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Your Memorial Day PSA

Posted by Euroranger on May 24, 2013

My backyard grill.  Magic occurs here frequently.

What a pinnacle grilling device looks like. Pictured here: a Weber Performer grill with metal deck, a chimney fire starter, Lawry’s Season Salt, black pepper, garlic powder, Mesquite wood chunks (lower left), bourbon neat. Not pictured here: gas bottles, a “barbeque”, indelible androgynous shame.

Memorial Day 2013 is nearly upon us and it’s time you were reminded what the holiday is all about.  First off, here in the U.S. we have two holidays that officially recognize those who served: Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day.  The difference is that Veterans’ Day honors all those who have donned the uniform for our country while Memorial Day honors those who not only donned the uniform but fell in service of our country.  I’d like to say it’s surprising how few people know the difference between the two but given the decrepit state of our educational system, I suppose it ought not be a huge shocker.  Anyway, having a holiday like Memorial Day at the end of May pretty much serves as the unofficial kickoff to the summer vacation season.  But more importantly, it is also kind of the official start of backyard grilling season and on that basis I’d like to take a moment to mention something I’ve become more aware of over the past few years:

Many of you have no frickin’ clue how to properly grill anything more complicated than a hotdog

Now, I know many of you sport a pair of balls and so you believe that you automatically know how to cook something on a grill.  Let’s just take a moment and test that myth with a quick quiz.  Please answer the following questions (we’ll give you an easy score chart at the end):

  • Do you own a gas grill?
  • When you use your grill do you ever refer to what you do with it as “barbecuing”?
  • Do you own and use something called a “barbecue fork”?
  • Do you own and use a poke thermometer to test the doneness of whatever it is you’re cooking on your grill?

If you answered “yes” to any of the above questions, chances are, despite the technical presence of possibly functional testicles, you likely do not know either “jack” or “shit” about grilling.  You probably also have a favorite variety of wine that is NOT also a color, know the correct way to pronounce “Prius”, may wear clothing in a color that can be correctly described as “pastel” and probably regularly shave something on your body that isn’t your face.  The good news for you “fellas” is that these days you can get married in 12 states (as of last count)…so you have that going for you, I suppose.

But, I am a compassionate and helpful man and so, I am here to help even you fabulous fellas with guidance for how to grill this summer.  Now, if you’re a vegetarian, this PSA probably isn’t for you.  I mean, I have been known to grill corn, pineapple, asparagus, potatoes and other non-meat items on my grill…but that’s just a side benefit of my grill’s awesome powers.  It’s not the main reason for its existence.  No dear reader, a grill exists for a single purpose and that is to cook the flesh of tasty animals to a degree of doneness rendering a superior taste evolutionally irresistible to carnivores…a food chain club of which our species is a card carrying member.  So, enough with the build-up.  By now you’re asking “how can I become a master of grilling excellence”?  Read on and bask in the glow of the only male cooking genre that doesn’t require you to learn foreign words or wear silly clothes.

Tip 1: Your Grill – A great many of you might own something called a “gas grill”.  Now, to be clear, there are gas appliances that cook food and even do so in superior ways.  Those are not called “grills” though.  They are called “ovens”, “ranges” and “stoves” and the masters of those appliances are known as “women”.  Even women can learn to be superior grill masters but nobody can do so using a gas grill.  Grilling is fundamentally about three things: fire, smoke and meat.  Gas grills do provide the fire part but they have to be modified to produce the smoke part…ironically, by burning pieces of wood.  If you’re going to burn wood anyway, why not simply dispense with the gas grill altogether and go with a charcoal/wood grill?  That question really doesn’t require an answer because it’s rhetorical.  Grilling over wood and charcoal produces a superior taste to grilling with gas.  What’s more, some meats you grill will drip grease (via the rendering of fats found in the meats themselves).  In a charcoal grill, that grease falls onto coals which, in turn, burns and gets turned into smoke producing a pleasant aroma that flavors the meat.  In a gas grill though, that same grease drips onto a pan…where it remains.  That grease congeals into a fatty layer of slop on the bottom of your gas grill which is disgusting to say the least and which I find to be unsanitary.  Think of it: if the health department will cite a restaurant’s kitchen for grease buildup…what makes you think the same is okay in your grill?  Sure, you can clean it out of your grill but that’s more work, it’s nasty and it defeats the sole benefit that gas grills tend to boast of: speed of cooking.  Further, cooking over charcoal/wood simply results in a better taste.  You can debate that if you like but there is a word for your opinion on this point and that word is “wrong”.  So, in conclusion, you need to use a charcoal/wood grill.

Cuts of beef chart

Helps to know what part of the steer your steak comes from. Generally speaking, you want something from the top, mid back.

