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Beginner’s Guide to Cooking Vietnamese Food at Home

June 8, 2020 - Reading time: 10 minutes

For those looking to explore different world cuisines, Vietnamese food is a great place to start. It uses everything from tofu to beef to shrimp, so there is something to satisfy every taste at your table. Communal dining is a natural part of Vietnamese cuisine, so it’s always a good idea to serve the meal with a variety of sauces, fresh herbs, and sides to enhance any dining experience—large or small.

The best part is, today’s grocery stores carry more products that align with the ever-growing demand for global food. Once hard-to-find ingredients are now readily available at your local market. If you can’t find what you need in the global foods aisle, check out the health food section, where you’re bound to find specialty ingredients like rice noodles and coconut milk.

Ask an Expert! Andrea Nguyen

To learn more about exploring Vietnamese food in my own home, I turned to an expert in Vietnamese cooking, celebrated cookbook author Andrea Nguyen.

I spent some time talking with her via telephone from her California home and reading her most recent book, Vietnamese Food Any Day, where she shares her favorite ingredients, tools, and techniques to get you started cooking flavorful Vietnamese dishes in your home, too.

Want a deeper dive into Vietnamese cooking? Order a signed copy of Andrea’s book Vietnamese Food Any Day from The Simply Shop.


A key difference between Vietnamese cooking and Western cooking is assembly. Part of the dining experience is building every bite at the table—one person may add a sauce that the other person doesn’t. Another may add a bundle of fresh herbs, while someone else adds only a sprig or two. Offering variety and allowing those at your table to express their own tastes with what you’ve offered is part of the experience.

Vietnamese food is rich with chilies, fresh herbs, lemongrass, and bold umami flavors from meat, sauces, and cooking techniques.


  • Chiles: Andrea recommends keeping Thai, jalapeño, Fresno or serrano chilies on hand. If you’re worried you won’t use them up in time, just freeze them!
  • Fresh Herbs: Cilantro and mint are considered essentials, but if you have basil on hand—Thai or otherwise—it adds a nice touch.
  • Ginger: Look for ginger with few knobby nooks and crannies—it’s easier to clean. It will keep for about a month in the fridge.
  • Lemongrass: Andrea recommends fresh lemongrass when available. If you do find it, get enough to freeze, so you have some on hand. It will keep for up to three months.


  • Spices: Chinese 5 Spice Powder and Madras-style curry powder are at the top of Andrea’s list.
  • Chili Garlic Sauce: You can find a recipe to make your own Chili Garlic Sauce at home in Vietnamese Food Any Day, but if you want to buy it pre-made look for one that has a nice balance of heat and tang. Andrea recommends Huy Fong.
  • Fish Sauce: Fish sauce adds oomph to a dish. It’s like an umami flavor bomb. Not all fish sauces are made the same, however. Andrea’s favorite brand is Red Boat, while Three Crabs and Megachef round out her top three picks.


You’ll find everything from wheat, rice, and bean noodles in Vietnamese cuisine. If you can’t find them in the global foods aisle of your store, then check out the gluten-free or health food section.

  • Flat Rice Noodles, Rice Paper, Jasmine Rice, and Round Rice Noodles: Check out the Three Ladies brand. You can also find it at Cost Plus World Market or other Asian markets.
  • Chinese Wheat Noodles: Look for Golden Dragon and Wel-Pac brands.


Vietnamese dishes span a wide range of proteins—everything from tofu to beef, pork, and shrimp can be used—sometimes interchangeably.

  • Tofu: Tofu is like a flavor sponge, taking on the spices and sauces of the dish. It comes in different levels of firmness, so check the recipe to make sure you’re picking up the one you need. If you’re new to tofu, don’t worry; it’s easier to work with than you might think.
  • Shrimp: Shrimp can be huge or tiny. They are generally sold by the count, and per pound. For example, when you see 36/40 on a pound of shrimp it means you will receive between 36 to 40 shrimp per pound. You can buy pre-peeled shrimp, but you will have better results if you peel and devein the shrimp yourself.
  • Chicken: This is such a versatile ingredient. If you’re going to play with Vietnamese flavors and chicken, Char Siu Chicken is a great place to start.


One of my favorite things about Andrea’s book is how she makes it comfortable for the novice to experiment with Vietnamese cooking styles and flavors. The “Essential Equipment” section of her book is noticeably lacking in extravagant kitchen devices.

