Grilling 102: The Brown and the Black

Seeing as how last week I gave an elementary primer on grilling, with most of the attention on what your basic tools should be, I figure – why not take the next step? I’m not going to attempt to get into the culinary complexities of marinades, mops, and other advanced recipes. You have Rachael for that. But the more I think about it, the more naturally the basics of live-fire grilling organize themselves into four distinct subjects:

1: Basic Tools and Techniques. What kind of grill to use, what kind of coals, the principles of high heat and kosher salt. If you only have ten minutes to learn to grill, this is that ten minutes.

2: The Brown and the Black: searing, browning, and burning.

3: A Seminar on Smoke: drafting control, wood chips, and the principle of the two-zone fire

4. Grilling Orchestration; or, how to know what you’re doing.

So let’s concentrate on browning. Here is an image you have likely seen eight thousand times on menus, billboards, magazine ads, and on TV:

It’s the familiar grid-pattern steak, which supposedly shows you how perfectly and professionally seared your meat at Tebow’ T-Bone House will be. Except that it doesn’t. If I wanted a picture of what a grilled steak shouldn’t look like, that would be hit. Those black lines? They are burned, ruined, denatured, bitter, carbonized flesh – bad tasting and powerfully carcinogenic to boot. As for the gray stuff, when was the last time you said, “waiter, make sure my steak is nice and gray on the outside”? The answer is never. Meat should never be gray or black; it should be an even brown, a sizzling surface of brown, nutty, beefy flavors of the kind that only proper cooking can release.

The problem is that you need a lot of heat to get that color. And you need it from the fire, not from the heated grill surface. (The criss-cross pattern is almost always a sign of cooking on a gas grill, which can’t produce much direct radiant heat and which instead depends on hot metal to get the job done.) So that means starting with a wickedly hot coal or wood heat source – which in turn means waiting until the stuff is whitish-gray and no longer. You can and should encourage flare-ups, either by using fatty cuts or by rubbing your meat with olive oil.

And there’s another problem as well. Even at high heat, if a steak or chop is less than an inch thick, you are likely going to cook it all the way through if you brown it on both sides. And then you’ll still be eating gray meat, only this time on the inside. The solution is simple. Brown agressively only on the side. Once it looks right, flip it over and let the other side get a little something, just so that it has a little color; then move it off heat and let it finish with the top closed. Meat doesn’t really need to be browned aggressively on both sides; like a 747 that really only needs one jet to get home safely, you get all the flavor you need from one side. Don’t forget, a big part of that flavor is from the sizzling crust of the meat, and whatever side goes onto a plate will immediately be steamed soggy.

Here’s another tip for effective browning. Don’t move the meat at all. I know there are advanced techniques that involve flipping it constantly in order to “temper” the meat, but don’t worry about that for now. Just leave it alone. Five or six minutes will get you the mahogany surface you long for. Anyway, it’s no mystery. Just lift it up and look at it from time to time to see how it’s doing. You will definitely be surprised at how long meat can be directly be licked by fire without really getting brown.

Because, remember, you want it to get brown without cooking all the way through. So you know the advice you’ve heard about taking the meat out an hour before you cook it? Ignore it. It’s wrong. The meat should be as cold as possible when it goes on, especially if it’s not very thick. Brown on the outside, pink in the middle: that’s the default goal for every beginning cook.

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