Hill Country's Elizabeth Karmel on Rookie Grilling Mistakes, New York's Barbecue, and Southern Restaurants

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Hill Country chef Elizabeth Karmel.
Yesterday, we brought you a the first half of an interview with Hill Country's Elizabeth Karmel, in which she talked about plans for her new restaurant, Hill Country Chicken, and why she feels women need particular encouragement to fire up the grill.

Here, in the second half of the Q&A, Karmel talks about common rookie grilling mistakes and how to avoid them, the state of barbecue in New York, and the worst mistake she's ever made in the kitchen.


What's the most common rookie mistake people make when backyard grilling, and how can they avoid it?

Probably the biggest mistake is not preheating the grill.

Here's the basic rule of thumb: When you light charcoal, you want to wait until it's covered in light gray ash. If it's still flaming you don't want to cook on it yet. With a chimney, when the charcoal's ready, I pour it into the kettle grill and then I put the lid on and let the whole inside of the grill heat up for about 10 minutes, so that the cooking grate is good and hot and sterilized, and you've got consistent heat inside.

With a gas grill, preheat it with the lid down, just like you preheat an oven with the door closed, right? Preheat it with all the burners on high for 10 to 15 minutes, and then turn the burners down depending on what you're going to cook. So you can see that charcoal, at its easiest, takes 35 to 40 minutes to be ready, and the slowest gas grill takes 15 minutes.

And then you want to clean the grill with a bristle brush or a piece of crumpled-up aluminum foil that you hold with tongs. Give it a good brush, use a bit of elbow grease. And after you're done grilling, on a gas grill, turn all the burners back on high and brush it again.

If you brush a grill twice a cook-out -- just like you brush your teeth -- it will never be a big job to clean up. Like a cast-iron skillet, you don't want to obsessively clean it. Just that brushing is fabulous. If you really want to get crazy you can clean it with a sponge and soapy water once a year. But you don't need grill cleaner. Anything that's stuck on, when you put it over high heat, it will turn to light gray ash that's easy to brush off. [As with a cast-iron skillet], the more you cook on those cooking grates, the better; it will get that seasoned layer on it and food won't stick.

A lot of grill writers tell people to oil the grate. No, you oil the food not the grate. When I say this to students, I've literally had people break down in tears, like it's some New Age self-help class. So many people tell you to dip a rag in oil and wipe the grill. That oil is a torch waiting to happen! Can't you just see it now?

That's No. 1. Then oil has a low burn point, so the instant it hits the grate it smokes and burns, and becomes tacky and sticky. ... Now you're like gluing your food to the cooking grate. ... People perpetuate these myths. I think it comes from short-order cooks. When you go order an egg and cheese sandwich the cook wipes the grill with a rag dipped in oil. But that's a flattop, that's different. That's where I think the tradition came from.

Other than Hill Country, are there any other barbecue restaurants you like in New York?

I love all of my friends who are doing authentic barbecue, from Dinosaur Bar-B-Que to Blue Smoke. They really paved the way for all of us. R.U.B., Fatty 'Cue -- anyone who's really using a smoker and cooking it at a low temperature for a long period of time using wood, I think they're doing a good job.

There are barbecue chains that don't use smokers, which rely a lot on sweet red sauce to make the barbecue, and cook meat in ovens. That's what used to be pervasive across the country, unless you went to the authentic places on the barbecue trail. It's not my style, but certainly there are a lot of people who love it.

It thrills me that so many people are opening barbecue restaurants. Who would have thought? It's a lot of trouble. You have to build the chimney, the vent system. It's exciting to have this barbecue renaissance in New York.

The Big Apple Barbecue is my favorite weekend in the city. You can walk around Madison Square Park and it's like a two-week trip on the barbecue trail. New York is bringing the country to the city. ... It warms the cockles of my heart to see so many people loving barbecue and being willing to stand in line for an hour and a half to get a taste. That, probably, is even more exciting than restaurateurs opening up barbecue restaurants.



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