Ever notice how grilling vegetables takes a lot longer than grilling burgers or fish? They take up far too much valuable BBQ real estate for way too long, and then they always seem to go from raw to burnt and shriveled, totally bypassing the tender golden moment we’re looking for. What’s up with that?

In a word, water. Like a good facial that combats overexposure to the sun, vegetables need to be well-hydrated to cope with a grill’s dry heat. Their little cells need to stay plump with water; no amount of oil slathered on the surface will fix the situation. Sure, you need a nice slick of olive oil for flavor and to keep vegetables from sticking to the grate, but too much and you’ve got flare-ups, which aggravate the problem.

This 4th of July (and all summer long), give your vegetables the spa treatment and shorten the time you spend over a hot grill with these essential tips for grilling:

For dense vegetables like carrots, potatoes, beets, and onions: blanch before grilling. This may sound like extra work, but trust me, it’s not. It will cut grilling time to a fraction, give you more control, and improve color and texture. Plus, this step can be done a day ahead.

  •  Cut good-size carrots, beets, and potatoes into ¼- to ½-inch-thick slices. Too thin and they’ll burn; too thick and they’ll take too long to cook. And cut them at a steep diagonal angle into the largest possible ovals. This gives you  fewer pieces, but ones that are easier to turn, and allows more surface area to make contact with the grill.
  • Cut onions vertically into ½- to 1-inch-thick slices, leaving root end attached.
  • Cook the vegetables in boiling salted water until they are slightly pliable, and in the case of carrots or other brightly hued vegetables, until their color deepens, 2 to 3 minutes. Rinse with cold water and ice cubes to stop the cooking and preserve the color. Set out on a towel to dry.
  • When you’re ready to grill, toss each kind of vegetable with a little olive oil, salt, and spices. Black pepper, red pepper flakes, smoked paprika are all good. Avoid adding garlic or sugar-rich sauces or vinegars (such as balsamic) until after grilling, as they burn quickly.
  • Grill over medium to medium-high heat, turning once. You’ll notice that carrots, potatoes, and fennel all develop an appetizing blistered surface as they cook. That’s the water talking. It’s telling you it’s time to flip and cook the second side. These sorts of vegetables shouldn’t take more than 10 or 15 minutes total. Mound them on a platter, garnish as desired, and let them linger enticingly while you grill the protein.

Here, I blanched baby beets with their tops and grilled them whole:

Grilled beets

For leafy vegetables like romaine lettuce, radicchio or other chicories, or sprigs of purslane or rapini: soak in ice water before grilling. Cut lettuces and chicories in half or into ½- to 1-inch thick slices vertically, keeping the core intact. Soak in ice water for 15 minutes or so, pat dry, toss with olive oil and seasonings. Grill over medium, not high, heat until tender and charred in places, 5 to 10 minutes total. Use a large offset spatula or pancake turner to flip lettuces and chicories, and tongs to flip a tangle of sprigged greens. I prefer to grill this type of vegetable AFTER I’ve grilled the meat so that it picks up the flavors and brown bits on the grate.

For water-rich vegetables like zucchini and pattypan squashes: The truth is, I prefer to roast these in the oven for better control. When I do grill them, I tend to do them whole. The skins keep the moisture in, which yields more custard-like flesh. Just poke a few holes in first to let off a little of the steam.

To round out your menu and know-how for your 4th of July celebrations:

Interested in learning how to navigate the farmers’ market like a pro? Sign up for my guided tour of the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market on Wednesday, July 10th. Find more details about the tour here.

Perfect Grilled Carrots

1 ½ to 2 pounds large carrots
Olive oil
Kosher or sea salt
Some optional seasonings: crushed or ground chipotle chiles or red pepper flakes, ground cumin, turmeric, coriander, smoked paprika
1 lemon, optional
¼ cup coarsely chopped herbs, such as cilantro, parsley, basil, mint, or oregano, depending on spices used, optional

Cut carrots on the diagonal into largest possible oval slices, ¼- to ½-inch thick.

Have a bowl of ice ready. Cook carrots in salted boiling water until color brightens and carrots are slightly flexible, 2 minutes. Drain and immediately add ice and cold water to stop the cooking process and preserve intense color. Toss with ice until cool. Drain and pat carrots dry. Carrots may be prepared a day ahead to this point and refrigerated covered.

Heat grill or grill pan to medium or medium-high. Toss carrots with about 1 tablespoon olive oil, about ½ teaspoon salt, and any other ground spices. Spread carrots on hot grill surface and grill until the top surface looks a little blistered and the underside has nice grill marks, but are not burnt, about 4 minutes. Adjust grill head accordingly to slow down or speed up cooking time as needed. Turn and grill second side.

Place carrots on a serving platter and drizzle with a little more olive oil if you’d like, and additional salt and seasonings. Zest lemon over carrots, if using, and add a nice squeeze of the juice. Scatter herbs over all.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Be sure to check out my Summer Entertaining E-Book for more great seasonal recipes and cooking tips!