She recommends common kitchen tools such as a large pot, a grill pan or outdoor grill, and a skillet.

Once you cook your way through a few recipes, you might realize you’d like to upgrade some of your kitchen equipment. If that’s the case, Andrea recommends a carbon steel wok (because it’s light and conducts heat well) and a simple bamboo steamer.


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4 Ways to Pit Cherries If You Don’t Have a Cherry Pitter

June 24, 2020 - Reading time: 9 minutes

Cherries are a relatively low-maintenance fruit because there’s no peeling or coring, but you do still need to pit them!

If you only cook with cherries a few times a year, it might not be worth it to get a designated cherry pitter. Here are four other ways you can pit cherries to get them ready for the pies, preserves, and cakes you are dreaming of!

A bowl of cherries with a handheld cherry pitter to the right to show how to pit cherries.


Cherries have pits, and if you don’t like cracking your fillings, you need to get those pits out before you eat them.

It’s best to remove stems before pitting the cherries. Also, I recommend wearing an apron. Cherry juice spatters quite a bit, and it stains.

Sour cherries are not as firm as sweet cherries. To make pitting easier, chill sour cherries in a bowl of ice water for about half an hour before pitting them.

If you want to use a cherry pitter, by all means, do! Handheld cherry pitters pit cherries one by one. They work well, although the juice guard on some models is too small to allow big cherries to fit. Some of these pitters even double as olive pitters!

Hopper-style cherry pitters can pit a batch of cherries fairly quickly. The cherries go in a hopper, and a spring-mounted plunger drives out the pit and shoots it into a catcher. For pie bakers, this is a good option.

A chef's knife with a partially split cherry with the stem and pit romoved is to the left. A large bowl of cherries is to the right showing the best way to pit cherries.

Best ways to pit cherries with a chopstick stuck through a red cherry with the pit laying next to it. A bowl of cherries is in partial view to the right.OTHER WAYS TO PIT CHERRIES

  • Use the flat of a knife: Lay a cherry on a cutting board. Smack it with the flat part of your knife’s blade. This demolishes the cherry, but it works.
  • Use a paper clip: Take a large paper clip and pry it open so it makes an elongated S shape. Hold the cherry with one hand. Dig one loop end of the paper clip into the cherry, twist the fruit, and fish out the loosened pit with the clip.
  • Use a chopstick: Take a bamboo chopstick (the kind that comes with takeout sushi works best). Holding the cherry in one hand, poke the chopstick straight through the cherry to drive the pit out. (A firm, reusable straw works if you don’t have a chopstick.)
  • Use a pastry tip: Take a large metal pastry tip (one that’s not fluted). Set it upright on a cutting board. Push stemmed cherries through the tube.

Best way to pit cherries with a straightened paper clip poked inside a cherry. A pitted cherry is behind it along with a large bowl of cherries.

How to pit cherries with a metal pastry tip with a cherry on top with the pit popped out. A bowl of cherries are in partial view to the right.


How to Choose a Grill

June 9, 2020 - Reading time: 31 minutes

At any backyard gathering, the grill is the center of the action. There’s probably no other piece of cooking equipment that provokes such fierce debate and loyalty.

If you’re buying a grill for the first time, how do you know what’s right for you? Should you get an expensive model, or something basic? What about gas or charcoal?

There’s a grill out there that’s just right for you, and we’re here to steer you in the right direction! Don’t be swayed by bells and whistles; a solid grill that makes sense for your lifestyle is the best starting point.


Even though there are a handful of grill styles, grill selection is essentially a question of gas or charcoal. Either can give you excellent results. Below we break down the merits and drawbacks of each.

How to Turn Your Kettle Grill into a Smoker

Charcoal grills

With these grills, you light a fire with charcoal (either lump or briquettes). You need a supply of charcoal on hand in order to work a charcoal grill, so if you don’t have that, you can’t grill on a whim. Also, he next day after you grill, you’ll need to dispose of the leftover ash.

The tradeoff for that inconvenience? Flavor. Charcoal smoke infuses your food with that irresistible backyard-cookout taste. The flavor is not so apparent with quickly grilled things like chicken breasts and burgers, but low and slow foods like ribs (which need hours of gentle heat over the coals) pick up terrific notes of smoke and wood.

