How to Grill Vegetables Like a Pro
Whatever you do, don't toss them over the flame just like a steak. Instead, follow these steps on how to grill vegetables so you'll definitely want a second helping.
With plant-based eating on the rise, chances are at least one of your BBQ attendees needs something to eat besides watermelon slices and potato chips. That's where grilled veggies come in. To Elizabeth Karmel, author of the St. Francis Girls' Guide to Grilling, asparagus, summer squash, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, corn, and green beans are some of the best veggies to put over the flame, but she stands by her motto: "If you can eat it, you can grill it."
Throwing veggies on the grill not only gives you a plethora of options for your vegetarian and vegan guests, but it also enhances their flavor - so much so, that you might want to make veggies the main event for everyone, regardless of their eating style. Grilling brings out their natural sugars, so you get a delicious, caramelized flavor.
But the prep you do can make good grilled vegetables great, says chef Stephanie Izard, the owner of Girl & the Goat restaurant in Chicago, a Top Chef winner, and the creator of This Little Goat cooking sauces and spices. Marinades and sauces help vegetables soak up acidic, umami, salty, and sweet goodness and also make them tender, says Izard.
Drooling yet? Here's exactly how to grill vegetables, according to the pros.
1. Pre-Cook Your Veggies
When learning how to grill vegetables, it might sound strange to cook them before tossing them on the flame. But trust, some vegetables - especially heartier types like potatoes, green beans, broccoli, carrots, and beets - taste better grilled if you cook them slightly first, says Izard. This cuts down grilling time, improves texture for creamy-tender insides and perfectly grilled outsides, and helps vegetables soak up flavorful marinades. Blanch, roast, or steam them until just barely tender, marinate for 30 min., then finish with a light char on the grill.
2. Give Your Veggies a Soak
Marinades work particularly well on grilled vegetables that have crevices, like broccoli and cauliflower, or those that absorb, such as mushrooms, eggplants, and summer squash, says Izard. But they lose some of their punch as food cooks on the grill, she explains. The solution: Make your marinades more intense by using her go-to formula:
- Fat: Start with 1 to 2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil or a neutral oil, such as canola.
- Acidity: Squeeze in lemon or lime juice, or drizzle in vinegar.
- Salty/Umami: Add a dash or two of fish sauce, soy sauce, or miso.
- Sweetness: Use just enough to encourage caramelization but not so much that it will burn. About 1 tsp. should do it. Try mirin, honey, or maple syrup.
- Flavor Enhancers: Tinker with the taste of your marinade by tossing in ingredients like hoisin, garlic, mustard, herbs, and spices. If you like it hot, add some chiles.
3. Make Sure the Veggies Are Well-Oiled
If you're not using a marinade, Karmel recommends covering all of the veggies' exposed surfaces with olive oil. The oil locks in moisture, which helps break down fibers and prevents grilled vegetables from drying out. Because it is more viscous than other oils, olive oil sticks to the vegetables best, so you'll have less fire flare-ups. It also gives salt something to stick to.
4. Hold Off On the Salt
Salt grilled vegetables right after they come off the flame, not before. "This is an important step. Vegetables are made of water. When you put salt on them, the water weeps out, which cools the grill and removes moisture," says Ashley Christensen, the chef and owner of Death & Taxes, a North Carolina restaurant that cooks with wood fire. Salting afterward prevents this.
5. Add Smoky, Herby Notes
"Tie together a little bouquet of hearty herbs like rosemary, thyme, and oregano with kitchen twine, and set it on the grill next to the food you're cooking. When it becomes slightly charred, dip the herb bouquet into olive oil and lemon juice, and brush your food, giving it a glaze and a herby taste," says Christensen.
6. Use a Basket
To get smaller vegetables close to the flame without letting them fall through the grates, try a grilling basket (Buy It, $90, williams-sonoma.com), one of Christensen's favorite tools. "I use it to sauté vegetables on the fire," she says. It also cooks whole, halved, and diced cherry tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, squash, and asparagus. And it works well for shrimp and scallops.
