The Art of the Grill

     Step outside on any warm Maryland evening, and there is a very good chance you will find the aroma of food cooking on a neighbor’s grill. We have a love affair with grilling and barbecuing. Almost six percent of us grill more than once a week.

    George Stephen Sr. of the Weber Brothers Metal Works created the first barbecue kettle grill in 1952. Today grill and barbecue sales total almost $1.5 billion per year, according to the Statista Research Department, and 75-percent of us own some kind of grill. U.S. Census statistics show 79 million of us cook outdoors at least once a year, with July Fourth the most popular holiday for barbecuing.

    We have all been to our share of bad barbecues, with dry, hockey-puck hamburgers that could break a window, and wrinkled, charred hot dogs that get harder to choke down the longer they sit on the plate. Maybe you were promised some fantastic smoked brisket or ribs, and you are still waiting to eat at 9pm. If you are going to stand at the grill to feed the crowd, there are some rules to keep in mind.

Grilling vs. Barbecuing

     There is a difference between grilling and barbecuing. “Grilling is mostly hot dogs and hamburgers, maybe some steaks and vegetables,” says Chris Keller, owner of Red, Hot and Blue restaurant in Annapolis. “Barbecue is a long process with proper temperatures, even heat and [cooking] over some kind of wood.”

    All the experts know that essential difference.

    “Grilling is a hot and fast method of cooking directly over the fire. Hamburgers, hot dogs, sausages, chicken, steaks: Short cooking sears the outside of smaller portions of meat and vegetables,” says Pitmaster and Mid-Atlantic Barbecue Association Board Member Bob Trudnak.

     Traditional barbecue is a different process.

     “It is the method of slow-smoking large cuts of meat over lower heat and often indirect,” Trudnak says. “The slower process of cooking tough cuts of meat to break down the muscle fibers, results in juicy, tender cuts such as ribs, brisket and pork shoulder.”

The ABCs of Better BBQ

     All of the experts agree that the No. 1 mistake we make when barbecuing is cooking at a high temperature.

     “A lot of times, people overcook their barbecue. Too much heat, too quickly. The secret is slow and low,” says Ray Chick, co-owner of West River Pit BBQ. “The biggest mistake? Cooking at a higher temperature to get it done. Barbecue is intended to be a long, slow process. Never quick.”

     Trudnak suggests creating a timeline from grill to consumption. To avoid guests waiting for the food to be done, start backwards from the time you want to serve the food and allow plenty of rest time for your meats. 

A Little Knowledge Goes a Long Way

     Barbecuing is something everyone “thinks they can do,” Keller says. “But people who do it well have done the research.” The successful BBQ chef needs to know what internal temperatures are ideal for each cut of meat. For beef, medium-rare is about 130 degrees. Pork chops and tenderloin are at medium when they reach an internal temperature of about 150 degrees. For chicken, dark meat is ready at 170 degrees, while white meat is done at 160 degrees. Fish is ready to serve at 135 degrees.

     Use tongs to move food around on a grill, not a fork.

     “Don’t stab it!” Diane Pierpont, co-owner of West River Pit BBQ, says. “For a steak, six minutes on each side. Don’t flip it and flop it back and forth. Poking it with a fork will let all of the juices out, especially after you have a nice sear.”

     A good dry rub is a great thing when it comes to seasoning. The experts say it is best to experiment with a few different flavor combinations. Look at a few recipes and see what appeals to you.

     “We make our own,” says Chick. “But it’s really a matter of personal preference.” An even coating of coarse salt and freshly ground pepper helps your meat form a savory crust while it cooks. But hold off on the barbecue sauce or other ingredients, like garlic, that might burn.

     “Saucing meats prior to cooking them results in over-caramelized or burnt food,” Trudnak says.

     Pierpont adds, “The seasoning can burn and bake in there. All you’ll have is char.”

     In the external debate over whether propane or charcoal grilling is best, most of those who barbecue for a living opt for charcoal or wood.

     “Charcoal adds a flavor touch you can’t get cooking over propane,” Keller says.

     Of course, wood and charcoal make smoke and there is such a thing as too much smoke. “Treat smoke like any other ingredient,” says Trudnak, “Don’t overdo it.”

Let It Rest

     If you have watched enough cooking shows, you have heard about letting meat rest after it is cooked. There is actually science behind that. When meat hits heat, the muscle fibers contract and moisture starts to get pushed out toward the surface. Cut into it right away, and much of that moisture will pool out, leaving the meat on the dry side. Larger pieces of meat will continue cooking for a bit after they are off the heat. Resting your masterpiece for a minimum of 15 minutes gives all of those juices time to redistribute.

Grill Your Vegetables

     Meat might get most of the attention, but do not hesitate to grill your vegetables. You will find it intensifies a vegetable’s natural sweetness. Steven Raichlen, who has written dozens of books on grilling, suggests you grill tender, watery vegetables like bell peppers, squash, asparagus and onions directly over the coals. Dense or starchy vegetables like sliced potatoes and eggplant are best cooked over indirect heat, or as far away from the coals as possible.

     Smaller vegetables, like cherry tomatoes, green beans or vegetables cut to a smaller size for a salad, can be grilled in a grill pan. You have probably seen these pans, which consist of a metal sheet with a rim and holes all along the bottom. You can improvise by popping some holes in a foil pan. 

    If vegetarian fare is on the menu, tofu, or bean curd, is a great option. Tofu tends to stick to a grill, so be sure to oil or coat the rack with non-stick cooking spray. Use extra-firm tofu, and press it to remove a lot of the water it contains. Tofu can be marinated for at least 30 minutes in any type of marinade that suits your taste. If you are making your own, be sure to add a bit of sugar, rice wine vinegar or honey to help the tofu caramelize while it cooks. No need to worry about internal temperature, and you can expect your tofu to be done in about six minutes. 

Ready for the Big Show

     You have done your research. You have grilled and barbecued your favorite recipes to perfection, earning rave reviews. Is it time to try some competitive barbecuing?

     David Phelps is part of the competitive team Reynolds Racks, along with Mike and Debbie Reynolds. Debbie Reynolds, his mother, is a National Oyster Cook-off Champion, so competitive cooking runs in their blood.

     There is work to do before you get to the competitive circuit.

     “Your family and friends are going to tell you what you want to hear. You have the best ribs in the world. Your brisket is amazing,” Phelps says, “Until you get out there and actually start scientifically putting spices and rubs together, you are going to have a lot of lows. Be prepared for a lot of failure until you get it right.”

     Steep yourself in the culture of barbecue, pitmaster Trudnak says. “Go to a barbecue contest and ask questions. Take a judging class. Once you have the basic equipment, sign up for an amateur contest. Most of all, have fun.”

     On knowing what you’re up against, Phelps agrees. “Do your research. Make sure you know the panel of judges, their tastes.”

     He offers a tip on rubs and sauces you might not have thought of. “A lot of amateur judges like them sweet. Professional judges do not.”

Mexican Grilled Corn Elote

Corn-on-the-cob is a much-loved summer food. The bumper crops around Maryland make it plentiful for a season. Why not try something new? This preparation is a common street food in Mexico and many large cities in the U.S.

Husk the corn and toss it with some coarse salt and olive oil in a big bowl. Grill it for about 10 minutes over direct heat, making sure to turn it frequently so it does not burn. You want a nice char. After the corn has cooled a bit, roll it in mayonnaise (yes, mayonnaise). Grate some cotija cheese (available at Shopper’s) and sprinkle it on the corn. Feta cheese is a good substitute if you cannot find cotija. Top with a few shakes of paprika and chili powder to taste. Enjoy!