Grilling 103: Time, Temp, and The Zen of Waiting

Having talked about the tools of the trade, as well as the secret of searing, I want to get a little deeper into what I think a lot of people find most challenging about grilling: cooking big things a long time. The beauty of hot-fire cooking, for most of us, comes from watching something cook and change and get more delicious in real time; grilling a steak or pork chop, or even a hamburger, is a kind of high-speed cookery, at least if you’re doing it right. It’s essentially a time-lapse version of kitchen cooking. But what about the kind of grilling that actually takes a while? The kind that requires you to judge when the thing is done inside? That demands constant probing and shifting and testing?

That kind is harder. But you need to learn to do it.

Think about it. The average grill isn’t really that big. The largest Weber is only 22.5″ inches across. That’s less than two feed. And it’s not like all of it is available for cooking: likely you’ll have your primary heat either on one side or in the middle. So realistically, you only half 16 or 17 inches, tops. You can make at most one rack of ribs, or a couple of thick steaks, or four or five hamburgers. Now, that’s great if you are cooking for four or five people. But you’re not. If you are going to be a serious outdoor cook, you are going to host parties, and have families come over, and sooner or later you’re going to have to cook for 20 guys. (This was Peter Clemenza’s worst-case scenario in The Godfather when giving Michael Corleone cooking advice in The Godfather.)

The tools are the same. The salt is the same. The searing is the same. The only difference is time and temperature. When you are cooking any big piece of meat, whether it’s a leg of lamb, a rump roast, or even a whole baby pig, the most important activity of yours isn’t really an activity at all: it’s awareness. You need to commune with your meat, to understand where it started, and where it’s going – how fast it’s cooking and at what kind of heat. I’m not going to lie to you, though. That’s not the kind of knowledge you get without a fair amount of experience. It takes a lot of hours and a lot of embarrassment and a lot of ruined meat to learn the zen of waiting. But that said, here are a few tips that will help you get to a state of culinary clairvoyance.

* Make sure that the meat is away from direct heat. Remember, everything starts out at high heat, and finishes at low heat. If something is too big to fit on the cool side, expand the cool side. Or, failing that, put a piece of foil or something there to protect it from too much raidant heat.

* If you’re looking, you’re not cooking. This old BBQ chestnut has been overused, and there are definitely exceptions, but it contains an essential truth. Every time you lift the lid of a grill, you let all the heat out, not to mention the smoke. Therefore, don’t open it more than you have to.

* Use a remote thermometer. I sort of hate advising this. To me, using a remote thermometer, or any kind of thermometer, defeats the whole point of live fire cooking. It’s like hiking on the New Jersey Turnpike. That said, if you are cooking for a whole bunch of people, all of whom are expecting a good dinner, you need to be sure how fast your meat is cooking, and if it’s cooking at all. Get a remote like this; you plunge it into the deepest part of the meat, and an app on your phone tells you how hot the center is. I can’t tell you how much I hate saying this. I might have to go back and delete it, in fact. No! Let it stand. It needed to be said.

* This also needs to be said: I never use a thermometer. Ever. I touch meat – I push it and feel it and nudge it and poke at it. I can tell by feel if it’s done, pretty much; and the reason I learned that is because I never used a thermometer. I’m just saying.

* Another lesson to live by: rare meat can always be cooked more, but overcooked meat just sucks. Overcooking meat makes you look like a real jamoke. It ruins everybody’s meal, except for that one guy who is terrified of any trace of pink in his meat, no doubt as part of some far-reaching psychosis brought on by childhood trauma (“mother, there’s blood!”). It looks terrible, too. So, let’s say that you misjudged the meat. You cut it up, and while the outside slices were just ride, the inside ones were raw. Since you are not cutting at the table, nobody knows. Guess what? Just cut thick slices, season them, and grill them off like steaks. They aren’t as good as a sliced roast, it’s true. They’re better.

These pointers are just that: pointers. They won’t teach you the mysteries of time and temperature. Only the universe can do that. But in the meantime, they can give you the basic direction for what is probably the single toughest thing to do in all of live-fire cooking. Or, rather, the second-toughest task. The first, the art of barbecue, comes next week.

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