NPF: SUMMER GRILLING PRIMER, PART 3 – JUDGMENT DAY

Posted in No Politics Friday on July 4th, 2008 by Ed

If you've followed the first two installments (here and here) you're all but ready to cook. Like the average M. Night Shamylan film, I have a feeling that this final act is going to be a letdown for some of you.

At this point you are expecting me to tell you some mystical zen secret which will make your mind and spirit one with the grilling meat. This will allow you to sense precisely when food has reached optimum doneness and then remove it from the grill using only your mind. In reality, cooking to perfection on a grill requires three things: a watch, a meat thermometer, and a book to read, which will prevent you from fucking with the food while it is cooking.

I feel like I just told you that there is no Santa Claus.

It's true. Think of how many variables are in play when you are grilling. Do you know the precise thickness and density of the food? Do you know the temperature of the coals and the exact distance between the heat and the cooking grate? Do you know the windspeed and ambient humidity of the area around the grill? All of these things affect how long it will take your food to get where it needs to be. It would be nice if I could tell you some neat tricks for eyeballing various foods to perfect doneness or some hoary old pieces of folk wisdom ("Press your thumb down on the steak…if it springs back, it's medium-rare!") Unfortunately all of that is shit. So if you want the secret to good grilling, it is to use a thermometer. It's unaffected by the variables and it won't lie to you.

That said, I am not devoid of advice. Several things I would like to stress:

1. Red meat continues cooking well after it is removed from the heat. If you leave your steak on the grill until it is medium, it's going to be well done after it sits for a few minutes. Always "undercook" red meat, remove it from the heat, cover it with foil, and wait approximately five minutes. Wait. WAAAAAAAAAAAAAIT. Don't fuck with it. If you tear into your food the second you remove it from the grill, all of the flavor and juices are going to pour out and end up in a puddle on your plate. Resting your meat (giggle) allows it to finish cooking, stabilize its internal temperature, and even out its distribution of delicious flavor.

2. You know that thing people always do on TV (and your dad probably did it too) where one takes a metal spatula and smashes the burgers while they're cooking? Don't fuckin' do that. Ever. I have no idea where this started or who thought this was a good idea. It guarantees dry, tasteless, overcooked food. It's theatrical, slightly satisfying, and makes a neat "sizzle" sound, but come on. Don't do that.

3. Control the temperature of a covered grill with the bottom air vent. This is less useful on an open grill, but believe it or not, moving the bottom vent by half an inch can take your grill from Hot to Nuclear.

4. Remember your grilling zones? Part Two has the details. This is essential for cooking thick foods properly. Take, for example, those monster two-inch pork chops one occasionally sees. You'd start by searing them, one minute per side, directly over extremely high heat on an open grill. Then you'd slide them off of the heat and cover the grill. Wait approximately 15-18 minutes, turning once. When you are cooking with indirect heat, cover the grill and leave it alone. Set a timer and walk away. Every time you lift the lid to peek at your food the cooking process stops. Patience and faith are both helpful; have faith that your food is cooking even if you're not looking at it.

5. Flip food once and only once. Turning the food constantly is another thing people do because they see it on TV and they lack patience. Moving the food around makes it feel like you're doing something, right? Well, it's not good. Patience and knowing when to leave the food alone are the keys.

Without getting into specific foods, this is all the general advice I can give you. Preparation is 75% of cooking. Knowing when to do nothing – to stand aside and let the laws of chemistry take over – is most of the remaining quarter. Above all, remember how much trial and error is involved in mastering anything. I know a good deal about grilling and I still botch things. You will too. Having the information is only part of the equation. What I hope this has done is arm your Bullshit Radar. Whether you're grilling alone or skeptically eyeballing the "Grill Master" at your 4th of July party, now you know. And knowing is half the battle.

