Once upon a time, most food was thrown on the grill naked and served unadorned.
Unbelievable, I know, but true.
Now, of course, "building" or "layering" flavor with marinades, rubs, brines, smoke, sauces, chutneys, and more is where it's at, even for home cooks.
But how much is too much? Are there rules that will decrease the number of times this grilling season that you will have to order pizza because of the misapplication of enhancements to expensive cuts of beef?
With Memorial Day and grilling season upon us, there's nobody better to answer such pressing questions than two Philadelphia-area food professionals, Andrew Schloss and David Joachim. Their latest book, Fire It Up: More Than 400 Recipes for Grilling Everything (Chronicle Books - a sibling of their Mastering the Grill, published in 2007), answers these questions (and more) practically, scientifically, creatively, and deliciously.
Schloss is a culinary teacher, writer, and food industry consultant. Joachim says his "pyromania from birth" and love of knives led him to a long career as a food writer and editor. Between them, they've written or cowritten more than 60 books related to the sport and science of food and cooking.
Fire It Up delivers its advice and recipes in more than 400 pages, but with summer nigh and outdoor cooking fiends champing at the bit, the authors offer these quick guidelines about imparting flavor and avoiding catastrophe with rubs, marinades, and the like.
Using more than one flavoring device is a fine idea, but beware of salt content.
For example, brines are salt-heavy because salt is what opens up proteins to receive flavor deep into a meat. You can also add flavor with a rub, which also usually contains salt, but be careful not to apply it thickly or you'll end up with a very salty product. "Do not think of rubs as breading," Joachim says.
Marinades are acid-based. "The biggest misconception people have is that marinades tenderize meat. This isn't true," says Schloss. "They only do so at the surface." Marinades penetrate only 1/8 to ¼ of an inch into the meat.
This is why this duo like to pair marination with rubs or sauces - again, being mindful of the salt content of everything used.
Do not over-marinate. "Essentially, you'll pickle the food" - denaturing the proteins so much that the texture will be mushy and won't have a satisfying chew. Over-marinating causes flavor loss because of excessive breakdown of proteins and muscle fibers.
"You can tell something is over-marinated if the marinade is cloudy," Joachim says. The cloudiness is the proteins that have been drawn out of the meat.
For crisp grilled items, pat the food dry after removing it from a marinade. Also, do not put cold meat on the grill, which will create steam. Allow small items headed for the grill to come to room temperature first, which typically takes 15 to 20 minutes. Large pieces of protein, such as a turkey, should sit on the counter for about 1 hour before cooking.
Very hot grills also are necessary for great crusts. Charcoal fires burn hotter than gas because gas contains 30 percent moisture, which means steam and softer food. "For every hour of grilling you do on a gas grill with the lid down, you are trapping ½ to 1 cup of steam," Joachim says. In addition, a gas grill can't get hotter than about 650 degrees, but charcoal or wood burns much hotter.
Lid up or down? Down if you are grilling things that need to melt, such as pizza, to trap heat to radiate down to the food. Down for large pieces of food that must cook for more than 15 minutes. Up for food that is thin or small, such as fish, which will be done quickly.
Incorporate alcohol into liquid seasonings such as marinades. Schloss and Joachim swear by adding as little as 1 tablespoon of vodka to 2 cups of marinade to boost flavor.
The reason, they say, is the unique nature of alcohol molecules. One end of them combines well with fats and oils; the other, with a food's water molecules.
The recipe here for Tandoori Cauliflower illustrates the authors' caveat on salt usage, and demonstrates how flavoring devices commonly used for proteins can work equally well on vegetables.
Everybody needs a new take on grilled chicken. Schloss and Joachim's Lemon-Espresso Spatchcocked Chicken not only brings a different-looking fowl to the table, it also creates layers of flavor by using a rub before grilling and a brushed-on grilling sauce during cooking.
