July 14, 2008

The Secret to Perfect Grilling

By Russ Parsons

They seem to be everywhere these days. Every time I turn around, there's another gleaming, stainless-steel gas grill. At my hardware store, of course, but they're even at my grocery store. It seems like you can't call yourself a cook unless you've got a grill.

Every time I see one, I have an impulse to buy another bag of charcoal. Then I light a little fire in my old kettle grill, and 20 to 25 minutes later, I'm ready to cook something delicious: a butterflied leg of lamb marinated in yogurt and Indian spices, a whole chicken flattened and cooked under a brick so it's crisp and juicy, or hickory-smoked, spice-rubbed pork ribs so good they don't need sauce.

Grilling is a simple art, and the only thing fancy equipment does is add convenience.

I'm a back-to-basics guy, especially when the basics are so simple to master. Buy a grill (a really good one will cost less than $150). Add a charcoal chimney (a sure-fire way to light coals quickly) and one or two other little things, and you're ready to go.

But there are a couple of things you have to think about when cooking with fire. The first, of course, is the fire. The tendency is to fill the grill with many coals. This works well if you're starting a blacksmith shop, but cooking requires a more deft touch.

You'll want to use only a chimney full of coals, and unless you're grilling quick-cooking food such as vegetables, flank steak or fish, slope the coals against one side of the grill. This gives you two temperatures to work with -- very hot directly over the fire, and somewhat cooler away from the flame.

Use the very hot side to sear meat and then move it away to cook through. Unless you're looking for steak charred outside and raw inside, you'll get a moist, evenly cooked piece of meat by cooking over a cooler fire.

Even better, this also discourages those raging flare-ups that are the bane of every grill cook. Because the high-heat cooking that renders fat happens early, by the time the flare-ups get bad, the meat should be safely away from the hotter fire.

This is particularly true for fatty meats like chicken with the skin on. Grill the chicken under a brick over the direct flame, and you'll wind up with charred skin and raw flesh. Let it cook more gently over indirect heat, and the skin turns golden and crisp while the meat stays moist and juicy.

This is the classic Italian "pollo al mattone." I have never found an explanation for why cooking a flattened chicken under a brick makes it taste so wonderful, but there's no arguing with the results.

Which coals: hardwood or briquette?

That question can inspire hours of debate. The truth: It doesn't make that much difference. Hardwood charcoal is better for most grilling, because it burns hotter and cleaner and there's very little ash left after the fire dies.

But for pork shoulder or spareribs, you're going to need the fire to cook low and slow for a few hours, so using longer-lasting briquettes will spare you the need to refuel.

Marinades are another area of controversy. They're a point of pride for some cooks, who think that there's nothing like a long soak in an herb-scented tub to improve a piece of meat.

In most cases, you're better off with a short dip.

The fact is that many marinades never penetrate much beyond the surface of the meat. And really, that's enough. Much of the meat we grill is fairly thin anyway, so you're likely to have a flavored surface in every bite.

The problem with long soaks is that, if the marinade contains any acidity -- lemon juice, vinegar, even the lactic acid in yogurt -- it will break down the protein structure of the meat, resulting in a mealy texture.

When I cooked the leg of lamb in yogurt and spices, marinating the meat overnight, the outside of the lamb seemed pasty in texture. When I cooked it a second time, amping up the seasoning but marinating for only an hour, the flavor was just as good and the texture firm and meaty.

One exception to this marinade rule is brining. Brines (salt- water solutions) keep chicken and pork moist during cooking, and because they contain very little acidity or none at all, they don't break down the meat.

That's also true for dry, salt-based seasoning mixes, which operate in much the same way as a brine: The salt pulls moisture from the meat and the meat reabsorbs the seasoned moisture, giving it deep flavor.

A dry rub for barbecue is a good example. Rubs are fun to play with. Start with roughly equal measures of salt and red pepper -- paprika or powdered chile -- and complement them with dried herbs and spices. A little sugar is nice, too. Keep tasting until the mixture hits the right note for you.

This rub is so good that I prefer to serve ribs without any barbecue sauce. If you want to serve a sauce, brush it on for the last five minutes of cooking. Most sauces contain sugar, which has a distressing tendency to scorch and blacken.

There are a couple of tricks to preparing ribs. I prefer spareribs to baby-back ribs, because they are fattier and don't dry out during slow cooking.

But spareribs do need to be trimmed before the rub goes on. First, cut away excess fat or meat that isn't supported by a rib. You'll also notice there's a flap of meat that stretches diagonally across the ribs. If you want, remove it; that way, the meat will be done about the same. Cook the removed bit and the rest of the meaty scraps with the ribs, and you'll have a griller's treat that will be done about halfway through the smoking period.

Most important, you must remove the thin, tough membrane that is attached to the bone side of the ribs. It will prevent smoke and seasoning from penetrating, and the ribs will be tough.

Slip a thin, sharp knife between the first rib and the membrane and cut away, leaving a flap of membrane. Use a paper towel to get a firm grip on the flap, and pull gently but firmly across the rack; the membrane will come up with a tearing sound. If it comes up in strips, repeat the process until it's all gone.

Build a fire and let it calm a little. Add soaked hickory chips to cool it more and get the smoke going. Then put on the ribs. If you're doing more than one slab, you can buy a metal rack to hold them upright, or do what I do: turn an oven-roasting rack upside down and stack the ribs between the supports.

You'll know when the ribs are ready because the meat will be so tender that, when you wiggle the bone in the center, it will almost pull free. That can take two hours or more.