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NPF: SUMMER GRILLING PRIMER, PART 2 – SETTING THE STAGE

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 31st, 2008 by Ed

(Weekend bonus, on the off-chance that anyone cares about this topic)

I could have titled this "The Majesty of Fire" because this is about the part of outdoor cooking that gives us that clean, puerile thrill: burning shit. Applying matches to stuff and watching big flames shoot up into the air. Using your kettle grill for a miniature re-enactment of the Dresden firebombing. You and your matches becoming Shiva, the Destroyer of Worlds.

The reason for avoiding that title is that fire has precious little to do with cooking. This is a widespread misconception among the grilltarded – that food is cooked over roaring flames. No. Food is not cooked by fire. Food is cooked by heat. Fire is not a necessary indicator of heat. Not to get all existential about it, but what is fire? Perhaps a necessary first question is, what is charcoal? Well I'm glad you fucking asked.

Charcoal: Real charcoal is wood. That's it. It is wood that is "cooked" at an insanely high temperature (around 1000 degrees) in an anaerobic environment until every atom of water, tar, and other organic compounds are vaporized leaving only a solid hunk of light, brittle carbon. It begins its life as normal firewood sealed in a metal retort which has only a few small holes to allow steam and volatile gases to escape. The retort is heated for hours to "burn" away everything but the carbon. But that's the trick; in the absence of oxygen, it doesn't actually burn. After allowing the retort to cool for several hours without air, the wood becomes charcoal. And charcoal is an easy-to-ignite, clean, and dense source of fuel.

(Pre-Fire steps: Is the bottom of your grill free of ashes from previous cooking sessions? If not, empty it. Open the bottom ventilation holes on your kettle.)

Fire: Igniting charcoal simply initiates the process of burning off whatever impurities remain in the wood and unlocking our access to the fuel inside. If you see flames and decide to cook your food over them, you are cooking your food in a bath of hot, toxic gases being vaporized so that the fuel can begin generating heat. I can't stress this enough, yet I try because I have seen it so many times: do not douse your charcoal in lighter fluid, set it ablaze, and throw your food over the ensuing inferno.

So what should you do?

Well, you could invest $15 in a chimney (or, if you're handy, I suppose it would be simple to make one out of an old coffee can). In this instance your task is simple: ignite the chimney (from below, of course) and wait. WAIT. Wait until you see no flames, no smoke, and almost no "black." You want uniform ashing and heat. That means everything is light gray and emitting a sinister red glow.

Sans chimney, the "pyramid" method works well. Arrange an appropriate amount of charcoal in a pyramid formation on your grill's lower grate, ignite (prefereably without lighter fluid, but I won't get all judgmental), and wait. WAAAAAIT. Novices see the fire disppear and assume that they either missed their opportunity to cook or need to add 3 gallons of lighter fluid. No. You're fine. The fire will "go out" after a few minutes. Really. It's OK. When you see the uniform light gray and the sinister red glow, you're ready. Here is a visual reference. Do not even think about cooking until you see that (although I assume you'll be dealing in smaller quantities).

You are now prepared to cook. If you have a gas grill, all you had to do was turn a knob. But it is a good idea to do so and let the fake lava rocks or ceramic tiles (which will be doing the actual cooking) heat up for at least 10 minutes before proceeding. The food you plan to cook should be at room temperature or thereabouts; take it out of the fridge before you start lighting fires to let it warm up. Under no circumstances should food be taken directly from the fridge (or, god forbid, the freezer) and thrown on the grill. This will dramatically increase the odds of the charred exterior/raw interior phenomenon.

Now that you're prepared, you need to figure out if you're grilling or barbecueing.

The standard American way to do either is to spread all of the coals across the bottom grate, apply the top grate, and throw food at it. Let's not be standard Americans, grilling pre-formed Wal-Mart beef patties (now featuring 10% more spinal column!) inbetween laps of the Jack Links 400. To understand how to set up your heat source, let's understand the two different types of heat involved.

