Why I Grill
Hi, everyone. I’m Steven Raichlen. You may know me through my books such as “The Barbecue! Bible,” “How to Grill,” or “Planet Barbecue.” Or through my TV shows including “Project Fire,” “Project Smoke” and “Primal Grill.”
I am honored to be Hearth, Patio and Barbecue’s (HPBA) #WhyIGrill ambassador for National Barbecue Month and to be a part of encouraging barbecue enthusiasts of all skill levels nationwide to join together in taking part in the first “Back to Barbecue Day” this Saturday, May 23. Even as this health crisis takes its toll on everyone’s lives, I’m excited to join with you in pledging to fire up my barbecue on “Back to Barbecue Day” in celebration of live-fire cooking.
For the last 25 years, grilling has been my passion and my profession. I’ve visited more than 60 countries on six continents to document how people cook over live fire. I’ve grilled with kebab wallas in New Delhi and asadores in Argentina. I’ve manned schwenkers (hanging grills) in Germany and hibachis in Japan. I’ve hosted hundreds of TV shows on PBS in French and even Italian. I battled and, to my amazement, defeated the Iron Chef in Tokyo and have taught thousands of students how to grill at my Barbecue University.
So you might think I have a ready answer to the simple question, “Why do I grill?”
The fact is that, while I routinely devote 50-plus hours a week to live-fire cooking, I’ve rarely stopped to think about why I grill. So thank you, HPBA, for making me ponder the why of an activity I’ve done virtually on a daily basis for the better part of my adult life.
You may be surprised to learn that I did not grow up in a barbecue family. I didn’t even know what true barbecue was until I was 22 while I was touring as a translator for a French chef. Someone took me to a restaurant called Bodacious Bar-B-Que in Longview, Texas. It was love at first bite but I still had a lot of cooking, eating and writing to do before I returned to the source of the smoke.
I’ve always been fascinated with — make that obsessed by — fire. As a kid, I had pyromaniacal tendencies. My first encounter with law enforcement involved a little (actually, not so little) “experiment” with fire. Growing up, my mother was the family grill mistress. She lit the charcoal with gasoline (gasoline!) and charred steaks black as bitumen. The meat in the center still had a heartbeat and thus was born the “Pittsburgh rare” steak.
I majored in French literature in college and afterwards spent two years researching medieval cooking in Europe. Along the way, I learned how to cook at a prestigious cooking school. I didn’t grill back then, but I did think a lot about the intersection of food, history and culture. To some extent, that intersection has guided my life’s work.
My baptism by fire came through a simple idea and the book it inspired. The idea was this: While grilling is the world’s oldest and most universal cooking method — practiced since the Stone Age by virtually every culture on earth — everywhere it’s done differently. I traveled what I came to call Planet Barbecue to write the book that launched my career “The Barbecue! Bible.” I’ve been traveling and grilling ever since and the best thing about my job is that I still learn something new every day.
So what is it about grilling that has kept me enthralled for all these years? It’s for the same reasons why I grill, why we all grill and why we’ve been grilling since ape became man.
- First, because I love fire. I love the crackle of burning logs, the mesmerizing flicker of flames and how grilling over live fire involves all your senses. I love the look of food cooked over live fire; how it sounds, smell and feels. And, above all, how it tastes.
- I love the physicality of grilling. In this digital age, where our actions are governed by algorithms, grilling demands physical interaction and total focus. It’s a constant dance of dodging the flames, waltzing the food from hot spots to cool spots and of achieving the perfect doneness without overcooking. When you grill, you definitely don’t set it and forget it, and that, my friends, is a blessing, not an inconvenience.
- I love the theatricality of grilling. The leaping flames, the rising smoke and the sizzle of meat on fire-heated metal. I enjoy watching the way people instinctively gather around a fire. When you grill, you step on stage and your guests become your audience.
- I love how grilling makes everything taste better. Everything. Boil or bake a chicken and it tastes like, well, chicken. Grill that chicken and it acquires crispy charred skin and complex smoke flavors. The same holds true whether for steak, fish, vegetables, bread or even dessert.
