The single most comprehensive guide to grilling & outdoor cooking I’ve authored, blog-to-date. Now, where to start? Well, how about at the beginning?!
Understanding, integrating & mastery of one singular cooking technique – Direct v. Indirect Heat Application – Has been well-documented to transform the most ordinary of dime-a-dozen, self-proclaimed grilling virtuosos into that of undisputed, neighborhood-renowned, legendary wielders of the flame.
As much science as art – This post will highlight the tested methodology & holistic differences in cooking techniques. Provide step-by-step recommendations to establish a simple multi-zone grilling surface. Establish check-points to avoid the dreaded external over-carbonization of grilled fare. Walk through advanced strategies for integrating smoke & hydration. Identify which techniques should be employed for various varieties of proteins, produce & baked goods. And, finally, I’ll share a handful of secret grillmaster recommendations, along with a host of blue-ribbon, nationally-recognized recipes, fueling the flames of your culinary passions & inspiring the fare that will lay on the cast iron grates of the next great backyard barbeque.
SCIENCE: HEAT TRANSFER IN OUTDOOR COOKING:
Before diving into the method behind the madness & without transforming this post into a reboot episode of “Bill Nye: The Science Guy,” it’s imperative to understand the 3 primary applications of heat transfer & directional sources of energy applied while outdoor cooking.
Conductive Heat – Energy moved from one entity to another through direct contact – Example: Searing a steak over the surface of a cast iron pan.
Employ: When encrusting the exterior of proteins & produce over direct heat. Express Caution: When caramelizing sugars. Avoid: When elevating to temperature larger cuts of protein & roasting baked goods.
Convective Heat – Transfer of energy between an object & it’s surrounding environment – Example: Roasting a Thanksgiving turkey in the hot air of an oven.
Employ: Over indirect heat when barbequing larger cuts of protein & roasting baked goods. Express Caution: When cooking for long periods of time without introducing supplemental hydration to the culinary equation. Avoid: When grilling thinner cuts of protein & produce.
A touch sweet with a gentle roundhouse kick of heat. The perfect compliment for any main protein or an all-lean & green backyard cookout. Recipe link: http://goo.gl/siwqV5
Radiant Heat – Transfer of energy, without contact, between an object & it’s primary heat source – Example: Cooking hotdogs in close proximity to the flames of a camp bonfire. Or, the warmth absorbed by your skin while standing outside under the sun.
So. Why is understanding the aforementioned paramount? Well. Let’s use the example of grilling a well-marbled rib eye steak – An incredibly flavorful cut of beef, often undercooked with an non-caramelized exterior, or charred beyond recognition into slabs of unrecognizable, carbonized meat bricks. In either instance, a uniformly horrible, unappetizing calorie consumption experience.
Animal muscle is comprised of approximately 70% water, 20% protein, 5-10% fat & carbohydrates (sugars in the form of glycogen)). In the cooking process, internal temperature of beef (as with all foods) arises at a slower rate than it’s exterior, water in the meat evaporates at a variant temperature than proteins carbonize, than fats render & sugars caramelize.
A slight change in temperature intensity, alteration in energy type (conductive, convective, or radiant), variation in heat source (direct v. indirect), & duration at which the meat is subjected to these applications play a varied role in the visual appearance, texture, juiciness (yes, that’s a scientific term (in this article)), flavor profile & taste of the steak.
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The key in outdoor cooking, specifically to grilling the finest cuts of rib eye – lies in control of internal temperature & external heat source – Charring & encrusting the well-seasoned exterior, while gently elevating the internal muscle fibers to tender, mouth-watering, medium-rare perfection.
METHODS OF GRILLING:
Direct heat – A high heat method used to cook small or thinner portions of food quickly, over the immediate heat source, with grill lid open. Best employed at temperatures +600℉, laying to flame steaks under 1.5” in thickness, chicken breasts, burgers, fish filets & seafood, most fruits & vegetables.