Tip 2: Your Meat – You CAN cook a great many things on a backyard grill but the one item you must master to be considered a grill master is steak.  The skill of consistently producing superior grilled steaks is one that comes with practice (not as much as you’d think) but it starts with what it is you’re actually trying to grill.  You can grill any cut or thickness of beef steaks on a grill but what we’ll use here for instructional purposes is what you typically think of as the main course when ordering at a steak house.  As most of us know, there are around a brazillion different cuts of steak.  You can go expensive (think: filet mignon, Porterhouse, etc), you can go middle of the road (eg: sirloin, round steak, rib steak) and you can go as cheap as you like.  What makes a steak good (my opinion here) is tenderness and taste.  Tenderness is best found (unless you use a meat tenderizer which I won’t go into here and never use) in cuts from the short loin and the rib with some coming from the sirloin.  Cuts from those parts can be thicker and juicier.  The other thing to know about beefsteak is that meat that is better marbled (muscle tissue interspersed with fat) tends to be more tender and tasty.  Incidentally, what makes a steak taste like a steak is the fat.  When cooked, fats render down to grease which is what moisturizes the meat as it cooks and it’s what provides flavor.  Therefore, your leanest cuts of beef, while indeed lower in fat and attendant cholesterol, typically won’t taste as good.  It’s generally agreed that the best cut of steak to grill is a ribeye steak or a T-bone steak.  So, to have a superior end product, you need a superior starting product.  Don’t go cheap on the meat.

Tip 3: Your Prep/Cooking – Now, there are a lot of ways out there in the world for how to do grilling “right”.  I don’t tend to tell anyone their way of doing things is wrong but there are a few tips you’ll hear that I’ll disagree with.  I’ll mention those as we go as I describe what I consider to be the essentials for grilling a good steak.  First off, you may have noticed in the first picture something I called a chimney starter.  There are two main ways to start a proper charcoal fire: with lighter fluid and via chimney starter.  Using fluid, you pile your charcoal into a pyramid shaped mound on the lower, burner grate in the grill, douse liberally with starter fluid (which tends to be mineral spirits or other volatile liquid) which you then light with a match.  The fluid ignites within and on the outside of the pile of coals and, visually, appears to burn out.  Much the same happens in a chimney starter to this point: you fill the starter with charcoal, loosely ball up two pieces of newspaper and place them under the chimney and light the paper.  In either case, enough heat is generated by the initial burning medium (fluid or paper) to create enough heat to ignite the lowest coals in either the pile or chimney.  Those coals, in turn, light the ones above and in a short time you will have flames popping up from the top of your pile/chimney.  At this point, you spread your lit coals out and try to even out the heat across the surface of the spread.  One tip I like to mention: if you want to cook more than one thing on the grill (like say for instance, mushrooms or corn or potatoes or whatever else) you may want to have parts of the grill that are hotter and parts that are cooler.  Because different things on a grill will cook at different speeds, you may want a cooler part of the grill to move things to in case they finish before the rest.  Also, some things you may not want to cook as “hard” or as fast as others so you place them over the cooler part of the grill.  You make hotter and cooler parts of the grill simply by piling your lit coals higher in some places (for more heat) and thinner in others (for less heat).  When your coals have a more of less uniform grey ash on them, you’re ready to grill.  Anyway, let’s get back to meat.

Preparing a steak for grilling is fairly simple and requires that you remember a few basic things:

  • You want your steaks to be fully thawed to room temperature before they go on the grill
  • You can season a steak with whatever you like but, for a true steak taste, try keeping it to salt, pepper and maybe a small dash of other things (garlic powder, cumin, etc).  Good steak doesn’t need its taste drowned by too many spices/flavorings.
  • Salt…there is such a thing as too much.  Also, salting the steak too much and too early can see the salt draw out moisture from the meat…usually something you want to avoid.
  • Retaining moisture in the meat is one of your larger goals when cooking a steak.  Therefore, “tenderizing” it by beating the unholy hell out of it or perforating it with a fork will break down the muscle tissues of the meat and allow the fat contained therein to leak out as it renders to grease as you cook it thus drying out your steak.

Outside of that, steak prep is pretty much up to personal tastes.  I prefer to keep my seasonings simple and basic for good cuts of meat and I’ll add something extra if the cuts are less prime.  You WILL hear people talk about applying oil to your meat before it hits the grill.  The concept here is to keep the meat from sticking to the grill surface itself.  Personally speaking, unless you’re going to use an oil with an exceptionally high smoke point, I don’t think the trade off of taste for not sticking to the grill is worth it.  What I tend to do to make sure the meat doesn’t stick to the grill when I put it on is to use tongs to move the meat a few moments after I set it on the grill and then close the lid.  The heat from the coals will sear the parts of the meat that weren’t touching the grate itself and those seared parts don’t stick nearly as easily to the grill.  5-10 seconds is all it takes, move the meat once and you should be good.  Some purists complain that this messes up the “grill marks”.  I choose to call those people “idiots”.  It’s about taste not tan lines.

