Grilling Techniques for Salmon Steaks, Chicken, and Pork Chops

Twin Cities chef and culinary instructor Jason Ross helps you perfect the art of direct and indirect grilling and transform your grill into a smoker
Grilled Salmon Steaks with Parsley Walnut Pesto
Grilled Salmon Steaks with Parsley Walnut Pesto

Photo by Terry Brennan, Food Styled by Lara Miklasevics

Get the most out of your grill this season. You can use it for small cuts of meat that benefit from quick, intense heat (direct-heat grilling), for larger cuts that require slower, less intense heat (indirect-heat grilling), and as a smoker for big flavor.

A split-heat grill setup helps control heat, whether charcoal or gas, says Twin Cities chef and Saint Paul College Culinary Arts instructor Jason Ross. Split your grill into two parts with one side on high heat, the other on low. For charcoal, pile it on one side of the grill. When hot, rake one-fourth of charcoal to the low-heat side, leaving the remainder on the hot side. With a gas or propane grill, set heat on one side to high and the other to low.

Master the three grilling techniques here and try Ross’ recipe for each method, which he created for Real Food. Then you can also apply your newfound skills to different meats and fish to kick up your grilling game throughout the season.

Direct-Heat Grilling

This is true grilling, with direct radiant heat coming from underneath the cooking surface. This is best for burgers, firm-fleshed fish, and small and tender cuts of meat. For this method, the low-heat side serves two purposes. If the grill gets too hot or flares up, it is a spot to quickly move food until the flames cool down. When meat has nice grill marks but a still-rare interior, you can also use the low-heat side to finish cooking without adding too much char. Salmon steaks are made for high heat. Pair with this bright green take on pesto.

Grilled Salmon Steaks with Parsley Walnut Pesto

Makes 4 servings

Parsley Walnut Pesto
1 tablespoon minced shallot
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
½ tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
½ bunch parsley, finely minced
½ cup olive oil
¼ cup chopped walnuts

Salmon Steaks
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
4 (1-inch-thick 8-ounce) salmon steaks
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ tablespoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper

  1. For the Parsley Walnut Pesto: In a small mixing bowl, toss shallot, vinegar, lemon juice, and salt. Let sit 5 to 10 minutes to soften flavors. Add parsley, oil, and walnuts. Store refrigerated in a tightly sealed container up to 7 days. Serve at room temperature.
  2. For the salmon: Prepare grill with one side on high heat and the other on low. Clean and scrape grill. Brush with a thin layer of vegetable oil.
  3. When grill is hot, brush salmon with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place on hot side of grill and cook 2 minutes. Rotate a quarter turn and cook 2 minutes. Fish should have diamond-shaped grill marks. Flip salmon and cook 2 minutes. Rotate a quarter turn and cook 2 minutes.
  4. Test for doneness. Salmon should feel firm and pull along flesh lines. If fish is too rare, transfer to low-heat side of grill. Cover and cook until done. Serve warm with pesto.

Indirect-Heat Grilling

Call this “grill roasting,” as this uses indirect convection heat in an enclosed space. The goal is a crispy, brown exterior with loads of flavor. Use this for large cuts of meats or fish; whole, bone-in cuts; or even whole hogs for large parties. Cook on the low-heat side with the grill covered. The heat from the hot side powers the convection heat and slows the cooking, making it possible to cook larger cuts through without burning the exterior. If you try to grill whole or split chicken with direct heat, it will be charred on the outside and rare on the inside. Instead, set up your grill for indirect grilling and get perfectly cooked meat with lots of flavor.

Split Roasted Chicken

Makes 4 servings

½ cup olive oil
1 tablespoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 halved chicken
1 tablespoon vegetable oil

  1. In a large mixing bowl, combine olive oil, salt, pepper, red pepper, and lemon juice. Reserve ¼ cup of mixture in a small bowl for basting.
  2. Coat chicken with marinade. Let sit and marinate at room temperature while you prepare the grill; alternately, wrap and refrigerate overnight.
  3. Prepare grill with one side on high heat and the other on low. Clean and scrape grill. Brush with a thin layer of vegetable oil. Lay chicken on low-heat side of grill skin side up. Cover and cook 20 minutes. Using vents, keep grill at 325°F to 375°F. Check chicken periodically and baste with marinade.
  4. Carefully flip chicken and cook 20 minutes. Check periodically and baste with marinade. Using a meat thermometer, check for doneness in thickest part of chicken. Meat is done when it reaches 165°F.

Smoking

Transform your grill into a smoker with a disposable aluminum tray filled with wood chips. Place it directly on the coals or gas burner on the hot side of the grill while cooking foods on the low-heat side. Cover the grill to create a billowing smoke chamber. The goal is to deeply flavor foods with wood and smoke. Smoking works best with meats and fish that have enough fat content to prevent them from drying out while cooking.

Smoked Pork Chops with Grilled Plums

Makes 4 servings

1 cup hickory or fruit wood chips
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon dried thyme
4 (1¼-inch-thick 8-ounce) pork chops
¼ cup honey
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon vegetable oil

4 plums, halved and pitted
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil

  1. In a small bowl, soak wood chips in enough water to cover, at least 20 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, in a small mixing bowl, combine sugar, salt, pepper, cumin, and thyme. Generously coat pork chops with spice mix, rubbing in with your hands. Let sit at room temperature while you prepare grill; alternately, wrap and refrigerate overnight.
  3. In a small saucepan over low heat, warm honey and lemon juice until uniform. Reserve in a bowl for basting.
  4. Prepare grill with one side on high heat and the other with low to no heat. Remove grill grate from hot side before it heats up for easy access. Clean and scrape grill. Brush with a thin layer of vegetable oil.
  5. When grill is hot, strain wood chips and place in a small aluminum roasting tray. Place directly on fire on hot side of grill. Wait 5 minutes for chips to begin to smoke. Lay chops on cool side of grill. Close grill, letting chamber fill with smoke, and smoke chops 15 minutes. Using vents, keep grill at 325°F to 375°F.
  6. Stand back and carefully open cover; there will be a large puff of smoke. Brush chops with honey-lemon mixture and flip. Cover and smoke 15 minutes.
  7. Carefully open grill. Check doneness by inserting a meat thermometer into center of chops close to bone. They are done when they reach 145°F.
  8. Place grill grate over hot side. Brush chops with any remaining honey mixture. Move chops to hot side of the grill. The heat will caramelize the honey and glaze the chops after about 1 minute per side. Be careful not to let it burn, just crisp and brown.
  9. Grill plums 1 minute on hot side of grill or until lightly charred on 1 side. Drizzle plums with balsamic and olive oil. Serve warm.

Nutrition info (per serving)
• Grilled Salmon Steaks with Parsley Walnut Pesto: Calories 700 (499 From Fat); Fat 56g (Sat. 9g); Chol 109mg; Sodium 1582mg; Carb 4g; Fiber 2g; Protein 44g
• Split Roasted Chicken: Calories 478 (303 From Fat); Fat 34g (Sat. 8g); Chol 132mg; Sodium 1007mg; Carb 0g; Fiber 0g; Protein 41g
• Smoked Pork Chops with Grilled Plums: Calories 563 (247 From Fat); Fat 28g (Sat. 8g); Chol 141mg; Sodium 1856mg; Carb 29g; Fiber 1g; Protein 50g

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