Indirect Heat – Think of this method as low & slow outdoor baking – cooking to internal temperature, not time. With the capacity to integrate a variety of elevated flavors & smoky essence into your fare, this barbeque-style approach to grilling is best leveraged by placing food near the immediate heat source, with the grill lid covered for maximum consistency in heat application. At no more than 225℉, foods that work well under influence of indirect heat include – Pizza, pies & breads, pork loin, beef roasts, brisket, racks of ribs, +2” thick hunks of steak & whole chickens.
Lid Open v Closed – The science here is relatively elementary here, my Dear Watson:
Lid open = Release of convective, radiant heat = Cooler, inconsistent temperatures surrounding the grilling surface = Internal food temperature arising more slowly = Increased overall cooking time = Increased risks for over-cooking compounds within the food’s exterior layers, prior to internal temperature arriving at desired point.
This method ensures better control over a single cooking source (direct, conductive-radiant heat from coals, flames & grill grates)) & is ideal at high temperatures for searing steaks, burgers, hotdogs, kabobs & any other food that could be easily ruined by over-cooking.
Closed lid = Capturing of convective, radiant heat = warmer, more consistent temperatures surrounding the grilling surface = decreased overall cooking time = Increased risks for elevating the food’s interior past desired temperature. This method does not improve control of single source heat, is most relatable to baking within a convective oven & ideal integrating smoke, preparing legs of lamb, whole turkeys, roasts, foods cooked on rotisserie, baked goods & anything falling under the category of “barbeque.”
That said, the art to this science is knowing when to apply the lid & when not to – In effort to control internal temperature. See two examples below outlining advanced combination methods for “Sear & Roast,” as well as “Reverse Searing.”
Note: Additional external factors impacting consistency of heat delivery include, but are not limited to, cleanliness of the grill & grate surface, volume of propane, &/or exterior weather conditions.
Grilling legendary pizza from scratch – A holistic tutorial walking you through Homemade honey-whole wheat dough, Fire-roasted red wine tomato sauce & Balsamic vinegar-stout beer reduction. Recipe Link: http://goo.gl/JhLGS8
INTEGRATING FLAVOR & MOISTURE:
Smoke – Pit master purists say, “There’s low & slow cooking, then there’s barbeque.” Barbeque is defined by smoke – most commonly integrated through smoldering wood chips, chunks, pellets, &/or logs. The intent of smoke application is exponentially elevating the flavor profile of grilled fare by imparting the natural, earthy essence of smoldering hardwoods in an enclosed, low heat cooking environment.
Whether using charcoal or gas, the general rule of thumb is using heavier hardwoods (ie. hickory, mesquite & oak) for heavier meats (ie. beef & pork) & lighter hardwoods (ie. alder, apple, cherry, maple & pecan) for lighter fare (ie. poultry, fish). Avoid using softer woods such as fir, pine, redwood, & spruce – each burn rapidly & produce a pungent, infecting aroma.
To better capture & amplify the penetrating capacity of smoke, introduce hydration (see below) & consider applying dry rubs upon the exterior of your barbequed foods. For longer cooks, employ chunks or logs, while for fare requiring shorter cooking times, chips or pellets are recommended.
Chips, chunks, pellets &/or logs can be nestled directly over smoldering coals or flame. Or, another common method is packaging the wood chips & pellets within homemade, perforated foil packets – an effective way to safely control the smoke & impart flavor.
Once your grill has been preheated & at temperature – Simply create a pouch from sheets of tin foil, pour in a handful of wood chips, enclose & perforate with a fork or knife. Place wood (packets) over direct heat source of your 2-zone cooking surface, while the food you intend to barbeque should rest upon the indirect, cooler zone grates. Close the lid, grab a beer, & let your grill do all the work.