Steak doneness chart

Use this handy steak doneness chart to know what people mean when you ask them “how do you like your steak”? DON’T print this. Memorize it then disavow you ever saw it. Men are supposed to just know this shit.

The next major question is: how “done” do you want your steak.  Doneness is nothing more than a combination of heat and time versus steak thickness.  If you waited for your coals to turn grey then your fire will be somewhere in the range of 325° and 425°.  This is the ideal temperature range for grilling steak.  Too hot and it tends to sear the outside of the meat leaving the interior raw and too cool and you take much longer to cook your steak and the meat will be done to a uniform doneness.  How done you like your meat then is something you want to experiment to find.  I prefer my steaks medium rare which means they acquire a decent sear with some charring on the outside while retaining a hot but reddish pink center.  However, how do you really know when your steak is “done” to your liking.  This is more art than science.  There are those who will suggest you use a meat thermometer and poke it into your steak to get an interior temperature measurement.  This is one of those cases where science just doesn’t cut it.  All poking holes in your steak will do is to let the rendered fat, in the form of grease, leak out of the meat carrying all the taste and moisture with it.  For this same reason, NEVER USE A “BARBECUE FORK” ON A STEAK ON A GRILL.  Invest in a good pair of tongs and a large spatula if you must maneuver your grilling meat.  And that’s something else: once you get accustomed to grilling a steak you should truly aim for only ever touching it twice once it’s on the grill.  Touch it once to flip it, a second time to remove it from the grill because it’s done…and nothing else.  Continually flipping a steak means you keep taking the lid off the grill.  Why does that matter?  The lid retains the heat of the grill which means that you’re also cooking the side that’s not facing the coals when the lid is on.  This speeds cooking time but it also keeps the temperature as constant as possible because the lid limits the amount of air that gets to the coals.  More air = hotter coals = higher temperature under one side while there is cooler temps on the other.  Continually opening the lid and flipping the meat also cuts way into your drinking and socializing time and makes you look nervous and clueless.  Keep in mind: grilling is also about male image, capability and confidence.

So, that’s NOT how to tell when your steak is done but how DO you know when to pull it off?  I tend to press a finger or one of the tines of the my tongs to the  middle surface of the steak after I flipped it.  The degree the meat springs back tells you how done it is inside.  Hard to press or springs back instantly means it’s well done (also the jet black char and cracking sound the meat makes when you touch it should be a dead giveaway).  If the meat has some give in it it’s less than well done and if it’s mushy as hell then it’s practically raw and you’re way too anxious.  Also, keep in mind, if you remove the steak too soon and discover it’s not cooked enough to your liking, you can always put it back on the grill for a few minutes but you can’t uncook a steak that is too well done.  Just something to remember: err on the side of rare.

Tip 4: After (aka: “Taking Your Victory Lap”) – So, you’ve successfully lit your grill, acquired a decent cut of meat, prepped and seasoned it the way you like and even managed to grill it to a state you intended all the while looking suave and in masculine control.  Time to eat, right?  Wrong.  Steak needs to “rest” once it comes off the grill.  This means, you need to let the grilled steaks sit at least 5-10 minutes before cutting into them.  Although you’ve taken the meat off the heat, there is still heat contained within the steak and it continues to cook inside a bit even after you’ve taken it off.  The juices inside the meat are still very fluid and moving around (migrating from the more cooked exterior toward the less cooked interior) and they’re not bound into the meat fibres still because of the overall temperature.  Allowing the steak to rest for a few minutes lets the juices be reabsorbed somewhat by the meat.  This means a juicier and tastier eating experience.  I usually place my steaks onto a large edged plate or a sided pan and then cover them with tinfoil.  The side benefit is that me appearing with the meat means my wife knows she has about 5-10 minutes to complete the remainder of the meal before we start eating.  It also gives you a chance to clean up a bit, close down the grill, retrieve or refresh your drink and bask in the adulation of other appreciative adults complimenting your superior grill master skills.

Final tip: try your steak without any new salt, pepper, steak sauces and so on.  I myself like the occasional A1 or Heinz 57 with beef…but if you grilled a good cut of beef and did it correctly, the beef on its own should be tasty indeed and not requiring flavoring.  If you didn’t perforate it, cooked it to reasonable doneness and allowed it to adequately rest, your steak should be juicy and flavorful (unless you carbonized it cooked it well done…in which case, it’ll taste like charred wood) and will earn you the compliments of your family and guests and continue to establish you as the alpha male in your household.  There is something male affirming about being able to take meat and fire and turn those two into a desirable meal…even if you drove a pastel Prius to go buy your “buddies” a wedding gift at Crate and Barrel.

My name is Euroranger and I approved this message.



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