Schloss and Joachim write that farmed Atlantic salmon, a thick piece with full color, which means high fat content that will keep the fillet moist, is the best for grill-smoking. Note the combo usage of brine, rub, and even more flavorings in this recipe. Using a side of salmon makes for a glorious beginning-of-summer meal.
Makes 4 servings
1 head cauliflower, cut into large florets (about 4 cups)
For the marinade:
1 1/2 cups plain yogurt
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
4 large garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons garam masala rub (see note)
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
2 tablespoons minced fresh onion
For the mint chutney:
1/2 cup fresh mint leaves
1/3 cup fresh cilantro
1/2 small onion, coarsely chopped
1 clove garlic, coarsely chopped
1 small serrano chile pepper, stemmed and coarsely chopped (remove seeds for less heat)
Juice of 1 lime
2 tablespoons water
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1. Combine all of the marinade ingredients.
2. Combine the cauliflower and marinade in a 1-gallon zipper-lock bag. Press out the air, seal the bag, and refrigerate for 3 to 4 hours.
3. To prepare the mint chutney, combine the mint leaves, cilantro leaves, onion, garlic, chile pepper, lime juice, water, and salt in a small food processor or blender. Blend until relatively smooth. Scrape into a small serving bowl and set aside.
4. Light a grill for indirect medium-high heat, about 400 degrees. Put a disposable aluminum pan beneath the grill grate over the unheated area of the grill. Fill the pan with 1/2 inch of hot water. Set the grill grate in place, brush it to coat with oil.
5. Remove the cauliflower from the marinade, reserving the marinade. Put the cauliflower florets on the grill so they are over the pan of water. Close the lid and cook until tender, 20 to 30 minutes. Dab the florets with some of the remaining marinade just before removing from the heat. Serve hot with the chutney.
Note: To prepare the garam masala rub, in a dry medium skillet over medium-high heat, combine 2 teaspoons cumin seeds, 2 teaspoons coriander seeds, 2 teaspoons black peppercorns, 2 teaspoons cardamom seeds, 11/2 teaspoons whole cloves, 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, two 3-inch cinnamon sticks, broken into pieces with a hammer, and one bay leaf. Heat until fragrant and toasted, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a plate and cool for 5 minutes. Grind the toasted spices in a spice grinder until fairly fine, like cornmeal. Mix in 1 teaspoon coarse salt and 1/2 teaspoon sugar. Store in an airtight container for up to one month.
Per serving: 102 calories, 6 grams protein, 17 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams sugar, 2 grams fat, 4 milligrams cholesterol, 362 milligrams sodium, 5 grams dietary fiber.EndText
Makes 8 to 10 servings
2 cups hardwood chips, soaked in water for 30 minutes
1 large side farmed Norwegian salmon (about 3 pounds, pin bones removed
3 cups smokin' brine, made with vodka (see note)
1/4 cup smokin' rub (see note)
1 tablespoon dried dill weed
1 teaspoon onion powder
2 large red onions, cut into 1/4-inch-thick rounds
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 bunch fresh dill
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
1 garlic clove, minced
Coarse salt and ground black pepper
1. Put the salmon in a jumbo (2-gallon) zipper-lock bag. If you only have 1-gallon bags, cut the fish in half and use two bags. Add the brine to the bag(s), press out the air, and seal. Refrigerate for 3 to 4 hours
2. Mix all but 1 tablespoon of the rub with the dried dill and onion powder and set aside.
3. Soak the onion slices in ice water.
4. Heat a grill for indirect low heat, about 225 degrees, with smoke. Drain the wood chips and add them to the grill.
5. Remove the salmon from the brine and pat dry with paper towels. Discard the brine. Coat the fish with 1 tablespoon of the oil and sprinkle the meaty side with the rub that has dried dill in it.
6. Lift the onions from the ice water and pat dry. Coat with 1 tablespoon of the oil and sprinkle with the remaining 1 tablespoon rub. Set the fish and onions aside to rest for 15 minutes.