A charcoal fire, at least when it’s first lit, also generates far more heat than a gas grill, so if you like a nice sear on your steaks, that’s a good thing to keep in mind!

Unlike a gas grill, you can’t just tweak knobs on a charcoal grill to adjust the heat; instead, you use vents and dampers to control air intake, which will either fuel or subdue your flames. This takes some getting used to, but when you get the hang of it, you’ll feel really cool—like a fire maven!

place brined ribs on grill

Pros of charcoal grills:

  • Usually less expensive than gas grills
  • Burns hotter at first for a better sear on meat
  • Creates more flavorful foods from wood smoke

Cons of charcoal grills:

  • Temperature is harder to control
  • Need to keep briquettes or charcoal on hand
  • Messy: Charcoal is powdery, ash is a pain to clean
  • Lead time of getting fire ready (takes about 30 minutes to heat properly)

gas grill set up for barbecuing

Gas Grills

Over 60 percent of Americans who own grills have gas grills. They’re convenient and have a gentle learning curve.

You can get a decent gas grill for under $200. You can also spend more than $2,000! You can get a free rusty one on Craigslist. I did, once. It looked awful but worked fine.

Gas grills use easily obtainable 20-pound propane tanks that will deliver around 25 hours of fuss-free grilling. You can also convert many propane grills to run on your house’s natural gas line.

Unlike charcoal grills, gas grills heat quickly. You ignite them and, depending on what you need to grill, they’re often ready to go in less than 10 minutes.

If you want convenience and the ability to grill at a moment’s notice, gas is the way to go.

You can also control the heat with a mere twist of a knob. And since most gas grills have multiple burners, you can effortlessly create distinct areas of the grill where it’s hotter and cooler. This is very handy when you’re cooking multiple types of food all at once.

Since there’s no charcoal burning, there’s no smoke. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get wonderful results from a gas grill; food cooked in one just won’t have that campfire-kissed essence.

However, gas grills don’t get as hot as charcoal grills. BTUs (British Thermal Units) measure how much energy a gas grill can put out, but it does not necessarily translate to how much heat hits your food. So, when shopping for a gas grill, consider other factors beyond an impressively large BTU.

Pros of gas grills:

  • Easy to control temperature with knobs
  • Multiple burners for effortless different temperature zones
  • Allow you to grill on a whim
  • No messy disposal of ashes

Cons of gas grills:

  • Don’t get as hot as charcoal grills
  • Food has less of a smoky flavor
  • Generally more expensive than charcoal grills

grill chicken cutlets


Weber’s kettle grills are iconic. You can get many sizes and features, but they all have the same shape, with a round grilling surface. These grills have stood the test of time, and their trusty performance has earned a following. Their classic 22-inch grill runs about $100.

A rectangular hibachi grill is for tabletop grilling. These are meant to take along on picnics and such for direct-heat grilling (burgers and hot dogs). Some are quite flimsy; spending an extra $20 can really be worthwhile with these. Expect to drop $40 for a decent one.

I’m a PK girl, myself. Portable Kitchen grills are hefty cast aluminum charcoal grills, and they last for ages. I know, because mine is older than me—my parents bought it in the 1960s. At $370, a new one is an investment. If handing a workhorse of a charcoal grill down to your grown children is important to you, this is the grill to get.

thermometer in gas grill


Weber and Char-Broil are two of the most popular brands of gas grills, but there are tons of specialty and boutique brands, too. The average entry-level gas grill will run you about $250. After that, the sky’s the limit.


If you’re a hands-on, curious cook who is all about the process, get a charcoal grill. You’ll probably enjoy building the fire, positioning the coals to create the flow of heat you need, and appreciate the nostalgic aspect of charcoal burning. That smell evokes carefree times outdoors like absolutely nothing else.

If you primarily grill low-and-slow foods like ribs, get a charcoal grill. Low and slow foods that need hours of gentle heat over the coals will pick up those smoke and wood notes, which makes using charcoal worthwhile.

If you want to want to grill food basically right away, get a gas grill. I’ll be honest: I’ve had gas grills before, and I grilled a lot more frequently when I did. If it’s cold or rainy or I’m not wanting to wait half an hour to get a bed of coals going, I don’t mess with a charcoal grill. With a gas grill, you can be grilling in 10 minutes.