Don't sweat the details: If the meat gets a little overdone, you'll have burnt ends that are so crisp they practically shatter when you bite into them. Maybe you'll even prefer it that way.

Tuscan Grilled Chicken

Total time: 40 minutes, plus marinating time

2 cloves garlic

1 1/2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon fennel seed

1/4 cup olive oil

1 (4- to 4 1/2-pound) chicken

Oil for brushing

With a mortar and pestle or a blender, grind the garlic, rosemary, salt and fennel seed. Continue grinding while adding the olive oil to make a coarse paste.

Using poultry shears or a chef's knife, cut the chicken alongside the backbone, all the way from neck to stern. Repeat on the other side of the backbone, removing it from the carcass.

Place the chicken skin-side up on the cutting board, opened out like a book. Firmly press down on the center of the breast to crack the sternum and flatten the chicken. Place the chicken in a resealable plastic bag and spoon in the herb mixture. Press out the air, seal tightly and massage to distribute the marinade evenly. Refrigerate overnight or leave at room temperature for 1 hour.

Wrap a 1-foot-square paving stone or brick in aluminum foil. Start the coals in a chimney, and, when they are lightly coated with gray ash, after about 20 minutes, empty them into the grill, arranging them in a gentle slope against one side. Replace the grill rack and brush it with oil.

Place the chicken skin-side down on the grill rack, away from the direct heat but with the drumsticks pointing toward the fire. Brush one side of the foil-covered brick with oil and place it on top of the chicken.

Grill until the skin is well-browned, for about 20 minutes. Remove the brick and turn the chicken over, placing it skin-side up directly over the fire. Cook until the juices at the hip and knee joints run clear when pierced with a knife, for about 5 minutes. Remove to a carving board and let rest for 5 minutes to distribute the juices evenly before carving. Serve immediately.

Makes 4-6 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 389 calories, 23 grams fat (6 grams saturated), 168 milligrams cholesterol, 42 grams protein, 0 carbohydrate, 0 dietary fiber, 171 milligrams sodium

Indian-Spiced Grilled Lamb

Total time: 45 minutes plus marinating time

1 cup yogurt

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

4 cloves garlic

1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

1 (2-inch) piece ginger, grated

1 serrano chile, sliced

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 (4- to 5-pound) boneless lamb leg

Stir together the yogurt and vinegar. Add the garlic, squeezed through a press or smashed, then minced. Stir in the black pepper, ginger, serrano chile, cumin and salt.

Place the lamb in a resealable plastic bag, then pour in the yogurt mixture. Press out the air, seal tightly and massage to distribute the marinade evenly. Let stand at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours.

Start the coals in a chimney, and, when they are lightly coated with gray ash, after about 20 minutes, empty them into the grill, arranging them in a gentle slope against one side. Replace the grill rack and brush it with oil.

Place the lamb skin-side down directly over the flame and sear for 2 to 4 minutes. Turn and sear the other side. Move the lamb away from the direct heat and cook until it is brown and crusty on the outside and has reached an interior temperature of 130 degrees, for about 25 minutes.

Transfer the lamb to a carving board and let rest for 5 to 10 minutes to allow the juices to redistribute before carving in thick slices. Serve immediately.

Makes 6-8 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 333 calories, 14 grams fat (6 grams saturated), 154 milligrams cholesterol, 47 grams protein, 1 gram carbohydrate, 0 dietary fiber, 246 milligrams sodium

Naked Ribs

Total time: 2 hours, plus marinating time

1/3 cup mild finely ground dried chile

1/2 cup kosher salt

1 tablespoon dark brown sugar

2 tablespoons garlic powder

1 tablespoon onion powder

1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

2 (4-pound) racks pork spareribs

In a jar, combine the chile, salt, brown sugar, garlic powder, onion powder, pepper, cumin and coriander, crushing any chunks of brown sugar. Cover tightly and shake well to combine thoroughly.

Trim the ribs, cutting away any excess fat pieces and loose ends without bones. Lay the ribs flat with the bony underside facing up. If you prefer, remove the flap of meat that covers part of one side. Use a small knife or skewer to poke through the thin, tough membrane that covers the rib bones, lifting a corner of it. Use a clean kitchen cloth to get a good grip, and gently but firmly pull the membrane away from the ribs. It will come up in sheets; you might have to repeat the process a couple of times to get it all.

Sprinkle both sides of the ribs with the dry-rub mixture, using about 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons per side. Rub to distribute evenly, and then seal tightly in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 1 hour to overnight.

Soak 3 cups of hickory chips in enough water to cover generously. Start the coals in a chimney, and, when they are lightly coated with gray ash, after about 20 minutes, empty them into the grill, arranging them in a gentle slope against one side.

When the coals have cooled slightly, for about 20 minutes, add 2/ 3 of the wood chips, replace the grill rack and brush it with oil. Arrange the rib rack well away from the heat, and cover tightly so that the lid's vent holes are over the ribs, opposite the flame. Smoke, turning every 30 minutes or so, until the meat begins to pull away from the rib tips and is so tender that a center bone can almost be pulled loose, for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. After about an hour, you'll need to replenish the smoke, adding the remaining wood chips on top of the coals.

Remove the racks from the fire and wrap them tightly in aluminum foil. Set aside for 30 minutes to 1 hour to rest. Serve at room temperature, or reheat briefly on the grill, off the fire, before serving. Serves 6 to 8.

Nutrition information per serving: 851 calories, 64 grams fat (24 grams saturated), 255 milligrams cholesterol, 62 grams protein, 2 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram dietary fiber, 1,337 milligrams sodium

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