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Prepare for summer grilling

It's the time of year again when, for many, cooking shifts from the kitchen to the backyard barbecue. Be it succulent chicken, a fine cut of beef or the fresh catch of the day, barbecue has a flavor all its own.

Barbecue grills range from small charcoal models to elaborate gas-fueled types. Gas grills are more popular than ever, and for many reasons: safety, convenience and cooking quality, among them. A gas grill eliminates the need for messy charcoal; no more lugging huge bags home. What's more, grilling with gas offers the chef greater temperature control, and once the meal is cooked the flame can be turned off.

While it's true that the storage tanks for grills fueled by liquid propane must be filled occasionally, one 5-gallon tank lasts most families a season. Those who barbecue more frequently might consider having a standby tank available. Better yet, a grill fueled by natural gas will eliminate the need for fuel-tank management and is the most economical to operate. A grill fueled by natural gas is designed for permanent installation as opposed to the portable liquid propane models. Natural gas models require that a gas line be run from the source to the location of the barbecue.

Will the meat broiled over a gas-fired grill taste as good as meat broiled over glowing coals? Many say it does. Often, gas-fired barbecue units have a layer of lightweight lava rock between the burners and the grill. This rock, heated by the gas burners, radiates heat in much the same way as charcoal. Grease dripping from the meat during the broiling process drops on the heated lava rocks where it sears and burns, imparting barbecue flavor to the meat.

Dampened hickory chips also can be placed over the rocks to give additional flavor. Another method of adding wood chips is to wrap them in foil, punch a few holes in the tip and toss them onto the hot coals or bricks. No fuss, no muss, no cleanup.

Regardless of the type of equipment used, one of the most important means to successful grilling is keeping the equipment clean and in good working order. Valves, burners, grill rods and ventilation ports should be debris-free. The burners of an idle barbecue can fill with spider webs, which can significantly hurt operation.

For those who choose to use wood or charcoal, it's important to do a little research beforehand. Wood and charcoal burn at different rates and different levels of heat.

And speaking of heat, always allow the grill ample time to preheat. That's another advantage to gas grilling. The grill heats quickly and is infinitely easier to control during the grilling process. A twist of the dial quickly brings the heat from intensely hot to a moderate roast.

Few aspects of barbecue cooking can do more to ruin a perfect meal than a flare-up. Check your recipe for oil content. A little oil is generally needed for the grill rods, but an excess will cause unnecessary flare-ups. Try to cook so that the flames never touch the items on the grill. Flavor results from the juices and fat that drop onto the hot coals or rocks. The flavor and aroma of smoke is wonderful, but vulcanization is for tires, not food; therefore, moderate the amount of smoke by limiting the oil.

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James Carey and Morris Carey are nationally recognized experts on home building and renovation.