7. Go for the Grill Marks
"You need your grill to be really hot," says Christensen. "When it's ready, oil a towel, and use tongs to hold the towel while you oil the grates."
8. Place Your Veggies Over Direct or Indirect Heat
This just might be the most important step in this guide of how to grill vegetables. Depending on their size and density, vegetables can be cooked over direct or indirect heat. Larger, denser vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, take longer to cook (30 to 60 minutes); smaller ones like asparagus don't take much time at all (6 to 8 minutes). Karmel uses this rule of thumb when deciding where to put a vegetable on the grill: "If it cooks for 20 minutes or less, put it on the grate directly over the flames. If you need to cook it for 20 minutes or more, keep the veggies away from direct heat," says Karmel. Turn veggies only once halfway through cooking: This prevents sticking and allows for caramelization on the grilled vegetables.
9. Cook for ~6 to 10 minutes
Cooking times will vary depending on the vegetable's density and how you cut each one. But you can use these times as a guide:
- 6 to 8 minutes for asparagus, bell pepper halves or quarters, tomato halves, and zucchini cut into half-inch slices
- 8 to 10 minutes for corn on the cob, eggplant (cut in half-inch slices), green beans, mushrooms, and onion (cut in half-inch slices).
For a complete chart of vegetable grilling times check out Karmel's book Taming the Flame.
10. Play with Char
"A good char on vegetables like whole cucumbers, squash, peppers, and onions gives you the best of two worlds. The vegetables have that crunchy fresh sweetness on the inside and the cooked texture and barbecue flavor on the outside," says Christensen. Slice charred vegetables, and add them to a salad. Or chop them finely and turn them into a salsa-like condiment. (And, FYI, grilled fruit makes for an amazing dessert.)
11. Go for a Post-Marinade
"When meat and vegetables come off the grill, they're open to absorbing ingredients. This is the perfect time to create secondary flavor notes," says Christensen. Spoon your sauce or zesty vinaigrette over just-grilled vegetables.
12. Create a Sauce
Stirring in just one new ingredient can instantly transform a marinade into a sauce, perfect for spooning over the finished dish at the table for even more flavor, says Izard. To make, set aside some of the marinade after you make it. Mix in creamy ingredients like tahini or yogurt, or tart ingredients like citrus juice or vinegar. For an herbaceous twist, add finely chopped fresh herbs like oregano and parsley to make it a chimichurri-like sauce.
13. Think Outside the Box with Your Produce Picks
Zucchini and corn are stellar candidates for grilling, but some less obvious choices also taste great over the flames.
- Cucumbers: Toss halved Persian cucumbers with chile oil, and grill over medium-high heat until lightly charred in places. Dice and add to salads, or drizzle with a tahini dressing and serve topped with your favorite fresh leafy herbs, sesame seeds, and crushed nuts.
- Sweet Potatoes: Cook them in the oven until just barely tender. Submerge them in an Asian-inspired marinade of soy sauce, mirin, rice vinegar, and sesame oil, then grill until tender and lightly charred in places, just a few minutes on each side. Finish with fresh herbs and a sprinkle of nuts.
- Blueberries: While they're technically fruit, their delicious flavor when cooked over the heat makes them worth mentioning on this guide on how to grill vegetables. Use blueberries to give dishes a smoky-sweet finish. Grill them in a grill basket, then make a pico de gallo with the berries, finely chopped onion, tomato, cilantro, jalapeño, and lime juice, and spoon over vegetables.
- Citrus: Every time you grill, put some halved citrus on the grates, says Izard. The juices caramelize and add a zesty punch. Squeeze over grilled veggies, and whisk into vinaigrettes. (Related: These Savory and Bright Citrus Recipes Will Re-energize You in the Dead of Winter)