Everything you know about grilling is wrong, but thankfully, messiah of meat Meathead Goldwyn is here to help.
Since founding AmazingRibs.com in 2005, the self-avowed barbecue whisperer has inspired a legion of fans to up their flame game by debunking grilling and barbecue’s old husbands’ tales (Meathead’s phrase). Armed with tried-and-true know-how — all backed by years of science-focused tests — the grand pooh-bah of grilling just released his namesake book in time for summer.
In Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling, the Chicago author enlisted several scientists and physicists (Greg Blonder, Ph.D., of Boston University is also credited) to test (and retest) dozens of methods, techniques and common conventions. Showing his work with a blend of charts, graphs and photography, Meathead meticulously takes apart everything from grill marks to beer can chicken, before building it all back together with foolproof advice.
“People are no longer interested in simply the how, but the why,” Meathead said. “I want to explain the concepts and theories of good grilling, of how things work.” Meathead set out to create a book in the mold of the cooking world’s most well-known technicians, such as Alton Brown, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt of Serious Eats and author of The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, and the team behind Cook’s Illustrated. Like those kitchen scientists, Meathead is obsessed with the scientific method of hypothesis and testing.
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“The barbecue world, and cooking world in general, is full of rules handed down over generations,” Meathead said. “But are they worth paying attention to? We now have the tools to test these theories and rules.” Here, and in his textbook-like tome, he busts seven common myths you should stop believing to become a better weekend pitmaster.
Myth 1: You can test a meat’s doneness with your hand
“Good grilling begins with understanding temperature,” says Meathead, scoffing at the notion of measuring a meat’s doneness by pressing parts of your hands. “Your fist is different from my fist and the next person’s fist,” he said. “Likewise, a filet is a different texture from sirloin and other cuts. You can’t just poke a meat to know that it’s perfectly cooked.” Chefs who work with the same meat and cut day in, day out, can get away with measuring doneness in this way because they are familiar with the product, Meathead says. “If you’re not a pro chef, get a meat thermometer. It is your No. 1 tool around a grill.”
If you’re not a pro chef, get a meat thermometer. It is your No. 1 tool around a grill.
Meathead Goldwyn, barbecue whisperer
Myth 2: Letting the meat come to room temperature
This theory holds that meat at room temperature will cook faster with less chance of overcooking. But the problem — in addition to exposing meat to potential ambient bacteria — is that it can take hours for meat to reach room temp. Instead, just cook it. “Cooking meat cooks meat faster — not waiting hours for it to come to temperature,” Meathead said. “Besides, cool meat attracts more smoke and picks up more flavor.”
Myth 3: Soak your wood chips for the most smoke
“There’s a reason we build boats with wood: Wood doesn’t absorb water,” Meathead said. After weighing wood chunks and soaking them in water for 12 hours, the author and his team dried the wood with towels before weighing them again, to see how much water was actually absorbed. The result? A negligible weight gain. The next experiment involved soaking different types of wood with dyed water. After cutting into the interior, the team determined only the surfaces were discolored: The interiors were all bone dry. “Throwing wet wood on charcoal does nothing but lower the temperature of the grill,” Meathead said. “There’s a reason top pitmasters and restaurants don’t do this. You’re creating steam and cooling off the fire. You’re not generating more smoke.”
Myth 4: Beer can chicken
“Beer can chicken is a waste of good beer and an inferior cooking method,” Meathead writes. The method — inserting a half-full can of beer into a bird’s cavity, ostensibly to create a beer-flavored steam and thus keeping the poultry moist and juicy — “is a fallacy. You’ve just made a beer koozie out of a whole bird.” The bird insulates the beer, preventing it from reaching its boiling point — if it never boils, it never steams. In fact, the inside of the bird, plugged by the beer, may tend toward undercooked. “Even if it did boil, the only part of the bird to get a flavor boost from steamed beer would be the shoulders, and that’s a big if,” Meathead said. “It’s just wrong from a hundred different viewpoints.”
Myth 5: Marinating penetrates meat
In a series of experiments (including one with food coloring, which has a similar molecular structure to flavor molecules), Meathead and his team found that most marinades made from oil, vinegar and table salt don’t really penetrate most meats. “It works for thin cuts, but marinade rarely penetrates more than 1/8-inch thick,” Meathead said. Instead, he advises the use of spice rubs and judicious use of salt. “It’s one of the few things that can actually get into the meat,” Meathead said. “Salt in advance. It will amplify flavors and turn the dial to 11.” The other benefit? Salt helps keep meat moist. Marinades, on the other hand, keep the outer surface of the meat wet, which prevents browning and flavor development.
Beer can chicken is a waste of good beer and an inferior cooking method.
Meathead Goldwyn, barbecue whisperer
Myth 6: Grill marks are good, and flipping your meat is bad
This is a two-part myth. “We eat with our eyes, so beautiful grill marks have always been a sign of good steak,” Meathead said. “I see lost potential when I see grill marks on meat: You want it all brown.” By constantly flipping the meat as it cooks, you’re not only cooking the meat evenly, but you’re ensuring maximum Maillard reaction — the food geek term for the browning of food, which changes the chemical composition, thus developing depth of flavor and texture. Meathead, however, does concede that some foods — shrimp, peppers, skirt steaks — benefit from grill marks as they quickly brown an exterior without overcooking the interior.
Myth 7: Fire Up The Whole Grill
“Temperature control is the most important skill you can learn,” Meathead writes. “Don’t turn all the burners to high or dump charcoal across the entire bottom of the grill.” Instead, create two temperature zones — the source of the flames will produce direct radiant heat, while the other side (with no charcoal, or the gas turned off) benefits from convection heating. The indirect zone will allow you to cook your meat more gently, thanks to the airflow of heat coming from the hot side, helping you grill your meat evenly and preventing burning. Placing your food on the hot side will allow you to finish off foods, what Meathead calls a “reverse sear,” allowing you to crisp up chicken skins or create a crust on your meat before serving it.