Vegetable Grilling 101
Local farmer's markets are ablaze with fresh produce during prime grilling season. Grilled vegetables is the obvious answer. Fire up the grill for a veggie-centric feast that won’t fall through the grates.
When summer hits, there’s nothing like grilling outside. The hot coals lend smokiness to everything they cook, creating unique char and caramelization that you can’t really get from a frying pan. We’ve already published a guide to getting started with grills, but wanted to take a deep dive on how vegetarians — and veggie lovers — can tame the fires and have a satisfying cook-out of their own. Learn how to prepare vegetables for the grill, how to keep your precious lot from falling through the grates, and discover filling recipes you might not have thought of yet.
Perks of being vegetarian
One of the perks of grilling fruits and vegetables: You can claim dibs over the grill before the meat-eaters start. Plus, you have lesser risk of cross-contamination, and you don’t have to keep two dishes for cooked and uncooked food. Most vegetables are fine to eat raw, and meatless proteins like seitan, tempeh, and tofu are fully cooked. Don’t forget to use a spatula for anything burger-esque or items that have more than two points of contact with the grill — turning a soft black bean patty with tongs will prove impossible.
However, the key factor missing from plant matter is fat. Meats have fat marbled throughout, which not only provides flavor but built-in cooking oil. This is why you need to oil both the vegetables and the grill grates with a spray or an olive oil-soaked, dedicated towel. It helps you remove finished items from the grates with ease, and draws out moisture with a sear. (Don't spray the grill once the fire is going to avoid a potentially explosive surprise.)
"Doneness" is subjective, but pretend you’re in a steakhouse: Do you prefer rare, medium, or well done? For me, amazing grilled zucchini is pliant, has grill marks, and doesn’t snap in half. To achieve this, sear the zuchini cut-side-down over high heat, then flip and transfer to a cooler part of the grill to continue cooking without flare-ups. Squishy tomatoes or peaches, on the other hand, are harder to flip and spill all of their juice if you start cut-side up.
And those grill marks? Getting them is not as difficult as you think — you just leave it alone! Don't fiddle with it like you would a stir-fry. Ideally, the only time to touch anything on the grill is to flip it or move it away from a flare-up.
Get your timing down
Because water content and thickness will vary, your plant fare will require different cooking times.
A delicate balance
Fragile lettuces, cucumber, and celery aren’t forbidden from the fire, either, although the variety and size is important. Watery and delicate vegetables should be grilled very quickly to get marks. Heads of romaine should be halved, but butter lettuce, iceberg, or salad mix should stay away. Instead, tougher greens like kale, mustard, collard, and chard will handle the heat better.
Fruits on the grill work very much the same way. Their sacred juice can evaporate immediately, so work quickly with watermelon, pineapple, and mangoes. I also love grilled lemons for a twist on lemonade. And if you’re going to soak anything in liquor, remove as much of the liquid as you can away from the fire and step back when you put it on the grill, or you could lose an eyebrow.
When it comes to seasoning, treat your veg like meat. Salt it generously and let it sit for 10 minutes (salt or other seasonings sprinkled on right before you grill will simply fall off). Go wild with marinades and let them soak for at least an hour and up to 4 hours. Try out pickle juice, beer, and vinaigrettes, but make sure to shake each piece thoroughly before laying it on an oiled grill.
And never drizzle anything directly over the grill! Excess liquid will create flare-ups that make your food taste like fuel or burn quickly. When you’re flaring up too much, just lower the heat and then bring it back up if necessary.
If you want to add flavor but didn’t have time to marinade, use a brush to baste your items lightly by tapping the open face of the vegetables. Alternatively, grill them unadorned, transfer to a platter, and drizzle on a punchy dressing, pesto, or herby oil to finish it.
A cut above
Keep in mind that vegetables lose water and volume as they cook. Slice them thicker than you normally would for roasting or to saute in a pan. Thinner cuts (less than 1/4”) can easily be overcooked or go limp once you let them cool — leaving you with burnt chips instead of succulent bites. Ensure that the pieces are cut consistently the same size so they cook at the same rate. If you can’t help that, you’ll need to remove the smallest buddies first.
There's also no reason why you can’t just grill large halves or a whole eggplant and slice it later like a turkey breast, either. Whole heads of marinated cauliflower or cauliflower thickly cut into “steaks” are impressive show stoppers as well.
Don’t fall for it
It can be a game to keep vegetables from falling through the grates. You still might lose some bites to the fire, but the easiest way is to line them up perpendicularly. Chew over these other solutions to stick it to them:
The most classic way to serve veggies is the kabob. When working with wood skewers, remember to soak them overnight in water and thread hunks tightly together so the wood doesn’t burn. If you’re using metal skewers, leave a little room between to promote airflow and heat on all sides.
Japanese yakitori uses shorter skewers with only one type of vegetable per skewer so they are cooked evenly. You can also use wooden skewers to make a “sheet” of asparagus or scallions by threading one skewer perpendicular to their necks and a second one through their feet — it’ll look like a potholder.
Consider a grill basket to griddle smaller bits like edamame or to cook different vegetables together to blend their flavors. It can look like metal mesh or a flat metal colander; either type allows heat through but won’t drop your dinner. A grill basket needs to preheat on the grill for 10 minutes before you start using it.
A favorite for campers is the hobo pack. Spray a large sheet of foil with cooking oil and then layer in handfuls of vegetables, placing the heartiest types at the bottom. Fold it up like an envelope and cook the whole thing over a medium fire for 20 to 30 minutes. Be careful to let steam escape before cutting it open! Meat-eaters, check out our perfect foil packets roundup to learn more about this method.
Where there's smoke, there's fire
Turn your grill into a smoker by moving hot coals to one side and placing items in a foil pan on the cool side. Throw wet wood chips over the coals and close the lid. In an hour or two, you can nosh on smoked mushrooms or tomatoes.
Another way to get extra smoky is to use food-safe grill planks. Soak the plank in water overnight and then grill it for 2 minutes on one side. Flip it over and place 1 to 2 pounds of vegetables on it for 15 to 20 minutes. When they’re done, remove the vegetables and flip the plank to repeat, if it’s not too charred up.
You won't be toiling over the grill and waiting as long as your meat-eating friends. Since you'll have hot coals for a while, you might as well cook extra vegetables for use later. Extra grilled vegetables are excellent in sandwiches, salads, or pasta. My new favorite next-day dish is a riff on Persian borani — grilled zucchini that's shredded, mixed with shallots, and folded into thick Greek yogurt.
Now that you've got the basics of vegetable cookery down, it's time to light up the grill! Looking for even more recipes for your fire fest? Check out our this vegetarian grillers' recipe roundup, or look through our favorite ways to grill desserts.