- Above all, I love how grilling brings people together. No one gathers around a stove to watch a pot of soup boil or a loaf of bread bake in the oven. Fire up your grill and people will congregate. It’s a party whether you’re cooking for four or 400. I realize that, because of the health crisis, we may not all be together in person this National Barbecue Month. That’s one more reason I love HPBA’s “Back to Barbecue Day” on May 23. If we can’t all be together in person, we can be virtually together by pledging to cook out that day.
15 Tips I’ve Learned Over the Years for Taking Your Grilling to the Next Level
1. Grilling is not barbecue, although both use live fire.
Grilling is a fast, high-heat method done directly over the fire. Use it for steaks, chops, fish, veggies or any tender food that cooks quickly. Barbecue cooks low and slow, meaning your food cooks at a low heat for a long time and always away from the fire. True barbecue also always involves wood smoke.
2. Smoke is the umami of both barbecuing and grilling.
Build a wood fire with logs or add wood chunks or chips to your charcoal. On a gas grill, place the wood in the smoker box, in a foil smoker pouch, or under the grate directly over one of the burners.
3. When you grill, you dance on a razor’s edge between cooked and burnt.
Your food should be dark, not quite black, but dark. If your food looks anemic, you haven’t grilled it hot enough or long enough.
4. At my house, we cook the whole meal on the grill.
Appetizers and pass-arounds. Soups. Yes, really! Try grilling or smoking the vegetables the next time you make gazpacho. Proteins of course, but also vegetables and starches. You know those tubes of pre-cooked polenta? Slice and grill for a perfect sidedish. Desserts, of course, and don’t forget to grill the fruit for the sangria.
5. At my house, I grill not just lunch and dinner, but breakfast.
Is there anything more glorious than firing up your grill at daybreak to cook bacon, eggs, toast and a breakfast quesadilla? Hint: For the latter, crack an egg in the center of the tortillas when you add the cheese.
6. Season generously and early.
Season meats with coarse sea salt an hour or two before grilling and keep them in the refrigerator. This is called dry brining, and it gives you juicier, tastier meat.
7. Remember the grill master’s mantra: Keep it hot. Keep it clean. Keep it lubricated.
Start with a hot grill grate for better searing. Clean it with a stiff wire brush or wooden scraper. Grease it well with a chunk of bacon or steak fat or a folded paper towel dipped in vegetable oil and drawn across the bars of the grate. All three keep food from sticking and give you killer grill marks.
8. Repeat the hot, clean and lubricated process after you’re done grilling, so you start with a fresh clean grill the next time you fire it up.
That burnt-on salmon skin from last week’s grill session doesn’t add flavor. It’s disgusting.
9. Account for carryover cooking.
Meat and seafood will continue to cook even when they come off the grill, so take the food off slightly before your target temperature.
10. Speaking of temperature, use an instant-read meat thermometer.
When checking steaks, burgers, fish fillets, or chicken breasts, insert the probe of your instant-read meat thermometer through the side, not the top. Remember these seven key temperatures:
- 125-130 degrees: rare
- 135-140 degrees: medium-rare
- 145 degrees: safe, but pink, temperature for pork
- 145-150 degrees: medium for steak
- 160 degrees: medium for sausage
- 165-175 degrees: the safe temperature for chicken and turkey
- 203 degrees: the perfect temperature for brisket.
11. When grilling steaks and chops, transfer them from the grill to a wire rack over a sheet pan.
The wire rack allows air to circulate beneath the meat, so it doesn’t get soggy on the bottom.
12. Give it a rest.
Steaks, chops, roasts, etc. will be juicier if you let them sit for a few minutes before eating.
13. Remember: You can grill everything, and I mean everything.
In the course of my career, I’ve grilled nori seaweed, a popular snack in Korea, eggs in the shell, street food in Vietnam, rice cakes (a staple in Japan), and ice cream. You have to work fast and with a lot of wood smoke.
14. Remember Raichlen’s Rule: If something tastes great baked, boiled, fried, or sauteed, it probably tastes even better grill.
15. Above all, have fun.
Grilling isn’t brain surgery, and this week’s mistake may become next month’s masterpiece.
Let’s kick off the 2020 grilling season together! Take the pledge to grill out on #BacktoBarbecue Day, May 23, to help us make this day the largest virtual cookout. We may not be physically together, but we don’t have to grill alone. Share photos of your cookout with us on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, or Instagram!