If you primarily grill quick-cooking foods, get a gas grill. Wood smoke is great, but it does not permeate things like steaks, burgers, sausages, or veggie kabobs, because they’re not on the grill that long. If those foods make up the bulk of what you intend to grill, go for a gas grill.


Pellet grills run on electricity but burn specially-made hardwood pellets for the actual heat (and smoke). You feed the pellets into a hopper, which dispenses them as needed to keep a steady temperature. They can give you the best of both gas and charcoal grills.

Traeger is the best-known manufacturer, and their grills can run between $800-$2000.

Cambria’s in-laws have owned their Traeger for 15 years. They say this about it:

We get smoke flavor with ease as it burns wood pellets with no ash or cleanup, and there are many varieties of pellets easily available such as hickory, mesquite, cherry. We’ve used our Traeger to smoke a brisket, which is very easy and imparts a mouthwatering smoky flavor. Also, chicken breast is the juiciest you’ve ever tasted and always turns out perfectly!

Kamado-style grills

Kamado-style grills are beefy, handsome, and shaped like eggs. Some are stainless steel, but most are encased in ceramic or earthenware. There are gas and charcoal models of these, but the brands with the most prestige are charcoal. They are very heavy and heat evenly.

You don’t need to use as much charcoal to get a fire going—and lasting. Most of these grills are round, so it’s tricky to set them up for two-zone heat (the coals banked on one side) because of the shape and the heat distribution of the ceramic. They give steady heat, but this also means it’s hard to get their temperature to go down if you get it too hot. They work best for direct grilling, and as foxy outdoor ovens (think pizza and paella).

The most popular type of kamado grill is the Big Green Egg, which sells for around $1,300.

Electric grills

Electric grills don’t cook over flames or coals. They are really just bigger, stronger George Foreman grills (hardcore grilling aficionados snort at them derisively). They won’t deliver the flavor or heat of charcoal or gas grills. However, if you live in a place where neither is allowed and you’d like to cook outdoors, an electric grill could be the viable option.


Smokers are their own beasts. A grill can be a smoker but a smoker is not always a grill. Confused? You can set up most any grill to smoke meats, but for people who really love smoking meat, dedicated smokers allow more control over temperature and smoke release, and often offer more surface area to hold foods.

You don’t fire up a specialty smoker to cook a few burgers. Usually, people fall in love with grilling, learn to smoke on their grill, and then branch out to investing in a smoker.

Smokers start around $150 but can go way higher than that.

how to grill italian sausage with bell peppers and onions


PORTABILITY: If you frequently go car camping, on picnics, or tailgating, do you want a grill you can take with you? Perhaps you’d like to stash your grill in a shed when you’re not using it. Some grills are easy to wheel from one corner of the patio to another, while others are unwieldy. Consider how portable or permanent you need a grill to be.


Side shelves connected to your grill can be very handy. However, if you need a grill with a small footprint because you don’t have a lot of room, you can always use small folding tables if your grill doesn’t come with any side shelves.

A chimney is an invaluable way to get a charcoal fire going quickly. A grill chimney is a metal cylinder with a handle. You fill it with charcoal, then put scrunched-up paper in the cavity beneath. After lighting the paper on fire the concentrated heat and flames ignite the charcoal. Once the charcoal is covered with white ash (10-15 minutes), you dump out the coals in the pit of the grill. No flammable liquids or cheater sticks required!

Lighting fluid and self-lighting charcoal are made with petrochemicals, and when they burn, they smell like petrochemicals. Food cooked over them tastes like chemicals. We don’t recommend them. So, spend about $20 on a chimney and you won’t need to worry.

Chicken Satay Skewers grill the chicken


Any grill involves fire, so there’s always a safety concern. Propane gas is explosive.

Some condos and apartments don’t allow charcoal grills because of the fire hazard. Make sure you do your legwork before you buy.

You can splurge on grills kitted out with extra burners, griddles, powerful lights for night grilling, and even Bluetooth enabling. But ultimately, a grill is only as good as the skills of the person using it. Thankfully, we’ve got tips on that, too!


Summer Cookbook Club

June 9, 2020 - Reading time: 6 minutes

Longing to travel again? Looking for new recipe inspiration? You’re in the right place! One of our team’s favorite ways to learn about new cuisines and flavors is through travel, and since we’re limited this year, we thought we’d try exploring in a new way.