7. Brush the grill grate and rub well with oil. Place the salmon, flesh-side down, directly over the heat and grill for 5 minutes until the surface is golden brown. Using a large fish spatula or two regular spatulas, turn the fish skin-side down and position on the grill grate away from the fire. Put the onion slices directly over the fire. Close the grill and cook until the salmon is firm on the outside, but not dry, and resilient in the center, about 26 minutes. When done, moisture will bead through the surface when fish is gently pressed. It should not fully flake under pressure. Turn the onions once during the cooking time.
8. While the salmon is cooking, remove the leaves from the fresh dill and chop coarsely. Mix with the lemon zest, garlic, salt, pepper, and remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil.
9. When the salmon is done, transfer to a platter using a fish spatula. Let rest for 5 minutes to finish cooking. Surround with grilled onion slices and scatter the fresh dill mixture over the top.
Note: To prepare the smokin' brine, mix 2 cups beer (or 1/2 cup vodka and 11/2 cups water), 1 tablespoon liquid smoke, 3 tablespoons coarse salt, 3 tablespoons sugar, and 1 cup water. To prepare the smokin' rub, mix 1 tablespoon smoked salt, 1 tablespoon smoked paprika, 11/2 teaspoons brown sugar, 1 teaspoon ground chipotle chile, 1 teaspoon ground toasted cumin, and 1 teaspoon ground black pepper.
Per serving (based on 10): 350 calories, 31 grams protein, 5 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 23 grams fat, 86 milligrams cholesterol, 788 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.EndText
Makes 4 servings
For the rub:
2 tablespoons each finely ground dark-roast coffee, smoked paprika, dark brown sugar, coarse salt, and ground black pepper
1 tablespoon each ground ancho chile and finely grated lemon zest
1 chicken (about 4 pounds), washed and patted dry and spatchcocked (see note)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1½ cups Espresso Grilling Sauce, made with lemon juice (see below)
1 lemon, cut into 4 wedges
1. Light a grill for direct medium heat, about 375 degrees.
2. Make the rub by combining the rub ingredients as long as 1 week ahead of time. Refrigerate in a tightly closed container until needed.
3. Rub the chicken all over with the oil and rub, concentrating on the skinless side.
4. Brush and oil the grill grate and place the chicken, skin-side down, on the grate. Grill for about 15 minutes and turn with a spatula and/or tongs. Grill for about 15 minutes more, until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the inside of a thigh registers 165 degrees.
5. Baste the chicken with ¼ cup of the grilling sauce, cook for a few minutes to brown, turn the chicken and repeat, basting with another ¼ cup sauce.
6. If you like, coat the lemon wedges with oil and grill briefly. Serve the chicken with the lemon and the remaining 1 cup sauce on the side.
Note: Spatchcocking is basically butterflying, splitting a chicken lengthwise to remove the backbone and flatten it before cooking. To do so, place the chicken breast side down on a cutting board. Cut along either side of the backbone with poultry shears or a knife with a thin, sharp blade. Remove the backbone and open the chicken like a book. Run a small knife along either side of the breastbone to loosen its center and the cartilage attached to it. Flatten the chicken gently with your hands, and fold the wing tips back until they are tucked behind the shoulders. Make a knife slit about 1 inch long through one side of the apron of skin at the rear of the chicken. Reach under the bird and slide the end of the drumstick through the slit, repeating this with the other side. (Or ask your butcher to butterfly the chicken.)
To make Espresso Grilling Sauce: Mix in a medium saucepan 1 cup brewed dark-roast coffee, 1 cup ketchup, ¼ cup dark brown mustard, 1/3 cup honey, 2 tablespoons citrus (lemon, lime or orange) juice, 2 tablespoons hot pepper sauce, 2 teaspoons ground black pepper, and 2 teaspoons coarse salt. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Store in a tightly closed container for up to 1 month. Makes about 21/3 cups. Use with beef, lamb, duck, chicken, or game meats.