Convection heat, the kind that makes grilling go, is really fucking hot. It is the heat that rises directly upward from your charcoal. Placing your hand a few inches above your coals will be nearly unbearable when they are glowing and ready to go. Radiant heat, as the name implies, radiates outward in all directions. Placing your hand a few inches away from the same coals but at, say, a 60 degree angle would be much more bearable. The point is that putting food over your coals subjects it to phenomenal heat; placing it on the grill but not over the coals subjects it to gentle heat.

When grilling, you need to establish at least two "zones" on your grill. Invest in a long pair of metal tongs to allow you to manipulate the white, glowing charcoal. You need a high-heat grilling zone and a safety/no heat zone. In other words, not all items on the grill will cook uniformly. So if, for example, one were to put all of the charcoal on one half of the grill, the other half would be cool (absent convection heat). Since your grill will not be covered during proper "grilling" the radiant heat will have almost no impact on your cool zone. Here is a simple visual representation of two-zone grilling. The metal pan is useful for catching food drippings, which maintains a clean grill. It also makes arranging the coals easier. It's remarkably simple but greatly reduces the incidence of nuclear char on your food. Grill in the hot zone, then slide the food into the safe zone to wait for its buddies. Gas grills achieve a similar effect by having a raised grate (a "burger balcony") to allow food to be taken off high heat when done.

Barbecue employs a very similar setup. Here, however, we are concerned about radiant heat (never convection) and therefore we want to ensure a wide, even distribution of coals that will not subject the food to convection. Translation: transfer the glowing coals to the sides of your grill and leave the center open. Weber sells nifty little baskets that clip to the sides of the grill and hold coals, or you can simply modify the setup described above for grilling by placing the empty pan in the middle of the grate and arranging the coals around it. In a gas grill, this effect is created by turning on the left burner while leaving the right one turned off. If your gas grill has only one burner, you can't barbecue. Hope you like hot dogs.

Holy crap, you haven't even put food on the grill yet and you're like 97% of the way to pure excellence. I know that makes little sense, but trust me: the overwhelming majority of the mistakes that lead to poor cook-out experiences are made before anyone touches a piece of food. You can avoid this by remembering just a few basic rules:

1. You're not cooking with fire, you're cooking with heat.
2. Be patient; cooking before your heat source is ready means cooking your food in toxic gases.
3. Investing in a few cheap tools – metal pans, tongs, etc – pays off big-time.
4. Know in advance if you are grilling or barbecueing – and the difference between the two.

Next week, you're actually gonna fondle some meat. Conceal your glee.

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NPF: SUMMER GRILLING PRIMER, PART 1 – CHOOSING YOUR WEAPONS

Posted in No Politics Friday on May 16th, 2008 by Ed

One of the things that people who suffer long winters – Midwesterners in particular – love about summer is having a cook-out, barbecue, block party, tailgate party, or any other excuse to cook food outdoors through the majesty of fire. Unfortunately most people have not the slightest goddamn idea how to do so and end up imitating the loosely-recollected actions of their Uncle Larry at long-ago Labor Day gatherings. This is especially problematic because grilling is a "male" thing and men are far too pig-headed to A) ask for instructions or B) admit that they need to do A.

As poor grilling deeply offends me, this is a substantive primer of the basic concepts of grilling. Think of it like a Bobby Flay book, only much shorter, with more dick jokes, and sans man-boobs. You swear you don't need it, but you secetly know you do. In this first installment I am going to talk about the basics – our goal, our cooking vessel, and our heat source. If you botch this, no amount of cooking skill can save you after the fact. Being a poor cook means your guests eat overdone food, but not choosing the right tools means they will eat something that tastes like regular unleaded and gives them cancer.

Far too often, men demand (or are expected to take) dominion over the grill. Bullshit. Ladies, it is time to emasculate the irritating "grill masters" who believe that having a dong makes them an outdoor Escoffier. Tell them to find a lawn chair and chug Milwaukee's Best while you make some good food for a change. And guys, if you're that guy, it's time to stop. Mastering outdoor cookery is rewarding. You will make people happy. And cooking for friends and family is about making people happy.