You’re officially invited to join us for our first ever summer cookbook club, where we’ll learn about a new global cuisine each month.

The Official Lineup

  • June: Vietnamese Food Any Day, by Andrea Nguyen (buy a signed copy from us and get a travel postcard and a playlist compiled by Andrea herself!)
  • July: Sababa by Adeena Sussman (buy a signed copy from us and The Spice House will send you a package of Middle Eastern spices to inspire your cooking. Plus, that playlist!)
  • August: My Mexico City Kitchen by Gabriela Camara (buy a signed copy from us and The Spice House will send you a package of Mexican spices to inspire your cooking. Plus, that playlist!))

Live Cooking Demos

Every Thursday at 11am PST, a different member from our team will be doing a live cooking demo on Instagram. Mark your calendar so you don’t forget, and join us there! If you’d like to cook along with us, great, or you may just want to pop in and see how it’s done!

Thursday 8/6: Shredded Steak Salad
Thursday 8/13: Sopa de Flore de Calabaza
Thursday 8/20: Sopes Playeros
Thursday 8/27: Mussels in Chipotle Cream Sauce

Thursday 7/9: Tahini Blondies
Thursday 7/16: Moroccan Fish Cakes
Thursday 7/23: Za’atar Chili Bread
Thursday 7/30: Shawarma Pargiyot

Author Interviews, Ingredient Spotlights and More!

Each week you can expect a new email ranging from an introduction to the month’s cuisine, a great author interview, spice profile, product profile and more!

Cookbook Club Posts You May Have Missed

Cook On Your Own & Share With the Club!

Even if you can’t make the live events, we’d love it if you try the week’s recipe on your own time and share (OR any other recipe from the book you’re excited about). If you’re comfortable sharing a photo on social media (Instagram or Facebook), show us what you’re cooking and be sure to tag #summercookbookclub so we can all follow along. 

I’m In! Where Should I Buy My Books?

We’re partnering with Beach Books, an independent bookstore in Seaside OR, to ship SIGNED copies right to your door. With your book purchase, you’ll also receive:

  • Charming travel postcard designed in-house
  • Collection of each author’s favorite music to play in the kitchen
  • Free shipping
  • The chance to support an independent bookstore

Let’s Learn Together!

We can’t wait to learn more about new flavors and approaches to food this summer, and we’re really excited to cook right along with you!

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Q & A with Cookbook Author Andrea Nguyen

June 10, 2020 - Reading time: 11 minutes

This post is part of our Summer Cookbook Club series for June 2020 featuring Andrea Nguyen’s book, Vietnamese Food Any Day.

Andrea Nguyen is the kind of person you want to sit down and have a beer with. She immediately puts you at ease, welcomes you to learn, and offers a seat at her table.

This friendly accessibility and willingness to share her vast knowledge of Vietnamese cuisine (and its many tributaries, influences, and influencers) is exactly what has endeared her blog, Viet World Kitchen, and her cookbooks to thousands of people across the globe.

Her most recent book, Vietnamese Food Any Day, was released in 2019. In it she shares recipes for Vietnamese dishes—from the simple to the complex—and pages of insight on ingredients and the ever evolving role of global food in the American marketplace.

I spent some time talking with her via telephone from her California home. Below is an excerpt from our conversation.

  • Want a deeper dive into Vietnamese cooking? Andrea’s book, Vietnamese Food Any Day, is our Summer Cookbook Club pick for June! Visit The Simply Shop to order a signed copy. If you want to cook along with us, visit the Simply Recipes IG stories for live cooking demos on Thursdays at 1 p.m. CST.

Q: Why is it important for Vietnamese food to feel accessible to the home cook?

I came to this country as a refugee. There were so many things that my family and I needed to learn—how to behave, social mores—and I bring that to cooking. I think, “How do I explain this to people so they don’t feel uncomfortable? So they think, ‘Yes, I can do this.’

I also try to communicate food so it has context to it. I’m sensitive to providing that kind of information to people so there is a deeper understanding. Plus, I came here at such a young age, so I straddle American and Vietnamese cultures. I think of my work as bridging different perspectives.

Q: What are the fundamental elements of Vietnamese Cooking?