A blue-ribbon tangy apple cider pork ribs recipe, leveraging slow&low barbequing alongside smoke integration: http://goo.gl/C2Y0oT
Hydration – Can you recall the last time you truly savored a succulent tenderloin steak grilled well-over temperature & served tough as boot strap leather, or burgers flame-seared to the consistency of hockey pucks, &/or a roasted holiday turkey bird as dry as the day is long? Me either.
Loss of hydration – the greatest of risks encountered in outdoor cooking – whether it be proteins, produce &/or baked goods, the mere mention strikes fear in the most stoic of grill-masters & backyard barbeque bosses. On the other hand, simply understanding the basics of temperature intensity, energy transfer & heat source, should all but eliminate the most remote of concerns.
Beyond the basting fluids, mops & sauces that tote costly levels of calories, fats & sugars, there are 2 rustic, yet effective methods of introducing 0-calorie hydration – Water above the grill grates & water below the grill grates. Water… in a grill? Sounds way too old school simple, right? Well, old school is always cool & it is just that simple.
Note: When direct heat grilling – the impact of supplemental hydration is negligible, but in low & slow barbequing the return on investment is significant – one or both methods should be applied. If barbequing for longer periods of time, add approximately 1 cup of hot water to the water pan every 45 minutes – 1 hour.
Mediterranean Lamb Burgers w/ Olive Tapenade & Feta Cheese – Seared to tender, mouth-watering perfection & plated between gorgeous buttered pretzel bread buns. Recipe Link: http://goo.gl/QMCsE7
Method to the madness – Preheat your grill using the trusted 2-zone method (see below). Fill a simple tin drip pan ¾ with water (not apple juice, cheap beer, craft beer, wine, etc. – just water – anything otherwise is just waste of a great tasting beverage).
Hydration Method #1: Place drip pan immediately over the direct heat source, reducing conductive & convective energy emanating to the opposite, cooler grilling zone. Your food should rest square upon the indirect grates, slowly barbequing & gently arriving to temperature while the simmering water hydrates exterior of your fare.
Hydration Method #2: Place drip pan under the indirect grill grates, immediately below the fare being slowly barbequed to tender, sweet loving perfection. The neighboring direct heat evaporates the water enveloping the indirect zone in a warm blanket of moist, smoky air.
Dual Hydration & Smoke Method: Blow minds at your next barbeque. Leverage 2 drip pans. Yes, 2. One over the direct heat zone front grill grates & one immediately under the indirect grill grates – in close proximity to the primary heating source. The wood chip pouch (see above) should be place upon the hottest rear grates of the direct heat zone. When smoke emanates from the wood pouch barbeque magic is prepared to commence.
Explore sweet simplicity, yet depth & complexity of the aromatic Asian-fusion flavors inspiring this skewered Kauai Coastline sea fare cuisine. Recipe Link: http://goo.gl/tnGuP9
HOW TO SETUP A MULTI-ZONE GRILLING SURFACE:
Gas: 1-burner grill – Turn the grill to high, then leverage the warming shelf, lined with tin foil, removing the meat from direct contact with the grill grates. 2-burner grill – Turn right side of the grill to high & leave the left side off. 3-burner grill – Turn far right side of the grill to high, the middle to low-medium and the left side off. 4-burner grill – Turn far right side of grill to high, middle right to medium, middle left to low, & leave the far left zone off.
Charcoal: Ignite the charcoal in a chimney starter. When coals are glowing red, dump coals onto the grill floor. Rake coals, pushing ⅔ to one side of the grill, slanting the remaining coals to the opposite side of the grill, establishing high-piled 1 hot zone & 1 cooler zone. For every hour of cooking, add a half-stack of coals.
ADVANCED METHODS OF COMBINATION DIRECT-INDIRECT GRILLING:
Sear & Roast: This strategy is all about the action – Searing high & hot, over red-glowing coals & raging flames, with the lid wide open for all to witness your grilling skill. When the exterior of your fare is perfectly carbonized, a gentle slide across the grates to the indirect, cooler cooking zone allows the internal temperature to rise without the exterior drying, burning & transforming into something inedible.
