock in the smoke.
Where There’s Smoke, There’s Flavor
Choose the right wood for your meal the same way you’d choose a wine: The stronger the dish, the more intense the wood flavor can be.
This intense wood works best for robust, hearty meats, like pork chops, chicken wings, and burgers.
This is the preferred wood of Texas beef masters, who use it to smoke brisket and sausage links.
These light-scented woods are best for delicate proteins, like chicken breast and salmon steaks.
Its assertive aroma makes it the chip of choice for pulled pork (see our recipe) and baby back ribs.
RULE 5: Take Vegetables International
Standard grilling practice for vegetables dictates the following formula: Coat with olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and grill until soft. It’s not a bad blueprint, but it misses out on the enormous opportunity to use the grill to transform vegetables into something far more exciting.
To break the monotony, try exotic but supermarket-friendly flavorings, like Thai green curry paste, North African harissa paste, spicy Vietnamese chile paste, tangy Chinese hoisin, and savory Japanese miso. Mix a spoonful into your sauce of choice, and these robust ingredients will add plenty of flavor with minimal calories–a perfect incentive to pile your plate with lots of produce.
Case in point: This global take on grilled corn. Mix equal parts softened butter and miso for an umami-packed spread that has fewer calories than straight butter.
RULE 6: Make Your Own Sauce
Sauces are game changers, capable of lifting grilled protein to new heights. Skip the store-bought ones (they usually contain high-fructose corn syrup) and concoct your own–you’ll save on calories and win on taste. Two tips:
For double the flavor, use your sauce for basting and dipping. And if your sauce has some sweetness, don’t apply it until the last 10 minutes of grilling to avoid scorching.
The Recipe for Sauce Supremacy
When you’re making a sauce, always think about balance: If it’s too spicy, a hit of sweetness will cool things off; if it’s too salty, a splash of acid will keep the sodium from numbing your tastebuds. Mix and match items from each of these flavor groups, and then taste and adjust. You can’t go wrong.
Ketchup, honey or honey mustard, brown sugar, molasses, maple syrup, or Chinese hoisin sauce
Soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, Asian fish sauce, white miso paste, or smooth peanut butter
Vinegar (red, white, or rice wine, balsamic, or cider are your best bets), lemon, lime, or orange juice
Chile sauces (like sriracha or Tabasco), Dijon mustard, minced canned chipotle chilies, or cayenne