You need to know how to make the dipping sauce Nuoc Cham. If you are beginning, and you want two things to turn almost any dish into a Vietnamese dish, the Nuoc Cham dipping sauce and the Any Day Pickle will do that. If you have those two things down, you can do anything!

You can use Nuoc Cham as a sauce, a dressing, splash it in the pan with noodles. With the pickles, you can have a good old fashioned American BBQ and add that pickle with some dipping sauce on the side, and you’ve got a Vietnamese meal that may not have started out that way. Throw together something simple, add that pickle, and you’re home.

Those are two uniquely Vietnamese recipes people can use to give your food a Vietnamese makeover.

Q: What techniques are important to master?

So many foods are eaten with rice paper or with lettuce and herbs. I feel like those techniques are important for people to master so they are comfortable whether eating at a restaurant or at home.

Rice paper is all about how you work with it and manipulate it. It looks so simple, but whenever I teach a class and I get to the rice paper part, the whole class stops.

The problem is there is a lot of bad information out there about how you dip rice paper in water. You’re not supposed to leave it in there for very long. You can’t soak it in warm water because it ends up unmanageable. You never leave it sitting in water. I can look at a photo from a magazine and can tell that they didn’t know how to work with rice paper. Slide it in; take it out. It should be tight fitting.

The other thing is the herbs and the soft lettuce. No, you don’t have to have Thai basil with that. When I have traveled to Vietnam, they bring whatever herb they bring out. Oh, that’s a local jungle herb. It’s just whatever they found and had a tart flavor that they like, so they incorporate it, and they can eat it raw. Don’t make such a fuss over it.

Andrea Nguyen sitting at a table smiling with a pen and paper in front of her.

Q: What is a key feature of Vietnamese dining?

You are composing your own bites every time. In Western eating traditions you sit down to a meal, everything is on your plate, but there isn’t much actual assembly going on for each bite into your mouth.

Whereas Vietnamese dining is very personal, customizable, and social. You create your own adventure and assemble your own bites. We are noshing, drinking, and having conversation. It’s about taking time to eat because you made that food, so you don’t want to just wolf it down.

When I first started dating my husband, and all the herbs are still on their stems, and then I said to him you have to take the leaves off the stems. You just gotta experiment and know how to manipulate this stuff.

Q: Something you said in an interview resonated with me about cooking in general. You said, “We are pulling back the curtain and saying this is how modern Vietnamese people cook—we are not squatting on the floor pounding things all the time.” Do you feel like there is a romanticism or exotic mystique that surrounds global cuisines? Do you feel like that helps or hinders its progression and integration into mainstream home cooking?

It’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, there are people who are attracted to the unfamiliar exotic quality. Maybe you want to exploit that and create a book with cultural motifs that are like, “Let’s escape to another country.” But then there are people like me, and I want them to make that food and make it a part of their lives. And if it’s exotic, it will remain a long weekend project.

There is this notion that to make Asian food or any ethnic cuisine authentic, you have to shop at specialized stores. Even though I support those stores, I think that still keeps people from feeling like they can incorporate it into their own lives.

My thought is, so long as you think it’s a laborious task to make this food it paints a backward notion of that cuisine. Authenticity—sometimes it’s good to pound things in a mortar and pestle — but all food cultures evolve.

I was in Vietnam five or six years ago, going to this outdoor market where my family used to live. I saw this woman, standing over a pile of chopped lemongrass and chilies and shallots. I said, “Excuse me, but do you hand chop this every day for all of your customers?” She looked at me laughed and said, “Are you kidding? I have a machine!

Q: Do you want Vietnamese food to be mainstream? Do you think it already is?

We are living in a very interesting time right now. What is mainstream is not as diluted as it used to be even 10 years ago, because there are more voices in the food world.

I don’t mean just food media. I mean people on yelp, people on social media. There is a generation and mindset of people who want to have these big, bold flavors, so they are going to tweak things. Mainstream to me doesn’t mean whitewash.

I hope I contribute to this conversation. This is how this dish is traditionally made, and these are the parameters for making it. Now that you know that, you can make it your own. Vietnamese food is the ultimate “have it your way” cuisine. That level of inventiveness pushes the evolution of Viet cuisine, and when it’s shared with other people, then that expands its reach.

