Saturday, September 29, 2012

Back to Basics, Part 5: Grilling

Grilling is a cooking technique that almost everyone is acquainted with, and a cooking method in which some folks take a tremendous amount of pride. As well they should, because it is not as straight-forward as everyone makes it out to be! But have no fear, the knowledge of a few simple key facts about grilling will make your next cookout a huge success.

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First of all, and I have to say this, please don’t call it “barbecuing”. Okay, I won’t be that much of a stickler, but I will tell you that this term is technically incorrect when referring to the quick, dry and high heat method of cooking you are accomplishing when using your outdoor or indoor grill. “Barbecue” describes meat that has been cooked in a low heat, moist environment for a long time, breaking down the collagen in the meat into gelatin resulting in a succulent, tender dish usually served with some kind of sauce. This is also known as braising. If you missed my column on braising, check it out!

What you can do, however, is recognize the many similarities between grilling and broiling. Although grilling provides an incredibly unique flavor and special texture that is difficult to produce with any other cooking method, broiling is always an alternative to grilling as it is also quick, dry, and accomplished with high heat. In both grilling and broiling, you will usually use naturally tender, portion sized products (although many folks are discovering the art of cooking larger products on a grill with great results). You are also able to easily cook your food to varying degrees of doneness when grilling or broiling, and you generally can develop a delicious crust with both ways of cooking. Broiling is done, of course, in an oven under the broiler setting with your food sitting on the highest rack, placed within six inches of the broiler unit.

Now we’ll move on to the incredibly interesting characteristics and techniques that are unique to grilling. First of all, one thing that cannot be achieved through boiling is the distinctive and appetizing grill marks. Don’t underestimate the effect of perfectly executed grill marks, and also don’t overestimate how difficult it is to achieve them! With a couple of practice runs, you will be a professional. When starting to grill, first make sure your grill is incredibly hot, which means you’ve given it ample time to heat up, not that you necessarily still have all the burners on high. (More on zone grilling in a minute…) Place your food, presentation side down, at a 45° angle as related to your grill grates. Do not move your food from that position until it releases easily from the grates. Then, do not flip your item, but rather rotate it 90° and leave it until it releases easily from the grates. At that point, you flip it and continue cooking it on the other side. You can also make grill marks on the other side of your food using the same technique, if desired.

Another key to successful grilling is to understand the use of “zone grilling”. A popular technique is to heat the grill to high and keep it there, or to always cook your food right above hot ash grey coals, but that might not be the best method. With thin cuts of meat and more delicate food items, constant high heat will cook your food way too fast and result in an overcooked interior. With thicker cuts of meat, the exterior of your food will be charred before the interior is cooked through sufficiently. In general, it is advisable to first preheat your grill on high for about 15 minutes to ensure the grates are extremely hot or, if using coals, give them plenty of time to burn until they are ash gray. Then, while keeping one “zone” on high, turn the other zones to medium, low, or even off (which is also referred to as “indirect grilling” and used for very large items). When using a charcoal grill, you can either spread the coals out so the heat is not as intense or move them around so one part of the grill is slightly cooler than the other (usually the middle to avoid any area getting too cold). This way, you can sear and mark your food on the high side of the grill, and then finish cooking it on a cooler part of the grill. Most of your steaks, chops and chicken pieces should still be finished over medium heat, whereas your pork loin could be finished over low heat and something as big as a turkey would be finished with no direct heat underneath it but high heat in the area around it. When cooking vegetables, it is probably sufficient to cook them over medium the entire time.

• Back to broiling…because you don’t have the benefit of hot grill grates to help caramelize your food, I often like to use a “cheat” crust to add texture and flavor to grilled items. My favorite is panko mixed with melted butter and crushed garlic and a little grated parmigiano reggiano. There is nothing that doesn’t taste good on!
• When grilling, there are so many options for flavor. I always advocate that you not mess with a great steak too terribly much…salt (give it at least 30 minutes at room temperature to really penetrate), pepper, and maybe a little olive oil, but there are so many other meat options out there that might need a little help. Try marinating (any combination of an acid, a fat, and seasonings) or creating your own seasoning mix with your favorite spices and dried herbs. For succulence, you can add a drip pan with water, beer or apple juice to your grill or fill it instead with water-soaked wood chips when slowly cooking larger cuts (smoke takes a while to adhere to your protein so it’s not advised for quick-cooking foods).
• When it’s time to get grilling, make sure you’re prepared. This is particularly important since most of our grills are outside and running back into the house when you’re meat is ready to come off is a no-no! Here are your must haves:
o Grill Brush to clean your grill grates once they’re hot.
o Lightly oiled bundled cloth (usually handled using tongs) to oil your grill grates after they are hot.
o Tongs/Spatula/Basting Brush, as needed
o Receptacle for your cooked food, and maybe some tinfoil as well.
o Don’t forget extra propane, or coals and matches!

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