Aluminum foil: Whether you just found out that you’re out of it, or you ain’t a fan of using it in the first place, you know as well as I do that many grilling techniques and recipes rely on it.
Thin and foldable, and at the same time tough and heat resistant, aluminum foil is cheap to buy, easy to use, and provides a layer of protection between your food and the scorching grate and the hot air in your grill.
The question is, can you grill without it? And, if the answer to the question is “yes,” how is this done? Follow along and take a gander below for tips and tricks on the best alternatives to aluminum foil for grilling.
Yes, you can grill without aluminum foil. Cook your food over indirect heat, or use a cast iron skillet or griddle; an aluminum or stainless steel sheet pan; or a baking steel instead.
Let’s spend some time to talk about why it is that we use aluminum foil when we grill.
Use a Cast Iron Skillet Instead
For starters, aluminum foil enables you to grill foods that fall apart too easily. Think of fish fillets, which dry out, firm up, and start to flake when the protein in the fish starts to cook through.
As careful as you may be, it is all too easy to mangle them with your spatula and have them fall through the grate. The result is a hungry crowd at the table, a mess to clean, and a grilling blunder to be all grumpy about. Not my idea of a Sunday cookout, I’ll tell you that!
By laying the fish fillets on a sheet of aluminum foil, you keep them from sticking to the grill and provide yourself, the griller, with a cooking surface that holds them in place even as they start to flake. You can get the same utility, if better, by cooking the fish in a skillet.
But not just any skillet, oh no: You want to pull out a cast iron skillet with a heavy bottom and thick walls that will hold the heat of the grill and transfer it to the fish evenly, crisping it up and giving it that golden brown color every hungry pescatarian longs for.
If you don’t have a cast iron skillet in your kitchen—which, by the way, you should—you can use a carbon steel or stainless steel frying pan as long as it’s oven safe. Avoid ceramic and non-stick pans; these tend to have handles with bakelite or silicone that can get damaged in the high heat of your grill.
Cook Your Food Over Indirect Heat
Sometimes, we wrap thick-cut steaks and large slabs of meat with aluminum foil to shield them from the high heat of the glowing coals or the hot flame of the gas burners.
When your meat has to be prepared low and slow, so that the heat can cook it through all the way to the center without burning the crust, there’s a better way to achieve this than using aluminum foil, and it’s called indirect heat.
Direct heat, you see, if when you cook the meat directly over the heat source. Indirect heat is when you grill it near the heat source, but never directly over it. The difference is similar to that of searing steak a few inches under the broiler and slow-roasting it on the middle rack of your oven.
How do you achieve this?
Getting direct and indirect heat on a gas grill:
Fire up your gas grill and turn up only half of your burners to medium-high, keeping the remainder off. Close the lid, preheat for 20-30 minutes, and come back to get cooking. The result is an appliance with two cooking zones: a direct-heat zone for searing and an indirect-heat zone for slow roasting.
Getting direct and indirect heat on a charcoal grill:
Or ignite your coals, wait for them to ashen over, and pile them up on one side, keeping the other coal-free. You get a kettle grill with a two-zone fire, one that gives you high, direct heat and other moderate, indirect heat.
Getting direct and indirect heat on a pellet grill:
Since the firebox is separate and isolated from the cooking chamber, all pellet grills give you indirect heat by definition. Some, and this is mostly on higher-end makes and models, have mobile burners that you can move under the grate by pulling a lever. (In this case, you want to keep using indirect heat.)
How to cook with indirect heat on any grill:
Place all foods that need to be cooked gently (the ones you would have otherwise wrapped in aluminum foil) on the indirect heat zone. Close the lid and let them cook without interruption for 5-6 minutes at a time, rotating and flipping them over occasionally to promote even cooking.
With this method, you make use of the indirect heat of the fire or burners, which gets transferred to your food by the hot air, the heated grate, and the radiant heat from your grill’s walls.
The key is to grill with the lid down, as this is what creates convection currents in your grill instead of letting the hot air escape into the atmosphere.
Get a Sheet Pan, a Griddle or Baking Steel
An aluminum tray or stainless steel sheet pan can be a good alternative to aluminum foil on any day. So can a well-seasoned cast iron griddle. As an added benefit, their tall walls will keep the drips in, preventing them from falling through the grates and flaring up your grill.
True to its name, a baking steel is a thick metal slab, usually in the range of 3/16 to 3/8 of an inch, that you put on the grill’s grate and that you preheat with it. The slab acts as a cooking surface, transfers heat to your food, and shields it from the direct heat of the fuel source underneath.
The pan, the griddle, and the steel can all go on the grill and slide in the oven. Generally speaking, pans and griddles are suitable for breakfast foods and roast meets; steels for baked bread, pizza pies, puff pastry, and all sorts of other goods.