How to Add Flavor to Your Favorite Grilled Meals

Grilling is an art form. It’s not something you should do haphazardly or on a whim. It requires a bit of finesse and planning ahead. While the process may require a bit more effort than say sautéing a pan of veggies, the outcome of a properly grilled meal is certainly rewarding in its abundance of flavor and pleasing textures.

Though the standard act of grilling will infuse your meal with rich flavor, there are several ways to further enhance your favorite grill recipes. From marinades and brines to the selection of heat sources, you have several options to experiment with.

Flavor Infusers:

1. Marinades

A marinade is a combination of flavor-rich liquids and spices combined to enhance the natural flavors of the ingredients you will be grilling. The very basic usually include an acid, for breaking down tough protein fibers, and a handful of seasonings. When marinating, opt for a nonreactive vessel such as plastic, glass, or stainless steel. If you will be marinating for longer than 30 minutes, be sure to refrigerate your meat to keep it in the food safe temperature zone.

Important notes on marinades: Because acids tenderize meat, it’s important to consider the length of time you will be marinating to avoid producing a mushy product. For example, a piece of fish will require significantly less time to marinade (30 minutes) than, say, a London Broil (overnight).

Soy Sauce Marinade

2. Brining

Brines are intended for penetrating the food on a deeper level than a traditional marinade. Brines impact foods on a cellular level, breaking down the individual protein fibers and infusing cells with moisture and flavor. Simple brines are comprised of salt and liquid. Experiment with unique salt and liquid blends from combinations as simple as kosher salt and broth to unique combinations like complex herb blends and fruity wines. Many cooks enjoy adding unique ingredients into their brines like citrus peels and fresh fruit.

Once your brine is prepared, you’ll want to pour it into a non-reactive container, cover, and allow refrigerating while bringing. Brining times will vary depending on the size and kind of meat.

Important note on brines: Be sure to discard your brine after use. It should not be recycled for secondary use.

Brined Turkey

3. Dry Rubs and Pastes

Dry spice rubs and thick, flavor-rich pastes are great for infusing bold flavors into grilled and smoked meats. To use a dry rub, pat the excess moisture off of your chosen cut of meat and apply your mixture of dried ingredients to all sides. To use a paste, mix your dried ingredients with a liquid of your choice in a small mixing bowl, then apply as you would a rub.

Important note dry rubs and pastes: To cover several small pieces of meat with a rub, toss your rub and meat into gallon-sized freezer bag and shake until fully covered. Also, take special care when handling delicate meat like fish to avoid crumbling or ripping.

Dry Rub for Meats

4. Basting

Much like basting your Thanksgiving turkey, basting your grilling meats with a basting brush helps to retain moisture. A combination of flavorful liquids and a fat to lock in the flavor provide a great, simple product to baste your grilled meat in. Should you choose to baste with sweet, rich-in-sugar sauces, wait until the last few minutes of cooking to avoid burning the sugary liquids.

Important note on basting: Avoid opening the grill too often to baste. Frequent opening allows the heat to escape and can prevent your meat from properly cooking.

Baste for Grill

5. Flavoring with Wood

For those with the option to utilize wood as a fuel source, you also have the added benefit of being able to flavor your meal with the unique flavor qualities of various woods.

CAUTION: Do not use the following woods when smoking or grilling: Pines, firs, spruces, redwoods, cypress, elm, eucalyptus, sassafras, sycamore, liquid amber, lumber scraps, painted or stained wood, old furniture, anything chemically treated, old pallets, bug infested or fungus-covered wood.

Instead, you should use one of the following kinds of wood to enhance the flavors in your food.

Fruit wood:
Apricot, plum, peach, and nectarine enhance the sweet flavors in foods and work well with seafood, pork, and poultry.

This is the most commonly used wood for smoking. It produces a bold, smoky-sweet flavor. Hickory is best for beef and pork.

Pecan is similar to hickory in its ability to produce smoky flavors but is much milder. The sweet, subtle flavor is great for poultry, pork, and seafood.

With oak you have several varieties to choose from. White oak produces long-burning coals; however, all oak varieties work well with beef, pork, poultry, seafood, and wild game.

Flavoring with Wood
While this certainly isn’t an exhaustive list of options for woods to grill and smoke with, it’s a simple representation of the various flavors one can infuse meats with when utilizing the proper wood.

For more information on grilling, visit our Backyard BBQ Checklist and 3 Unique Grilling Methods.

Chelsea B. Sanz
Chelsea B. Sanz

Chelsea Sanz has lived in East Tennessee since her family moved here from South Florida just before she started high school. While she initially begrudged her new home state, she eventually realized she had come to not only love it, but to “bleed orange” as University of Tennessee Volunteers fans here like to say. She and her boyfriend Hunter, a trail worker for Great Smoky Mountains National Park, enjoy exploring the nation’s most visited national park and coming up with their own farm-to-table recipes.

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  1. July 05, 2014 at 7:02 pm, Evl Ystyll said:

    You forgot Mesquite wood. It's the taste of Texas roadside BBQ, and it is delicious.


  2. August 16, 2014 at 1:21 am, rene said:


    tnx for info.