Whether you prefer shish kebabs of tofu and bell peppers or brats bathed in beer and charred to perfection, chances are you will be eating some food cooked over an open flame this summer. We are about to enter the season when we get in touch with our primitive roots: cooking food in the outdoors, wearing little clothing and grunting to one another about a variety of topics.

Although people have been going through this Neanderthal routine for thousands of years, outdoor cooking really took off in the United States in 1952. It was in that year that George Stephen invented the Weber charcoal grill.

With the vast expansion of the American suburbs after World War II, the time was right for Stephen’s invention, and returned GIs bought them in droves. Before long, the backyard cookout was as much a part of American culture as apple pie, baseball and anticommunist rhetoric.

Eventually, gas grills became an alternative to their charcoal companions, and buyers looking for convenience switched over to propane. However, many grilling enthusiasts insist charcoal is the only way to go. There may be some merit in this thought; charcoal gets several hundred degrees hotter than gas, and it imparts its own flavor on the meat. However, the flavor of food cooked with the two methods is similar enough that many people cannot tell the difference between gas-grilled and charcoal-grilled food.

One thing to keep in mind with charcoal is which kind of fuel to use to ignite your grill. While the most popular type is charcoal briquettes, some critics say these little bricks should be avoided because they are carcinogenic. However, a look at their ingredient list shows they are really not all that scary. Furthermore, the browning of foods and the existence of smoke have both been shown to produce carcinogenic (and, for that matter, antioxidant) compounds, so unless you are on a diet of poached tofu and rice, you are probably already eating a fair amount of carcinogens. Still, if you find yourself concerned about the “fillers” in briquettes, there are a number of brands of “lump charcoal,” a variety whose only ingredient is hardwood.

Once you get past the potential health risks of grilling, it is possible to appreciate what a zesty enterprise it truly is. Not only does a good old-fashioned cookout bring people together, it can produce some exciting food. In addition to the old standbys — hot dogs, burgers, brats, chicken, etc. — there are a host of delicious grilled foods one would not necessarily associate with this most primitive of cooking media.

Perhaps the most thrilling grilled goodie is halloumi, a kind of Greek cheese. Because of its high melting point, throwing this kind of cheese on the barbie produces a kind of grilled delight light-years away from melted American cheese between two slices of Wonder Bread.

Another pleasant grilled surprise is pineapple, which caramelizes nicely after some time on the grill. Just make sure your fire isn’t too hot, as the caramelization of sugars turns into burning pretty quickly.

There is practically no end to the list of foods that taste great coming off the grill, and experimenting with different kinds of grilled foods with friends is a great way to spice up a cookout.

Grilling tips

Keep one side of your grill hotter than the other. That way, you will be able to quickly brown the meat on the hot side and cook it through on the cooler side.

Avoid cross-contamination with separate tongs for raw and cooked meat, or clean your tongs before taking off the final product.

Scrape the grill with a wire brush after each use. The particles stuck to your grill will be much easier to clean if you clean the grill while it is still warm.

A chimney starter is a good investment for people with charcoal grills. It gets the coals burning quickly, and it keeps you from having to use lighter fluid.

Wood chips impart a pleasant smoky flavor to grilled food. Try a two-to-one ratio of wet (soaked for an hour and drained) to dry wood chips packaged in a few layers of punctured aluminum foil. Make sure to use woods that are good for grilling like apple, hickory or mesquite.

Jason Engelhart is a senior majoring in economics and history. Feel free to grill him with questions at [email protected]