Editor’s note: A version of this story was originally published in May 2012.
If there’s one grilling tip to remember this Memorial Day weekend, it should be this: Flame is bad.
“Flame does nasty things to food,” food historian and science guy Alton Brown tells NPR’s Scott Simon.
“[Flame] makes soot, and it makes deposits of various chemicals that are not too good for us. The last thing you really want to see licking at your food while it’s on a grill is an actual flame,” says Brown, who is known for kicking up the science on various Food Network shows.
Brown is also a grilling enthusiast (“I grill, therefore I am,” he says), with seven grills at home. So when you’re talking about backyard cookouts with Brown, make sure you know the difference between grilling and barbecuing. Barbecue, Brown notes, is “a meat product produced by long, slow cooking and exposure to a good deal of smoke, and is usually some part of a pig.”
Brown also shared some other expert tips to make sure your grilling this weekend is a “beautiful metamorphosis” of heat and smoke that doesn’t turn your meal into a charcoaled disaster.
For All Eaters
– Clean your grill. Don’t be lazy and think remnants from your last cookout will give your meal some special flavoring. Brown says a clean grill helps with the transfer of heat to your food.
For Meat Eaters
– Bring the meat to room temperature before grilling. There’s a “much longer thermal trip to done-ness” for the “insides of the meat” when you slap a piece of steak or burgers onto the grill directly from your fridge, Brown says. Remember: The longer it’s on the grill, the drier the meat. So take your meat out about an hour before grilling to minimize cooking time and maximize juiciness.
– Salt the meat before grilling. “This is considered in many schools to be blasphemy!” Brown admits. But he still liberally sprinkles kosher salt onto his meat an hour before he grills. He says the salt helps pull out water-soluble proteins that produce a better sear and a “dark, golden delicious coating.”
– Dry and lightly oil the meat before grilling. Brown recommends making sure your meat is “bone dry,” with little to no liquid on its surface, before cooking. Excess water acts as a heat barrier, prolonging the cooking time. So don’t marinate a piece of meat and then immediately slap it on the grill, Brown warns. But a light coating of oil “helps to get heat in” and “lubricate the grill grates.”
– Keep things moving. Do a little dance on the grill with your steak (with tongs, of course). Brown flips, turns and rotates his average steak about four times. “If it looks like it’s overcooking, I move it over,” Brown says. “I always make sure I have one part of my grill hotter and another part not so hot.”
For Fish Eaters
Brown keeps the skin on the fish to create a barrier between the grill’s heat and the fish’s tender flesh. As with other meats, he also recommends bringing the fish to room temperature and brushing it with oil before grilling.
“Vegetables are much more forgiving,” Brown says. “They’re done when they’re tender.”
Gas Or Charcoal?
“I have gas for weeknights and when I’m in a big hurry, and charcoal for when I really want to cook,” Brown says.
Best Fruit To Grill?
Peaches are Brown’s favorite. He halves the fruit and lightly brushes the cut flesh with oil before searing them. He then turns them upside down, brushes them with a mixture of honey and bourbon and lets them “percolate” before serving with ice cream. Brown also recommends grilling pineapples, underripe bananas, papayas and mangoes.