8 Tips to Help You Master Cooking on the Grill

June 10, 2020 - Reading time: 17 minutes

For years I attended backyard cookouts where the company was great, the potluck sides were aces, but the main attraction—the grilled food—left a lot to be desired. I’m talking dry chicken with a generous black crust of carbon, or a dinner stalled for hours because the fire wasn’t hot enough and it took ages for the food to cook.

Owning and using a grill is one thing; knowing how to cook delicious food on it is another. Once I learned those things, sawdust chicken breasts and disappointing, too-chewy racks of ribs were a thing of the past!

Today I’ve put together a guide that will push your grilling game from clumsy to skilled. The very act of grilling is fun, sure, but it’s even better when you sit down to a meal and know at first bite that you just crushed it, thanks to your grilling skills.

BBQ Bacon Jalapeño Poppers


When cooking indoors on a range, you have control over temperature. The food is in a pan, and the area being heated is clearly defined.

Grilling, however, isn’t about precision. It’s about being flexible, a give-and-take with the flames. There are ways to help bend the flames to your will, and that’s the key to gratifying grilling.

Whether you’re using a gas or charcoal grill, you need to preheat it before slapping your food on there. When planning out your meal, factor in preheating time., and always preheat with the lid down.

  • For gas grills: Gas grills heat quickly – about 10 minutes should do it – but you should still get them lit and roaring early so the grates get hot.
  • For charcoal grills: A decent fire on a charcoal grill takes more time. Expect at least half an hour between lighting the match and putting food over the coals.

Lighter fluid and self-lighting charcoal are handy for speeding up charcoal grilling, but they smell like the petrochemicals they are made with…and they will make your food smell and taste like petrochemicals. Blech!

I prefer to use a chimney for getting charcoal fires going. This tool runs $20-$40 and is worth every penny. You fill the top with charcoal, stuff the bottom with crumpled paper, light the paper, and in 15 to 12 minutes, the charcoal is red-hot and covered white ash. Then dump the coals into the pit, close the lid, replace the grate, and continue heating for another 10 to 15 minutes. Now you’re set to grill!

How to Make the Best Burgers on the Grill heat the grill


A lot of grills come with external dial thermometers built into the lids, but these can be inaccurate.

What tool can you use instead? One you already own—your hand!

For high-heat grilling (about 500°F), hold your hand about six inches from the grate. Your grill is hot enough if you can hover it there for three seconds or so until your reflex is to yank it away. If you can comfortably keep your hand there longer, keep heating.

You can also use a cheap analog oven thermometer for a more precise temperature reading. I set mine right on the grill grates. These are especially helpful for times when you are cooking low and slow, with target temperatures around 250°F.

The other way to tell doneness is the internal temperature of the food. Instant-read thermometers are invaluable, especially for meat like poultry. I like this one as a budget pick, but you can’t beat the Thermapen for speed and accuracy.

Grilled Salmon Fillet with Mango Salsa - brushing salmon with glaze


Before you light the grill, make sure the grates are clean. Brush off with a metal grill brush. If you don’t have one of those, you can wad up a ball of foil and clean the grates with that. In any case, you don’t need to go to town. Just get off any food residue.

To prevent food from sticking to those clean grates, you can do one of two things:

  1. Oil the grates: Spray the grates with cooking spray (aim away from the flames!) or oil them with a paper towel doused with the cooking oil of your choice. If you do this, make sure to oil the grates when they are hot, right before you put the food on.
  2. Oil the food, not the grates: Some cooks oil the food, not the grill. This is my preference since by oiling the grates you’re creating unnecessary deposits of carbon all over the place. For example, if you’re grilling sweet potatoes, just toss them in oil before setting them on the grates. The possible exception to this is if you’re barbecuing. Chef Adam Perry Lang recommends not oiling meats for barbecuing, because they stick to the grill and become “charred and scruffed” or slightly torn, which increases surface area for more searing and smoke absorption.

place brined ribs on grill


Not all foods have the same grilling needs. Setting up a grill to have two zones of heat – one high, one low – allows you to continue cooking some foods on the grill without torching them to a crisp, or the kind of artless grilling I confessed to earlier.

Direct heat grilling is cooking right over the coals or high flames. This is best on tender foods that cook quickly: burgers, pre-cooked sausages, small, thin cuts of meat like pork tenderloin, or vegetables like asparagus. These are ideal foods to grill when you’re just starting out.

