Grilling 104: What To Do When Things Go Wrong

Here’s the thing about experienced grillers: they don’t panic. They don’t panic when fires flare up, and threaten to turn the cook into the Phantom of the Opera. They don’t panic when sausages burst, splattering hot grease everywhere. They don’t panic when the brisket is still tough and covered with creosote, and everybody is about to sit down. In short, they never panic. And neither should you. After all, it’s only a meal; if worse comes to worse, you can always order Chinese food. Or just throw something else on the fire, something cheap and easy, like hamburgers or hot dogs or chicken wings. (Chicken wings are an underrated grill food.)

Even if things do go wrong, even catastrophically wrong, there are some emergency treatments. Here a few, and their respective remedies.

Overcooking. The old saying that you can’t reverse overcooking is true, but you can stop it in its tracks. When I see that a steak or chop or chicken has gone too far, I immediately take it off the grill and pour whatever is cold onto it, which is usually beer. The classic method is to plunge it into cold veal stock, but I am going to go out on a limb and guess that you don’t have cold veal stock sitting around. Hot meat absorbs whatever liquid is around it when hot, which changes its flavor, but it also stops cooking. There are worse things than crusty, medium-well meat softened and flavored with beer, juice, or soda. Even ice will do the job if need be. If the meat is brutally blackened and charred, just got the black parts off. If the meat underneath is completely overcooked and devoid of juice, cut it up into thin strips and mix it with some sauce; it will work as sandwiches, if you cut it finely enough and put some coleslaw on top.

Undercooking. Nothing is more dismaying to your guests that seeing a steak cut open to reveal a raw, hideous, wound-like center. Which is one reason never to carve in front of guests. The fix for this one is surprising easy; some would even say that it’s a huge improvement. You simply cut the meat into thick slices, season them, and throw them back onto the grill.

Gas grills. Nothing is more depressing to a serious griller than being reduced to the use of a gas grill. Worse still is when the gas grill is underpowered and weak, as they so often are. While any heat source will eventually cook meat through, a gray, necrotic surface is revolting, and defeats the whole purpose of grilling. It might as well be cooked in a crock pot. The answer is simply to put charcoal on top of the burners. Even the weakest gas flame is sufficient to light lump charcoal or even briquetts, and if you have some wood chips to put atop the hot coals, you are back in business.

Uncontrollable fires. There are times when, for whatever reason, a hot fire will explode, shooting flames several feet in the air and threatening to scorch the feathers of birds flying high above. There is one very easy fix for this one: just cover it with the lid. Obviously, you should try to take the food off it, but if that’s not an option, write it off. The lid is made of metal; it won’t catch on fire. And by shutting off the fire’s oxygen, it will immediately quench it. But don’t open it right back up! The fire that emerges may be even more violent than it was before. If you don’t have a lid, just stand back and let the fire do its worse. It will burn itself down quickly enough. And if it doesn’t, and is near something flammable that simply stand back and throw water or beer or whatever is handy from a distance. Smoke will billow but the fire will go out, and then you can pour more beer on it still.

Tepid, dying fires. This one is tricky. Coal burns down eventually, and even a pro griller can sometimes overestimate how much heat he or she can get from the embers. If the heat source is not doing its job, remove all the meat, recoal in a chimney, and add the hot coals. The meat isn’t going to go bad; in fact, sitting for a few minutes may even serve to temper it.

Burns. Sooner or later you are bound to get burned. You know the usual treatments. I would suggest keeping an aloe plant in your back yard. It’s always close at hand, doesn’t run out, and is a more effective salve than any I know.

Just keep your head, no matter what happens. And even if there is nothing to do, there is always egg fu young.

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