Summer and the novel coronavirus, which has obliged people to spend more time at home, make grilling out a wonderful idea. But grilling demands a good knowledge of both art and science, so let’s literally get to the bottom of the process: setup.
The first step is always food safety. There are two key safety issues: raw food temperatures and cleanliness. Many probably don’t carry around a food thermometer; one rule: never allow meat to sit out for longer than one hour. An hour is more than adequate to allow the meat to come close to room temperature without the risk of exponential bacterial growth. For cleanliness, use soap and water to wash your hands, counters and platters several times during setup. In our post-coronavirus world, adding a breathing mask and gloves will probably make your guests feel safer.
To spice up the grill, consider marinating, which can help tenderize tough meats and add complex flavors to the meal. The flavor from a marinade only soaks in about an eighth of an inch and occurs quickly. Tenderizing meat provides the real value, and it occurs when either acids like citrus juice or vinegar, or enzymes found in kiwis, papayas or mangoes break down tough connective tissues. Beware, as I learned: never leave meat in marinade too long. In my case, leaving venison in a marinade for several days turned it into mush. As a rule of thumb, marinate seafood for 30 minutes to an hour; beef and pork up to 24 hours; vegetables 10 minutes (since they don’t have connective tissues); and chicken up to 48 hours. Because chicken can marinate for up to 48 hours, you can immerse an entire chicken, with one caveat. Don’t use acidic ingredients because they will likely toughen the meat if marinated for the entire 48 hours. With beef and pork, since the marinades only penetrate a little way into these types of meat, thinner cuts like flank, skirt, sirloin, hanger and round steaks are ideal choices. As with venison, don’t marinate a ribeye, tomahawk or porterhouse, which you risk ruining. With these higher quality cuts, enjoy them with only a little salt and pepper. If you aren’t worried about cholesterol, I recommend adding a pat of butter when they come off the grill.
To prevent wasting expensive ingredients, place your marinade and meat in a sealable bag. Before closing the bag, submerge your bag in a pot of water, leaving the opening just above the surface. This will drive out all the air, help drive the flavors deeper into the meat, and prevent it from drying out.
To really kick grilling up a notch, explore the sous vide technique. French for “under vacuum,” in sous vide meat is sealed in an airtight bag and excess air removed. The next step is pasteurizing the meat (versus cooking) for many hours in a temperature-controlled bath. A sous vide system can maintain a constant temperature within a tenth of a degree. I use a $99 Dork Foods sous vide system, which uses a controller and an old crock pot. Now your marinades are simply used for flavor and not for tenderizing, allowing you to experiment. Another advantage of sous vide grilling is cooking is now done using high temperatures and short duration. At many high-end restaurants, meat is removed from its water bath and seared with a torch before serving.
The final prep is lighting the grill. When using charcoal, try lighting the briquettes with a tower. These towers allow you to light your briquettes with a single crumpled up piece of paper. When using a lighter fluid, allow the coals to develop an entire coating of ash before throwing on the meat. Also when using briquettes, decide on using direct or indirect heat. Direct heat means the coals or heat source is directly below your food, the ideal choice for getting a nice char on the outside and not overcooking the inside. If you go down the sous vide rabbit hole, this is exactly the method you want to use. It is also ideal if you want that rare or medium rare ribeye with a nice charred fat cap.
If you are cooking a roast, vegetables, seafood or any item where you want the interior to fully cook, then you must use indirect heat. In this method, you move the heat source away. With a gas grill, turn off the side where you are cooking, leaving the other side on. With coals, use tongs to move the briquettes to the exterior or to one side. You can add a drip tray filled with liquid below your meat to further slow the cooking. For an added pop, use juice or beer to add another flavor nuance.
Ross Derby graduated with two degrees from the Culinary Institute of America, with a focus on culinary arts and business management. Previously, he oversaw the opening of a 210-seat brewpub at the Orlando airport that did $23 million in sales. Currently, he co-owns and manages the Iron Tree Restaurant and is the brewmaster for Funky Town Brewery in Florissant.