Taking your Grill-Skill from Tragic to Magic
4 Foundational Tips for Better Barbeque
We’ve all see it…the flaming hot dog, the carbon-crusted hockey-puck that was once a hamburger patty, the black-on-the-outside, frozen-in-the-middle steak that comes off the grill like saddle leather, only with less flavor…
I mean, how hard can it be?
MEAT + FIRE = GOOD…right?
So why do so many well-intentioned grillers turn so much good meat into bad food?
Conversely, what do those smug bastards with their instant-read thermometers, and monogrammed aprons know that WE don’t?
What’s the secret?
Well, like many mysteries in life, there is no one secret to good barbeque*, but rather a number of simple skills that some people are taught, and others aren’t. Like almost everything else, no one is born with the ability to grill great food. It’s a learned skill.
So…let’s do some learnin’!
While there are innumerable tips and tricks that you can (and likely will) learn as you spend more time at the grill, more hours pouring over cookbooks and food Network shows, and more of Junior’s inheritance on shiny new grills and monogrammed aprons, for now, lets look at four very simple, yet foundational principles that can take your grill-skill from tragic to magic, quickly…and without cost.
Just a side note – none of these tips are about the price of the meat. Grilling and, to a greater extent, barbeque, is all about taking the cheap (and sometimes throw-away) cuts, and making them not just edible, but incredible. You don’t need to serve $30-a-steak rib-eyes, or fresh Maine lobster-tails, to make a great meal on the grill…watch and see.
(*Just a note: I know, I know…grilling isn’t barbeque, and barbeque isn’t grilling. However, for the purpose of this article, I’m not going to get into the whole gas vs. briquettes vs. lump coal vs. hardwood vs. smoker vs. hide-lashed caribou-bone grilling platforms – debate. You’ll get there soon enough, or, if you have an extra month…Google it. For this article, the terms “grilling” and “barbeque” are going to be interchangeable and used specifically whenever I feel like it. Hate me if you must…you won’t be the first.)
1. Down to the Briny Depths with ye, Turkey!
In cooking, brining is a process similar to marinating, in which meat is soaked in brine before cooking. Brining makes cooked meat moister by hydrating the cells of its muscle tissue before cooking, via the process of osmosis, and by allowing the cells to hold on to the water while they are cooked, via the process of denaturation. (Thank you, Wikipedia!)
How long to brine depends on the size and type of meat you’ve got. Larger meats like a whole turkey need more time for the brine to do its magic. Small pieces of seafood like shrimp shouldn’t sit in a brine for more than half an hour, or so. Be sure not to brine meats that have already been brined before you buy them, such as “extra-tender” pork, which has been treated with sodium phosphate and water to make it juicier.
Meats that improve on the grill with a good brine:
Chicken & turkey (whole or cut)
Rabbit (or any non-red game meat)
Pork (especially boneless picnic ribs)
Fatty meats like beef and lamb are generally not improved by brining.
My basic brine = 1 cup coarse Kosher or sea salt + 1 cup sugar (white or brown) + 1 gallon purified water.
Bring water to a high simmer, add salt and sugar to dissolve, and allow to cool to room temp before adding the meat. You can increase or decrease the amount of brine, as long as you have enough to completely submerse the meat, by modifying the brine ingredients in these proportions.
How much brine do you need?
Here’s a tip: put your meat in the container you’re going to soak it in, and fill it with purified water until completely covered. Remove the meat, and use this water to make your brine. Clever, huh?
One caveat with brining is that whatever you put the meat in, needs to fit in your refrigerator or cooler. Both the meat and brine need to stay below 40F at all times. This isn’t a big deal with a couple of pork chops, but can present some logistical headaches when you’re roasting half-a-dozen turkeys, as I did last Thanksgiving. In this case, you’re best bet is to sterilize a cooler that’s big enough to fit the meat, brine, and a couple of bags of ice.
General Brining Times
Whole Chicken, Salmon fillets 4 to 12 hours
Chicken Pieces, Pork Chops 1 to 1 1/2 hours
Whole Turkey or Pork Shoulder 24 hours
Turkey Breast, Rabbit 5 to 8 hours
Cornish Game Hens 1 to 2 hours
The beauty of a good brine is you can add whatever you want to it! I often add quartered lemons and chopped garlic to my whole chicken brine, and Chinese 5 Spice to my pork brine. The best flavored brines are often the simplest…citrus juice and dried mint will add a nice Mediterranean flavor to chicken, while cracked black pepper and red wine vinegar provide a rich French flair.
Having said that, the best turkey I’ve ever eaten was roasted by my Burnin’ Love BBQ partner Terry Ramsey, using Alton Brown’s ingredient-heavy brine from his Good Eats Roast Turkey recipe. That was some next-level bird, brutha!
After brining, always rinse your meat and dry it well before cooking. Otherwise, your dinner is going to be super salty, likewise, don’t salt the meat before, during, or after cooking, nor any sauces or gravies you make with the residual broth (which, btw, is freakin’ awesome.)
Lastly, make sure to keep a close eye when grilling meats that have been brined. Brining adds sugar to the meat and can cause it to burn faster, another reason to use a 2-step grilling method.
Which segues nicely into…
2. Direct vs. Indirect: Knowing when to Move Your Butt
What is the difference between grilling over “direct” and “indirect” heat?