Ready?

First, "grilling" and "barbecuing" are two vastly different things. Grilling involves placing food directly over very high heat for a short period of time. Barbecuing involves long, low, and indirect heat. They are polar opposites. Not understanding the difference, most people grill foods that ought by right to be barbecued. This inevitably results in a charred exterior with a raw interior – and a chef who can't figure out how to cook food through without burning the shit out of it.

Foods with high surface-to-mass ratios (most grilling meats, for example) like grilling. High-volume foods (whole birds, hams, roasts, etc) need to cook for a long time at a low heat which will not burn or char the exterior. When you reach a zen-like stage of mastery in this art, you will practice ideal "grilling" that combines the two: high, direct heat to sear the exterior followed by low, indirect heat to cook the food through. But let's not leap ahead to actual cooking. Let's start with the absolute basics. What do you need? You need a grill and a source of heat.

Grills: Gas grills are for pussies and dilettantes. They kill flavor. Grilled/BBQed food tastes of its heat source. Do you ever hear anyone wistfully pine for "that great propane taste?" Keep that in mind. If you're enamored with the flavor of gas grilling, why not just cook your food indoors, crack open a disposable lighter, and rub the food with butane? Because these grills are extremely convenient (and look swanky) I realize that many of you own one. So be it.

Pussy.

The choice of grills is really not a choice: the charcoal-burning Weber (kettle-style) grill is all you need. I'm not a brand whore; Weber's product simply has yet to be improved upon. Easy to clean, holds heat like a motherfucker, and with more user-friendly features than all other grills combined. You don't need anything fancier or cheaper. Avoid square, flat charcoal grills (ones that look like suitcases).

Heat: You have no options here with gas grills, but that is OK since you are a dilettante. In charcoal grilling, Americans have the regrettable tendency to gravitate toward briquettes. Briquettes are made of coal dust, wax, chemical stabilizers, and ground-up bits of old furniture. People compound this toxic mess by dousing it with lighter fluid. If you MUST cook this way, it is absolutely imperative that you allow your briquettes to burn completely (more on this later) before cooking. With "match light" briquettes, intended to make grilling accessible to people who apparently can't light regular charcoal, there is no amount of burn-off that will keep their chemical taste off your food. Avoid them. You might as well cook over a burning tire.

In an ideal world, you are using natural hardwood charcoal (aka Lump charcoal). Hardwood charcoal is made of wood. Whole pieces of real wood, nothing else. It is more expensive, but it lights very easily, heats quickly, lasts a long time, and gives food the (actually pleasant) taste of hardwood smoke rather than industrial solvent. I can tell you how to make your own (which is admittedly a little extreme) but I'll assume that simply buying it is good enough for you. There are dozens of brands, the availability of which are dictated by region.

Tools: You don't need to go overboard with fancy-pants tool kits, but there are a few basic things you'll need. Tongs. Spatula. These should be steel. I'm not trying to be a dick, but I've seriously seen people use plastic. Really. A heat-resistant silicon glove might not hurt. I find them far superior to cloth mitts.

You should also invest in a chimney starter…and never need lighter fluid again. It also has the advantage of allowing you to heat more coals while your food is still cooking (especially with the aid of a hinged grate). Ginandtacos tip: don't light the chimney with a bunch of wadded newspaper. Take a small square of paper towel, dip it in cheap cooking oil, and light it. That'll burn for 5 minutes. Also? Don't light a chimney on stone. The heat will radiate downward and potentially crack your porch/sidewalk/etc.

Look at that! You're halfway to being awesome. You never again have to squirt lighter fluid into a $14.99 square grill made of old soup cans. The groundwork is laid. Believe it or not, without having done a lick of cooking you are well on your way to success. Conversely, my condescending snark aside, not having these tools won't kill you. You can still make good food on a square grill. Or a gas grill.

Pussy.

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