WE don’t get many opportunities to fire up the barbecue over the course of a summer, so when you do you want to make sure you get it right.
We’ve looked at the science behind grilling – with a little help from Barbecue scientist extraordinaire Meathead Goldwin of amazingribs.com – and have a few tips to make sure you can do just that – and put in less work than you ever have before in the process.
1. Ditch the complicated marinades
They don’t work. That marinade may be tasty, but it doesn’t penetrate the meat. The muscle fibres in your chicken breast or your steak are too tightly packed and full of water for your marinade to get in.
This doesn’t apply to fish and some vegetables, like mushrooms, but for almost all your barbecue meats, that marinade is a big fat waste of everyone’s time.
What DOES work is salt. It helps your meat maintain flavour and moisture, and those little simple salt molecules penetrate deep into those hunks of flesh.
So forget making a marinade the night before — just take half a teaspoon of regular old salt for every kilo of meat, toss the meat in it a couple of hours before you plan to fire up the grill, and you’re done.
The Science of Salt
Adding salt to your meat makes it juicer, but how?
We’re always taught that salt draws moisture out and makes things drier.
While this is the case some of the time, it’s NOT the case in meat.
This is because salt (Sodium Chloride) contains a mixture of positive ions (Sodium and Chlorine), and the way they interact with the proteins in the meat mean that they hang onto more liquid as they heat.
Because the density of salt will be higher nearer the surface of the meat, this effect is greatest at and just under the surface — just where you most need the protection when you’re blasting your meat over a hot grill.
If you’re using fancy sea salt you’ll need about half as more again (by volume) — those big crystals mean there’s more air and less salt in each spoonful.
If you really want to marinade your meat, then make sure it is as thin a piece as possible. Make sure your marinade is salty–use the same amount of salt as recommended above–and slash the surface of the meat to give it a chance to penetrate.
And ditch the sugary additions to it — they’ll just burn when you stick it on the grill.
2. Put the lid on!
This is the simplest of the lot. Put the lid on your grill, and everything will cook faster, dry out slower, and be much less stress.
It means that as well as direct heat from the coals (radiant heat) you’ll also convection heating going on, meaning your food will cook from all directions at once.
You’ll use less charcoal, you won’t be constantly stressing — and you’ll lose fewer sausages to hungry family members snatching them off the grill when they look done.
Just remember to open any vents your grill has, both on the lid and underneath.
This means that air will still get to your coals, and you’ll keep on cooking.
Don’t worry about opening it up to check on things — the inside will heat up again pretty quickly.
If you really want to keep that heat, get someone to help and lift the lid straight up while you quickly check what’s going on inside.
That will trap the hot air under the lid, and speed things up when you put it back down.
3. Don’t fill your grill with charcoal
If you want properly cooked meat, don’t just dump the whole sack of briquettes in there and hope for the best.
Set it up so you have a fire over one side of your grill, and nothing on the other. If you’ve got a couple of bricks you can chuck in the bottom of that old kettle, put them down the middle to create a wall and keep things tidy.
This sets up a ‘two-zone’ grill – one zone where things are cooking over the coals, and another where things can cook without being blasted directly.
If you’re cooking chicken breast on the grill and don’t want to poison your guests, you know you need to cook it all the way through.
The problem you’ve always had is that it is impossible to heat the middle up enough for that to be cooked without burning the outside to a crisp.
The solution? Grill it over the hot side until it’s nicely browned all over, then whip it off the grill, wrap it in foil, and put the package over the other side while you move onto your burgers and other quick-cooking things.
Then you get the benefits of browning over the grill from the maillard reaction and that all-important barbecue taste from actually cooking it over hot coals, and you give the middle time to come up to a safe temperature.
If you’ve invested in a gas grill, it’s even easier — only turn on the burners on one side of it, and you’re all set up!
For some extra flavour, spice it up just before you cook
Cooking the chicken this way will amp the flavour up, but you can still boost it further.
You can baste the chicken as it cooks with that marinade you’re so fond of if you like — but remember to leave the salt out of the recipe, because you’ve already salted the meat.
Leave any sugar or sugary liquids like barbecue sauce out too — the heat from the grill will cause the sugars to react and burn and give you an unpleasantly charred crust and burnt flavour.
You can also rub a spice mix onto your meat just before grilling it — the fresh herbs and spices will come through much more clearly if they haven’t been sat out for a day before they’ve hit the grill.
They’ll also mingle with the juices of the chicken in that foil package and ensure it comes with a ready-made sauce.
4 Get a thermometer
You can order one on Amazon right now and it’ll be with you tomorrow morning.
An instant-read probe means you can be sure your meat is perfectly cooked and safe without the guesswork. Forget prodding it, trying to work out if the juices are clear — none of those things tell you if you food is actually safe.
- AMIR Food Thermometer, Digital Instant Read, £9.35 (down from £20.99) – Buy now
- TOPELEK Digital Instant Read Cooking Thermometer, pack of two, £7.99 – Buy now
Chicken should be at 74°C, burgers, sausages and other ground meats should get to 71°C. At that temperature the heat will have killed off all the bacteria, and you know it’s good to go.
Whole hunks of beef are more complicated – but if you want rare meat take it off at about 55°C, medium at 68°C, and well-done at 74°C.
Science of pasteurisation
If you want to kill bugs on your chopping board, you scrub it with bleach.
If you want to kill them inside food, though, it’s even easier. Food-borne nasties can only survive in a relatively narrow range of temperatures, which you can use to your advantage.
Get the temperature of your food up to the point where those bugs all die off, and you’re golden. The magic number for chicken is 74°C — for burgers and sausages it’s a bit lower, 71°C.
If you only have one thermometer, remember to keep it clean.
If you’ve just stabbed a piece of undercooked chicken with it, you don’t want to plunge it into a steak you’re about to serve without. Ideally, you’d have a couple so that you can keep your meats separate, but it’s not essential.
- Meathead, The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling, from £11.39 on Amazon.co.uk – Buy now