This method is phenomenal for barbeque chicken. Sear well-seasoned drumsticks 3-4 minutes per side, quarter-turning, over intense direct heat. Then transfer to the indirect, cooler zone, slathering on one caramelized layer after another of sweet & tangy homemade barbeque sauce, until desired internal temperature achieved. Prior to serving, allow chicken to rest over a baking sheet topped with a cooling rack. The internal proteins will relax & exterior sugars will firm – ensuring maximum finger-licking flavor in every last bite.
A phenomenal filet & red wine reduction recipe leveraging the “Sear & Roast Method”: http://goo.gl/HpeUyB
Reverse Sear: Think low & slow, then high & hot! This 2-zone technique is phenomenal for foods traditionally cooked through indirect methods & perfect when applying sugars or sauces as a final step to a grilled meal.
If grilling thick steaks lay your handsome hunk of meat upon the indirect, cooler grates, with the lid closed, gently elevating the internal temperature. Once your steak is within 15-20 degrees of the desired internal temperature, turn all the burners of your grill to maximum heat. Transfer that big ‘ole slab of sizzling beef to the hottest grates of the direct heat zone and sear for 3-5 minutes per side while lightly basting with oil or butter, encrusting the exterior of the meat, until desired internal temperature achieved. Before serving, rest steak under tin foil tent for 5-7 minutes (per every inch of thickness), allowing the meat to relax & internal, denatured protein fibers to reabsorb their juices.
An award-winning balsamic-ginger grilled chicken drumsticks recipe leveraging the “Reverse Sear Method”: http://goo.gl/ryOWyi
5 FINAL GRILL MASTER RECOMMENDATIONS:
5. Yes, you are correct, #5 is #1. Why? Because my old man says it’s important to start with the end in mind. Mentally plot your way backwards through the recipe so your preparation & timing is perfect – in that all portions of the meal arrive to temperature & are served in coordination. Consider both active & inactive cooking time – Allowing you to prepare excellent fare & equally excel at entertaining / enjoying your family, friends & guests.
4. Cook to temperature, not time. Although we all know someone passionate about steaks prepared to the significantly darker side of overly-carbonized – the method remains the same. Whether you own the most basic of backyard tin can kettles or a $10,000 commercial-grade, stainless steel, fire breathing infrared grilling machine – Operate at all times with the assumption that your factory-installed thermometer is wildly inaccurate. Ensure mastery of your grilling domain by obtaining a quality, digital-read internal temperature thermometer & an infrared surface thermometer – both should be used in tandem. Click this link for Char-Broil’s recommendations regarding meat temperatures and grilling safety.
A rustic dish fired up in a cast iron pan, infusing subtle, smoky flavors into the sweet, caramelized summer fruits of the galette. http://goo.gl/78a62a
3. Keep your hands off the meat – Before, During & After Grilling: Before: Rest the meat, covered, at room temperature at least 20 minutes prior to grilling – improving your ability to create a great exterior crust while cooking the beef to the desired internal temperature. During: Set it and forget it. Allow your grill to do what it does best – grill incredibly juicy, succulent meat. After: As you remove your steak from the grill give it another rest. A minor degree of patience before plating is a difference maker! As a rough guideline, for every inch of thickness rest your steak 3-5 minutes prior to slicing and serving.
2. Know the value of varied heating zones on your grill. If you’re not on board at this juncture… Well. Start over. Paragraph one. Word one. Read slow. I’ll see you back here in 15 minutes.
1. A clean grill is a happy & healthy grill. Do not underestimate the importance of changing your vehicle’s oil every 3,000 miles, brushing your teeth daily, & servicing your grill before & after each use – doing so will will ensure longevity of your grill for years to come. Click this link for Char-Broil’s recommendations regarding routine grill maintenance and upkeep.
Grill onward. Stay hungry. Be great. Cheers!