Hot Off the Grill
A backyard barbecue ranks up there with baseball as a great American pastime. These days, most people use a gas grill and not the charcoal briquettes-burning type, which entails a different cooking approach and yields a different product. A fancy grill with bells and whistles is nice, but the grillmaster controls the fate of the food.
According to Darwin it was natural selection that fostered evolution, but in his book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham proposes it was cooking over an open flame that truly propelled us forward. This practice — beginning approximately 1.8 million years ago — increased the bioavailability of calories and nutrients, leading to brain growth and other biological adaptations, including weaker teeth and jaws. The combination of quicker digestion and reduced chewing time allowed for further innovations and milestones, not least of which was that hearth and home became a focal point. Indeed, Wrangham credits open-flame cooking with the rise of humanity, and nothing less.
Open flame cooking evolved over the next few thousand millennium. Barbecuing as we know it originated in the Caribbean, with spice and sauce-swathed meats cooked over an open grill or pit. The Taino tribe of Caribbean Indians had a word for grilling food on a raised wooden grate: barbacoa. Hence, the barbecue.
Here in the Northeast, folks regularly use the words barbecue and grill interchangeably, and often in the same sentence, as in “Come on over for a barbecue and I will grill some burgers!” However, the words refer to very different cooking methods. Although barbecue is frequently used to describe any type of outdoor food preparation, by definition it involves long, slow cooking over indirect heat at a relatively low temperature. Charcoal or wood impart flavor-producing smoke, which is a crucial factor for true barbecue.
Grilling, on the other hand, is fast and hot. Food is cooked over direct heat, which first sears and then chars the surface, resulting in the complex flavor and aroma compounds that people crave. This is called the Maillard reaction, and its addictive taste keeps us coming back for more. (The Maillard reaction should not be confused with its counterpart, caramelization, which provides rich, though less complex flavors, and mainly occurs while barbecuing.)
It’s a common misconception that searing meat traps juices, locking in the moisture. Achieving that juicy steak is the result of using meat with ample fat, grilled to the correct internal temperature, and allowing it to rest after cooking. Any grillmaster, as well as appreciative eaters, will tell you it’s an art.
Mrs. G Appliances in Lawrenceville is doing a brisk grill business, and not just because summer is around the corner. Since COVID-19 made us housebound, people want to improve their outdoor cooking skills, says proprietor Debbie Schaeffer. While 70 percent of customers choose a gas grill, buyers have also been experimenting with both pellet grills and Big Green Eggs.
A pellet grill is a hybrid smoker, grill, and convection cooker, which utilizes compressed wood pellets as its fuel source, instead of gas. The pellets are available in various woods, such as hickory and mesquite, that render a smokey flavor to food, similar to true barbecue, but accessible to the backyard pitmaster.
The Big Green Egg resembles the type of grill that Dr. Seuss would presumably cook on. Inspired by Japanese kamado-style cooking, organic charcoal is used for fuel and food can be grilled, baked, or smoked. The insulated ceramic vessel easily maintains even temperatures, allowing for year-round cooking. It is very fuel efficient and produces what looks to be a superior wood-fired pizza.
A growing trend is Bluetooth- and Wi-Fi-enabled equipment that connects your grill and smartphone, via the brands’ app. Features include step-by-step recipes at your fingertips and the ability to change the grill temperature remotely. Updates on cooking progress are sent to your phone so you won’t need to hover over the grill, and the digital fuel alerts will ensure that you don’t run out of propane mid-barbecue. There may be a learning curve with the new technology, says Schaeffer, but anyone can do it. When asked if great food depends more on a grill with bells and whistles or the grillmaster, she diplomatically asserts that food is just better when cooked outdoors. It looks good, tastes good, and there’s no mess or odor in the kitchen.
For most strong opinions on grilling technique, there exists an opposing viewpoint. There are, however, some things experts do agree on.
Never put food on a dirty grill. Clean your grill when it’s preheating, using a wire grill brush. The accumulated food has protected grill grates from rust since last its last use. Also, keep the grill lid open while preheating, as closing it allows propane to build up inside the chamber.
To oil, or not to oil. Steven Raichlen, author of The Barbecue Bible recommends you oil grill grates when hot, just before placing your food on them. Conversely, Meathead Goldwyn, author of Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling, advises not to oil grates at all, because it will cause food to stick, smoke and absorb unsavory flavors. Instead, he recommends mayonnaise-based marinades for any type of food. A very thin layer will prevent sticking, encourage the Maillard reaction and hold spices to food while grilling. Celebrity chefs run the gamut on oiling advice, depending on the type of food being grilled.
To flip, or not to flip. Harold McGee, who writes about the chemistry of cooking, advises to frequently flip grilling meat, at least once every sixty seconds, to promote fast and even cooking. The alternate advice says to only touch meat three times: to put it on, to flip it, and to take it off the grill. Celebrity chef Bobby Flay falls into this group, advising to let a seared crust develop before moving meat. All great minds do not think alike when it comes to flipping.
