To grill or not to grill…

…that’s the question as spring is approaching quickly in Europe. But what is the essence of grilling and barbecue? It seems there are many answers, leading to excessive disputes among grilling aficionados.

I was recently reminded of that dilemma when overhearing the discussion on a neighboring table during a nice dinner. Two couples in their late 40ies/early 50ies were celebrating a birthday and during the dinner, on of the guys mentioned that he had recently ordered a high-end Weber gas grill. That’s when the other guy went ballistic and proclaimed that no matter how much one spends on a gas ‘grill’ real grilling would never be possible. The discussion continued for the rest of the evening.

So what is the essence of grilling?  Personally I see two criteria and both should apply. One is procedural: meat, fish or whatever is grilled, is heated by applying radiation heat from a very hot surface. The other is more hedonistic and it’s about grilling aroma that partly results from the procedural, partly from other causes as a lot of other factors are contributing to the aroma.

There are many ways to grill, modern and traditional ones – including some that simply are not feasible in our modern world, at least not for even very accomplished grill hobbyists. In our daily lives we typically use a compact grill that can be fired by charcoal or wood, by gas or even by electricity. The later is a matter of dispute as usually you don’t get the intense heat and the heat capacity of the previous methods and, even worse, usually electric grills don’t feature a real grate where fat and juices can drip through, but a wavy surface operating as a contact grill.

That is the same principle used in grilling pans, the meat (or whatever) only rests on minor part of its surface while the heat radiates and convects more or less freely in the wide ‘valleys’ between. I wouldn’t consider it ‘real’ grilling but the results, if done properly, emulate ‘real’ grilling decently. The lack of real ‘grill’ aroma is balanced by a lower health risk from the nasty chemicals that are in the aroma. It’s similar to grilling on a real grill but putting the meat or fish in aluminum pans – healthier, maybe, but way duller – eat your heart out, George Foreman!

In a ‘real’ grill there are three key elements to the procedural criteria. For heat radiation to function properly you need proper distance and high temperature on the heat source’s surface. And you need the capability to either provide high amounts or to store heat energy, as the environment will cool the heat source’s surface. This can be effectuated by the possibility to produce a lot of heat and/or by storing – which is the secret of lava stone grills and the famous Weber Flavorizer™ bars. Charcoal is perfect in this way as it can produce searing heat, especially if ‘encouraged’ by a blow dryer, and it stores a lot of energy on the inside.

The results of the high temperature, the right distance and high heat capacity are simple yet stunning. The surface of the meat or fish will get denaturized very quickly, sealing off juices, moisture and flavors on the inside while making fatty tissue and skin crispy. Any liquids dripping on the heat source will evaporate quickly adding to the aromas. If the meat of fish has been marinated or basted or rubbed, the aromates on the surface will be melted into the crust adding to its taste.

This said, there are several considerations for grilling and some do depend on the type of grill you use. Generally speaking, fatter meat or fish comes out juicier and tastier but it’s a matter of personal preferences and health considerations. If you want or have to stick with leaner cuts or types, you may consider marinating. High heat for short grilling times is also essential so it doesn’t dry out. Thus a charcoal grill may be the better bet here. Also keep in mind that many flavors and spices are not only enhanced by fat, they dissolve and spread in it. Thus for lean cuts the spices and herbs should work well without fat – examples are salt, lime and lemon juice, beer, chiles. Marinating lean cuts with olive oil can be a healthy alternative too.

Another great enhancer, no mater what type of grill you use and no matter whether you prepare lean or fatty, is smoke. Nothing beats the delicious aromas of a wood grilled steak. If you’re firing gas or charcoal, use wood chips to add to the flavor. Depending on heat, duration and amount of chips this can reach from just a touch to hot smoking. I remember one occasion where we ran low on charcoals so we marinated the salmon a bit, put a lot of wood chips in the grill, closed the lid and 30 minutes later we had the most tender, juicy and delicately grilled/smoked salmon ever. In a charcoal grill you can simply throw the chips on the coal. Gas grills sometimes feature smoker compartments. A cheap and easy alternative is a small smoking pouch made of aluminum foil (thanks to grill guru Steve Raichlin for this tip – his books are the best on this matter). Also keep in mind that usually you will soak the chips in water, beer or cider for 20 minutes before using them so they burn and smoke slowly. If you’re doing thinner cuts of meat or fish that only take a short time, using dry chips instead will enhance the aroma.

While dripping fat that flares up (bursts in flames) does provide strong aroma, it’s also very unhealthy. If you grill frequently, you should thus limit flare ups. There are several ways to do it, depending again on your grill. Gas grills usually limit them automatically. On charcoal or wood you can quickly move the meat, spray some water or beer or use an indirect grilling approach where the charcoal is on the sides with a dripping pan in the middle. The meat sits atop the dripping pan and is heated from the sides, fat drips into the dripping pan – this by the way is the only valid use of aluminum containers in real grilling. This works extremely well but isn’t fit for all kinds of dishes and usually takes way longer. Spare ribs are a good example of a perfect fit for indirect grilling. On a gas grill you can use the technique by only heating some of the burners.

Talking health, if you’re grilling over charcoal you need to start the fire. Never use liquid starters as they add a lot of unwanted and unhealthy ‘aromas’. For best results use a grill starting chimney that works fine with newspapers and even better with those little solid starter cubes.

As for sides, many come out wonderfully on the grill, so get them out of the kitchen. Among our favorites are tortillas, oven potatoes (we just wrap them in foil and put them close to the heat), corn on the cob, green onions and sweet bell peppers. Even if you prefer rice, noodles or couscous you can still add some smoke aroma by keeping them close to the barbecue.

A final word on cleaning.  Many people love to grill but hate to clean the grill afterwards. This need not be as some simple routines will take care of the cleaning almost by themselves. First of all, when you’re done with pre-heating, use a wire brush to clean the grate. Next rub it well with oil or fat, using your grill thongs. If the grate is hot and well oiled, meat and fish will not stick to it easily. When you are done grilling, let the grate reheat well – on a gas grill turn the burners to high again. After 5 minutes or so most residues will have burned off and you can remove any leftovers with the wire brush.

So are you getting ready for the new grilling season? You bet we are – we already bought a new gas bottle for the big Weber monster on the balcony and a few bags of charcoal for the cheap little one on the roof. We prefer to have some choices, you know, and the best tool for every dish. Most important of all we will have fun and delicious food and often invite friends or family to join in – the more, the merrier. And we will NOT discuss what is grilling and what is not, we’ll just do it.


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