Image of food being cooked on a grill

Anyone can flip a burger or brown a bun on the grill, but to make the most of what may be summer’s greatest pleasure, you’ll want a top-rated gas or charcoal grill.

But even our highest-rated grills can’t make up for a lack of technique, so you might be looking to expand your grilling skill set.

More on Grills

Learning how to make use of hot and warm zones on the grill, flavor with smoke, and get great results cooking meat, fish, and vegetables over charcoal or an open flame will broaden your backyard recipe repertoire. It’s also a lot easier than you might think.

For these and other strategies that will make this grilling season sensational, we turned to two experts: Chris Lilly, a champion pitmaster who has won 15 World BBQ Championships and is a partner at Big Bob Gibson’s BBQ in Decatur, Ala.; and Meathead Goldwyn of Amazing Ribs, who is also the author of “Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling.”

In addition to their tips for getting great results with both gas and charcoal, we bring you our own advice on grill maintenance and great new barbecue gear. Get ready to grill like a pro.

Fire It Up

Whether your grill is gas or charcoal, always take the time to get it good and hot before you begin to cook. “You want to preheat your grill, just as you do when cooking in your oven,” says CR senior test project leader Cindy Fisher. “Preheating helps to achieve optimal temperature for grilling and to keep food from sticking to the grates,” Fisher says.

Our tests on gas grills show that you should preheat for at least 10 minutes. For a charcoal grill, our testers recommend using a chimney starter filled with coals and ignited by lighting crumpled newspaper (or a fire starter) below the chimney. Avoid lighter fluid and self-lighting coals, which can produce an off-taste that distorts the flavor of your food.

“You want the coals to be fully lit and covered in a layer of fine, white ash,” Goldwyn says, noting that the process takes about 15 minutes and is well worth the wait. “Charcoal briquettes burn at their hottest and won’t distort the flavor of your food with heavy smoke if you let them ignite fully.” For the lowdown on the differences between lump coal and charcoal briquettes, check out our charcoal cook-off

Grill in Zones

You’d never cook everything in your oven at 500° F, but that’s effectively what’s happening when you turn on all of a grill’s burners or distribute charcoal evenly across the bottom of the firebox. Instead, opt for a zone defense. “On a gas grill, turn one or two burners on and leave the others off,” Lilly says. “For charcoal, light your coals, then push them all to one side of the grill.” Use the hot side of the grill for searing and the cooler side for cooking meats (and other foods) all the way through without burning.

“I’ll cook chicken on the indirect side of the grill until it hits about 150° F, then move it to the hot side to crisp up the skin and cook it through to 165° F,” Goldwyn says. He explains that the technique allows you to cook burn-prone foods, such as skin-on chicken, over low heat, then finish on the hot side of the grill.

Season With Smoke

Smoke, from wood chips or chunks, is used by skilled grillers to impart even more flavor. “I tell beginners to think of smoke as a seasoning or dry rub,” Lilly says. “You want it to lend flavor but not to overwhelm what you’re cooking.”

Package instructions often call for soaking the wood chips or chunks before using them, but both of our experts agree that there’s no need for this step—the chips barely absorb any of the water, and they quickly dry in a fire anyway. If you’re cooking with charcoal, simply throw the wood onto lit coals. “In a gas grill, I like to use wood chips in a smoker box, or put whole chunks of wood right on top of the shields that cover the grill’s burners,” Goldwyn says.

Lilly adds that the quantity and age of the wood typically influence flavor more than the wood variety (apple, cherry, or hickory, for instance) and that you need to experiment to get smoke just right, starting with small quantities and working your way up. “I encourage people to try using wood local to their area, dried or seasoned for at least four months after cutting,” Lilly says. You can also buy bags of preseasoned wood.

Chunks burn longer and hotter, but Lilly says he uses chips when smoking in a small grill because a chunk of wood that flares can raise the temperature too high.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the July 2018 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.