One of the most irritating cliches in all of cooking is the Barbecue Bro. Barbecue Bros are usually, but not always, men who have no idea how to cook food indoors, but when freestanding structures are out of the picture and they gain access to their grills, they are three-star chefs. What they lack in substantive cooking skill and self-awareness, they make up for in elaborate grill tools, abundant beer can insulation technology and platitudinal aprons. And they will never stop explaining to you how best to grill various foods.
Nevermind that grilling meat really well is more about thoughtfulness and humility, rather than bluster and bravado. Achieving the ideal level of doneness for a particular cut of meat, building a beautiful brown crust of just appropriate thickness with only light charring and buttery-succulent tenderness is your goal. The prerequisite to all of this is thinking deeply about your meat and being attentive to it throughout the preparation and cooking process. It is simple, in a word, but it is not easy.
Thoughtfulness Over Bravado
Simplicity in food has come to mean something antithetical to complexity. Simply prepared foods are boring, so we’re told, and probably lack flavor whereas elaborate, complexly prepared foods have deep, delicious flavor. Simplicity is bad and complexity is good, so they say. I’m not sure where this idea came from, but it couldn’t be more wrong. By my view, complexity is a hiding place for lesser cooks.
Consider drawing by analogy. If you draw a picture with multiple elements in it, a dramatic landscape in the background, some action occurring in the fore between multiple people, you could be forgiven if you weren’t quite up to the challenge of any one face in the crowd. Truly human expressions may evade you but with all goings on in your drawing, no one is likely to notice. Your lack of talent, in other words, can be hidden away in the complexity of the image.
Contrast this with the challenge of drawing an extreme close up of a single face. Here, there is no where to hide. Any small gestural problem, an error in proportions, and the image will look uncanny, a total failure. In this latter case, your talent is on display, naked. Although far more simple, the picture of the face is the more difficult drawing to produce. To make something simple but also beautiful takes thoughtfulness and great skill whereas just about anyone can do the same with the complex, hiding their deficiencies along the way. Cooking, as it turns out, is a lot like drawing and there is no better example of simple cooking than in our caveman origins in grilling meat. There can be few things as simple as fire and meat.
A Path Forward
There is no single, best way to grill meat. From pork to chicken to beef–setting aside variations in cuts and breeds–there is no single technique to employ to get a routinely gorgeous outcome. It’s not merely about the level of doneness either; pork and chicken require relatively high internal temperatures whereas beef steaks are readily consumable entirely raw. To grill well, you actually must hit three movable targets with a single shot. Those three targets are ideal heat tenderization, browning and doneness. If you cook thoughtlessly and miss your marks, your pork may turn out too firm although paradoxically still at your desired internal temperature. Likewise, you may notice that you have achieved insufficient browning by the time your steak is medium rare or, alternatively, that your steak is still cool at the center and beginning to char heavily on the outside.
But thankfully there is method to the madness. To achieve your desired meat targets of tenderization, browning and doneness, you have four factors at your disposal in (modern) grilling (yes, we’ve evolved beyond mere fire):
- The temperature at which you grill,
- Your cooking time,
- The amount and type of metal that your grilling surface is composed of and
- How often you flip your meat.
This is where naked simplicity enters; within the four factors there is little or no place for mistakes and nowhere to hide.
Temperature and Time
To cook something is to literally add heat energy to it. All else being equal, the higher the temperature of your grill, the more the heat energy being imparted and the faster your meat reaches desired doneness. This is obvious. What is less obvious is our main problem, that you also need to break down the connective tissues in the meat, which takes time. The first pass, therefore, should be to consider how much tenderization you need, and thus, how much time you need your meat to cook. Next, you’ll have to consider your required level of doneness and how the two might somehow meet. (For a deeper background on the science behind adding heat to meat, that is cooking, see this article and this one.)
Separately, the more connective tissue in your meat (the so-called “tendinous cuts”), the more time you’ll need to cook it in order to reach a palatable level of tenderness. Beef tenderloin is the classic example of meat without any need of tenderization (thus, referred to as a “tender cut”). Pork belly is on the opposite side, which requires a lot of time to tenderize. Given the generally high temperature of grilling, something like pork belly will never tenderize before it reaches ideal doneness whereas beef tenderloin needs no tenderization at all. This makes the tenderloin much better suited for grilling than is the belly.
Interestingly, temperature isn’t the only factor that conveys heat energy into meat. The material of the grill surface, and heft of it, are other important factors. Thin, Japanese style korno mesh grills use a fairly fine, wire-like grill surface, which is built for the purpose of mostly cooking with air and radiant heat.
On the other side of a wide spectrum, thick and heavy, are cast iron flat top grills, which cook entirely with the stored heat in the metal. Given the cast iron’s ability (by a vast margin) to hold more heat energy than air, and convey it to the meat, a flat top grill can cook much more quickly than a korno grill at any given temperature, but even more critically, brown meat much more quickly and deeply. In general, the heftier the grill surface, the more quickly your meat will cook, but at any given level of doneness, you will get more and deeper browning. Your choice of grilling surface will, therefore, also impact your temperature and time. (For more of the material science behind cooking surfaces, see this article.)
Flipping your meat more or less quickly can also impact how quickly you reach your desired level of doneness and the amount of browning. In general, the more frequently you flip, the more quickly you reach desired doneness, but you also get less browning. The reason for this is, when you heat meat on the first side, you add a lot of energy to the outer surface of the meat. When you switch to the other side, the outer surface of the meat on the first side continues to cook the inner layers of the meat despite being off the grill surface. That said, temperatures are only high enough on grill surface to achieve browning and only the side of the meat in direct contact with it will brown.
As a default, I recommend infrequent flipping. But, as a way to better control your browning and overall cooking, varying flipping frequency can be a great way to dial in for unexpected variations in meat tenderness, sugar content (contributing to more or less browning) or water content (contributing to quicker overall cooking).
Putting It Together
Grilling simplicity is one of the great pleasures of life. But simple is not the same easy, as we’ve seen. To help make it a little easier, the following is a chart with some guidance on grilling methods, drawing on all of the preceding, to achieve great results:
Ultimately, mastering grilling is a life long pursuit where skills and intuition are honed with experience. Thankfully, though, the fruits from the trying are paid immediately and well worth it!
Have a question? Ask me anything!