Fork vs. tongs. Stabbing meat with a fork will tenderize it by breaking up the fibers, however, most experts advise using tongs or a spatula. Spearing with a fork while cooking allows the juices to drain, resulting in dry meat.
Let it be. Experts agree that meat needs to rest for two to five minutes after cooking, and prior to eating. The only controversy surrounding this advice is why. Some say juices are driven to the meat’s center from the heat and need to disperse, while others claim the cooking process forces juices to push outward and need to settle in. Either way, if you cut in too soon, those juices will pool on your plate, instead of staying in the meat.
Dry rub vs. marinade. Dry rubs are a blend of salt, spices and sugar. The salt tenderizes meat, the spices provide flavor, and the sugar encourages caramelization to occur. Salt, however, can also be drying, so a dry rub should only be on meat for a few hours prior to cooking, at most.
Marinades are also used to flavor and tenderize meat. Sugary marinades should be avoided, because the sugar will burn when it hits the grill, often resulting in a disappointing combination of burnt exterior and raw interior. Instead, use a citrus- or vinegar-based marinade, and pat the meat dry with paper towels prior to cooking. This cuts down on moisture and allows the meat to brown. If you do prefer something sugar-based, such as barbecue sauce, use it to baste the meat towards the end of cooking which will limit its exposure to the heat.
The chemical reactions that make grilled food delicious can also have other effects. According to Johns Hopkins University food scientist Dr. Kantha Shelke, grilled foods are leaner and lower in calories than their stove-cooked counterparts. However, the inherent char can also contain carcinogenics, scientifically known as HCAs and PAHs. According to Dr. Shelke, these only need be of concern if frequently consumed.
A lesser-known fact is that rosemary, as well as basil, mint, sage, and oregano, can suppress the formation of HCAs during cooking. These herbs contain antioxidants that mitigate the effects of charred food. In fact, research conducted at Kansas State University shows that burgers marinated with rosemary had a 70 to 80 percent reduction in HCAs than those in a plain marinade. Fresh or dried herbs can be used in both marinades and dry rubs, or simply massaged into meat before grilling. Another way to mitigate HCAs is to cook meat for less time; well-done meat contains 3.5 times more HCA than medium-rare meat. A little bit of char provides a smoky flavor, but a lot is not recommended for health purposes.
Sushi notwithstanding, Americans by and large love food cooked over a flame. Over thousands of millennia, cooking over open fire has evolved from instinct to an art form. Ask your favorite grillmaster, and they will confirm the fact.
Steak with Citrus Marinade
For best results, meat should marinate in a citrus-based sauce for no longer than 2 hours.
1/4 cup orange juice
1 teaspoon oregano leaves
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
Place all ingredients in a Ziplock bag, add meat and coat completely. Place sealed bag in refrigerator for 30 minutes to 2 hours.
Remove meat and lightly pat with paper towel to remove excess moisture. Discard extra marinade.
Preheat grill to 450 degrees. Cook steaks over high heat to desired internal temperature (see note). Allow meat to rest for five minutes before eating.
Note: A probe meat thermometer is the best guide to know when food is cooked to perfection.
Chicken breast: 165 degrees
Rare beef: 125 degrees
Medium beef: 135-140 degrees
Well-done beef: 155 degrees
Steak with Homemade Dry Rub
This makes enough seasoning for two large steaks. Extra dry rub can be stored in an airtight container, as long as it has not touched the meat.
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
Combine all ingredients in a dry container and mix well. Rub a generous amount of spice mixture onto both sides of steak, and massage well.
Preheat grill to 450 degrees. Cook steaks until the correct internal temperature (see note) and well-browned on the outside, with a slight char.
Chicken in Mayonnaise-Masala Marinade
4 boneless chicken breasts, flattened
1 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons masala spice (I used Mom’s Magic Masala, but Garam Masala or any other spice blend can be substituted)
Salt and pepper, to taste
Combine marinade ingredients well and coat the chicken on both sides. Cover dish and refrigerate for 4 to 12 hours.
Grill over high heat (no oiling necessary), flipping occasionally, until well-cooked and lightly charred.
Virtually any type of potato can be grilled! Small potatoes can be cooked directly on the grill in a foil packet.
Clean and dry any type of small potato, such as Yukon Gold or Red Bliss. Place halved potatoes on a generous piece of foil, and coat with a spice mixture of garlic, rosemary, thyme, and salt and pepper, to taste.
Fold foil over until it is a securely closed packet. Place directly on grill, folded side up, and cook until potatoes are fork tender, approximately 25 minutes.
Larger varieties, such as Idaho or Russet, should be parboiled prior to grilling.
Cut potatoes into large wedges and cook in salted boiling water until slightly underdone. Drain well.
Combine garlic, rosemary, thyme, and salt and pepper, to taste, and coat par cooked potato wedges. Drizzle potatoes well with olive oil.
Place wedges directly on the grill and cook until nicely browned.