Well, it’s pretty much what it sounds like:
Direct grilling = the food is cooked “directly” over an even heat source. Most experts will tell you that type of grilling really works best for foods that take less than 20 minutes to cook, such as steaks, chops, boneless chicken breasts, burgers and hot dogs.
Personally, except for maybe the burgers and dogs, I think that direct grilling is nearly always the ‘Step 1″ in the a 2-Step process, used to seal the meat and make those beautiful charred grill marks. Typically, I would then move the meat to indirect heat to finish cooking. For example, a 2-inch-thick steak, or a well brined chicken breast, can be seared or browned over direct heat for a short period of time, and then moved to the indirect heat area to continue cooking internally without burning.
Indirect grilling = foods are not cooked directly over the heat. With charcoal grilling, the hot coals are moved or “banked” to opposite sides of the grill, this is known as a 2-Zone Fire (here’s a post on how to set up a 2-Zone Fire). Often a drip pan with water, beer, or juice is placed on the bare grate, below the meat.
When grilling with gas, the burners are all pre-heated, and then one or more are turned off and the meat is placed directly over the “off’ burners. I do with this chunks of meat as large as pork shoulders (aka Boston Butt) to sear the outside and seal in all the yummy juices.
Take a look at my “Butts on the Grill” recipe (“move you butt” – get it?) for more.
Again, I believe that indirect heat is best used for finishing foods that need to be cooked for a longer time like roasts, whole poultry, ribs and other large cuts of meat. Except for fish and shellfish, if a piece of meat is too thin to grill over direct heat first, it probably shouldn’t be cooked on the grill at all.
Lastly, never take a piece of meat off the grill when it looks done. By then, it’s too late. The time to plate your entrée is a couple of minutes before it’s done. The external heat will continue to cook the insides to meaty perfection. This is especially true of thin meats like hamburger patties.
3. Know when to get Saucy
Too often, all we taste in our bbq is bbq sauce, and I want to enjoy that wonderful flavor of grilled meat! Also, sauce is probably the #1 leading culprit in burned bbq. Many folks don’t realize how much sugar there is in a typical bbq sauce, nor how quickly those sugars will caramelize, and then burn.
The one meat that I do invariably sauce is chicken. I especially like a nice, sticky bbq or teriyaki sauce on a big mess of grilled chicken legs and thighs (in fact, one of my favorite recipes, Lazy Chicken, is included in the Multi-Zone Fire post that I linked to, above.)
The same goes for pork. Beef – not so much. Of course, this is a matter of personal opinion, not religious doctrine, so, to paraphrase one of my favorite foodie personalities, “If it tastes good…sauce it!”
If you do want to sauce your chicken, turkey, or pork, you’ll do it towards the end of the cooking time, and do so after you’ve moved the meat to indirect heat, otherwise you run the risk of the sugars in the sauce burning. One exception to this rule (and of course there’s an exception), is when I’m “finishing” slow roasted ribs. Once they come out of the smoker (or oven), I like to sauce them thinly, and slap them down directly over hot coals for a few seconds, flip, and repeat the process 4-5 times. This layering of charring and saucing, over and over, creates an amazing and complex depth of flavor.
BTW – I do like a good sauce, I’m just a “serve it on the side” kinda guy.
4. Letting your Meat…Loaf
Have you ever gotten a steak or a chicken breast right off the grill, cut into it with a sharp knife, and had a gush of hot, steamy juices pour out onto your plate?
Did you notice, a few minutes later, that that lovely, juicy piece of glorious cow had turned into sawdust?
Once meat is removed from the heat, it’s vital that it be allowed to “rest”, tented loosely in foil. Resting allows the meat to relax and reabsorb its own juices back into the muscle fibers, as they cool. If you cut into that same steak or chicken breast after its rested under a foil tent for 5-10 minutes, you’ll see those same juices bead up on the surface of the meat, but not pour out of you plate. This means that the whole cut is going to stay moist.
With small cuts like steaks and chops, I think that just a few minutes (5-10) is sufficient.
Some larger cuts of meat, like pork shoulders, leg of lamb, or beef brisket, require foiling or wrapping tightly in foil, and coolering for a longer length of time. This allows the internal temp to rise the last few degrees without any additional heat, without the outside of the meat overcooking.
Here are some good general resting times:
Whole Turkey, Lg Roasts 30 minutes
Smaller roasts, Whole Chickens, Turkey breasts 10 – 15 minutes
Steaks, Chops, Chicken Breasts 5 – 10 minutes
Always tent the meat loosely in foil to keep the surface temperature from dropping much faster than the internal temp. This can lead to drying, as well.
Oh, and while those steaks are resting…toss some chopped shallots, a cup of Merlot, a tablespoon of Dijon mustard, and a teaspoon of chopped garlic into a skillet and simmer. Add any drippings from the steak plate, as well, then pour a couple of tablespoons over each steak, just before serving. (You’ll thank me.)
Okay, so that’s it…
1. BRINE YOUR MEAT
2. KNOW YOUR HEAT
3. SAUCE WHEN BEST
4. LET IT REST
Clear your calendar, you are about to become the grill-god of your family/neighborhood/ office/church.
Welcome to the club…here’s your apron.