When direct grilling, don’t rely on red-hot heat. Those black grill marks are very come-hither, but they can also lead to poorly cooked food—over-charred on the outside, dry and tough inside. Every grill is different, though; some grills can get really blazing. You’ll get a feel for it. You can always use your hand quickly to test the heat, and tweak from there.

Indirect grilling is cooking on the side opposite the direct grilling spot. Indirect grilling is your friend! Things that take longer to cook require more of a strategy, and that’s where indirect grilling comes in. To cook foods like bone-in chicken, a beef brisket, or a cobbler in a skillet, set your food on the side opposite the direct heat source.

Here’s how to do indirect grilling:

  • On a gas grill with multiple burners, shut off one burner or turn it as far down as you can. Have the other burner still going but move the food opposite to the cooler spot and lower the lid. The grill will act like an oven, so the center gets cooked without further drying out the exterior. You can direct grill meat first to get a nice sear, then move it to the cool side to finish cooking much more gently by indirect grilling.
  • On a charcoal grill, when the chimney of coals is ready, turn them out so they are banked on one side of the grill. Now you have two zones: a hot, direct heat zone one over the coals, and a cool, indirect heat zone next to it.

cover grill


You can’t adjust the temperature of a charcoal grill with knobs, but you can fiddle with the fire by changing the position of the vents and dampers. These allow or restrict airflow. By feeding the fire oxygen, it burns hotter. Lessening that flow gives you a low fire that’ll burn for a long time.

Refer to the manual that came with your grill, as every model has vents and dampers in different spots.

wood chips soaking in water


A charcoal grill can’t grill without charcoal. You can get lump charcoal or briquettes. Lump charcoal is just wood that’s been burned into carbon. The sizes of the lumps are all over the place, from large to small. Briquettes are carbonized sawdust and wood chips bound together with coal, starch, and other additives. They’re all the same size, so they burn evenly, but they produce more ash than lump charcoal.

Lump charcoal is the more natural of the two, but I prefer briquettes for their predictability and even heat. Don’t skimp and get cheap briquettes. In my experience, discount brands perform poorly. The Kingsford brand has always worked for me.

Wood chips add specific smoky flavors to food, and the type of wood dictates the flavor. Gas grills use a smoker box, but for charcoal grills, you’ll need to toss chips directly over the coals. You can also make a foil packet or use a foil pan folded up taco-style. Some people presoak wood chips, but it’s really not necessary.

Unless you know the wood is from a safe source (no chemicals or pesticides), buy wood chips made just for smoking.

Wood planks are also fun for grilling. Soak a thin plank of wood (often cedar), place food on it (often salmon), and then put the whole deal on the grill over the fire. It makes cleanups easy—just throw away the plank—but it does not imbue the food with a ton of smoky flavor.


Fatty meats render out grease at they cook. That grease can ignite and create flare-ups. It’s a natural thing that happens, and usually, it lasts just a few seconds. But big ones can be scary and dangerous. They can also lead to off-tasting food.

Follow these tips to combat and minimize flare-ups:

  • Don’t use marinades with a ton of oil, or drain off most of the marinade before you set the food on the grill.
  • When direct grilling, trim off some of the fat before grilling meat.
  • Use indirect grilling for fatty meats so fat does not render onto lit coals.
  • Clean the grease catcher from time to time, if your grill has one.

If the flare-up becomes a full-on grease fire, don’t pour water on it. The best thing to do is cut off the fire’s oxygen supply. Close the lid and the vents. If worse comes to worse, smother the fire with baking soda.

heat charcoal in grill


It’s important to clean your grill after using it. Buildup on ash and char in the pit and on the grates can corrode the metal, while rendered grease deposits can cause flare-ups and piles of ash hamper the grill’s ability to heat well. Plus, any breeze can blow that ash all over your food!

To clean and maintain your grill, take a metal grill brush and scrape off any burned-on bits of food. If you’re using a gas grill, you can turn the burners to high for a few minutes to burn off any food residue for easier cleanup. (Just don’t walk away and forget to shut it off. Speaking from experience!)

It’s best to empty charcoal grills of ash the day after using them. Extinguishing flames with water is dangerous because it can generate billows of steam that may burn you or gush leaks of very hot water right onto your legs and feet, or worse, little ones underfoot. So just let those coals run their course and save ash disposal for another day.


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