It may not be the most academic topic that Greg Blonder has studied, but it’s the reason he can tell you why sticking a can of beer up the rear of that chicken before grilling will make it succulently juicy. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s not the beer.
Science confirms that the long-standing theory—that evaporating beer streams moisten the meat—is wrong. Rather, it’s standing the chicken vertically on the grill that yields that great taste, says Blonder, a College of Engineering professor of the practice of mechanical engineering. “The beer can actually slow down the cooking,” he says, because, cocooned by chicken meat, the can is “the last thing to heat up.…It’s actually causing the meat near the center to be kind of raw.”
He says vertical cooking of the chicken is absolutely a great thing to do, and “sticking a beer can up the butt is a really stupid idea.”
Blonder does what few scientists or backyard barbecuers do, or can do: he applies formidable science training to cooking a great piece of beef, fish, or fowl. And he coauthored the recent book Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016). The Meathead of the title is Meathead Goldwyn, founder and editor of AmazingRibs.com, which Blonder contributes to. (His own website has info ranging from technical articles to recipes.)
“Many chefs mess up because they don’t understand the science,” he says. Good ones intuit their way to being good barbecuers, but even talented chefs can believe in “myths that they’ve picked up over time that they don’t know to abandon.”
Putting science behind the sizzle is partly the result of a decades-old love of cooking, says Blonder, whose scientific knowledge has also helped his wife, a talented pastry maker. “I’d look at the recipe and say, ‘The claim of the recipe author violates what I know about thermodynamics.’ I would end up measuring temperatures on our ovens to see whether the dial matched the temperature it claimed. And our home oven was 50 degrees off—high.”
BU Today spoke with the science-based guru of the grill about tips for the summer barbecue season.
BU Today: How did you get involved in writing this book?
Blonder: I was smoking a big brisket, and it takes 14 hours to cook all the way through. When you get to about five hours, it stops rising. It’s in a hot oven and it stops rising—that’s weird. It’s called the “stall.” You wait three, four hours and it breaks the stall, but it affects your ability to know when it’s done. Meathead had the country’s largest barbecue website. He had an article on how the stall will occur and ways to stop it, like wrapping it in aluminum foil. But he had no explanation for it, so I wrote him a note. This was eight years ago or so. He wrote back saying, “Do you know why it stalls?” I said sure. We wrote up an article together for his website. I started adding some recipes and collaborating on some of the site’s writing. Meathead obtained a book contract, and I helped him with the book.
You’ve worked with restaurants to debunk some myths. Can you tell us about some of those myths?
Everyone in Texas understands that if you smoke chicken, the chicken will appear pink, for the same reason there’s a pink ring in brisket or in ribs: it has to do with nitric oxide in the combustion gases of a wood fire that fix the color of myoglobin, a chemical with iron in it. It’s what makes meat red. When you live north of the Mason-Dixon line, you say, “Raw meat!” and you return it to the kitchen, which is a problem, because that’s waste. I’ve worked with a bunch of Northern barbecue restaurants to show them that if they do an acid marinade—like buttermilk or a lemon—chemistry suppresses the fixing process. And so the meat looks white. The acid solved the visual problem without hurting the taste.
I also did work with some restaurants to understand that when you salt meat and you give the salt enough time to make it from the surface to the interior—in a thick brisket, that means three days to a week—that salt changes the environment of the water that’s in the meat, and it holds the water in place. So the meat will be juicier. I spoke at the National Barbecue Association a year ago in Nashville. Great guys—guns, God, glory kind of people. I told them, “You need to get either the rub on or the salt on at least three days to a week ahead of time.”
What about the myth that we should “sear first, then cook”?
This idea of searing went back to the 1800s. In fact, when you sear meat, it makes that sizzling sound because it’s constantly emitting water. The idea that searing seals things in is bogus. Sometimes restaurant chains will say, “We sear in the flavor.” Not true.
There are three ways to cook a steak. Two are right, one is wrong, and the wrong way is the way everyone does it, which is take the steak out of the refrigerator, throw it on a hot grill, and flip it maybe two, three times until the inside gets to medium. When you do that, the outer quarter inch or more might be gray, and gray meat doesn’t have a lot of flavor. When you take it off the grill, that heat continues to work its way to the center. The surface of the meat’s at boiling temperature, 212 degrees. The inside’s at 135, which is what you want. You take it off the grill, the 212 drops as it heats up the 135, and eventually the whole steak’s at 145, which is hotter and grayer than what you want.
The traditional way of cooking on the backyard grill—take cold meat from the fridge, cook it, flipping it occasionally, taking it off when it’s ready—is actually the worst thing. Color is not an indicator of temperature with meat. You can have meat that is 150 degrees that is well done and pink. And you can have meat that’s 125 degrees that is medium rare and gray. And that has to do with the chemistry of the myoglobin that’s inside and the way the animal was slaughtered and what marinades you use.
What are the right ways?
The key is to separate the cooking into two steps. One step is bringing the temperature of the meat up to, say, medium, whatever the target temperature is. And the other step is to brown the surface to build the flavor and the color. There are two ways to separate it:
You can take the meat right out of the fridge, put it on an extremely hot grill for about four minutes total, brown the surfaces, then either put it off on the side of the grill or in your kitchen oven at 200 degrees and let it slowly coast up to 135. Because the heat is coming in slowly instead of forcing its way rapidly in through the outside, the whole piece of meat, surface to center, will be one color. In an hour—depending on how thick the steak is, 45 minutes—the whole steak will go from raw on the inside to medium, and it’ll be beautiful.
The reverse way to do it, called the reverse sear, is start with the meat in a 200-degree oven and raise it over an hour until the meat is, say, 120 degrees top to bottom. Take it out of the oven; go on the grill; cook the two surfaces and get a nice brown color and the Maillard reaction [between amino acids and simple sugars], which gives you this beautiful, aromatic, nutty smell of meat, and then take it right off the grill and eat it. The reverse sear is my favorite way of doing it.
Another myth the book busts is bringing meat to room temperature before cooking.
It takes hours for a thick steak to come up to room temperature, and while it’s doing that, it’s growing bacteria. A typical recipe book idiot comment is: take it out a half hour before you grill to bring it to room temperature. A half hour does not to take it to room temperature; all it does is let bacteria multiply. It’s potentially dangerous.
Does science have anything to say about cooking with wood, or charcoal, or gas?
Perfectly combusted propane or natural gas is odorless—it just produces water and CO2, the byproducts of combustion. So there’s no flavor produced by properly combusted gas. To get flavor on a gas grill—in most cases, it comes from burnt fat that falls on the fire.
Wood smoke has a sweeter, more distinct odor from fat. You need wood if you want to have a traditional barbecue aroma and appearance.
I don’t want to dissuade anyone from the convenience of a gas grill. The gas grill is my go-to for vegetables and fish, which cook so quickly that they don’t have time for smoke to make much of a difference.
No meat on a gas grill for you?
Almost never. Charcoal is a much better way to grill a steak. A wood fire grill or smoker does it all, but it’s also the least convenient for people to use. Charcoal is kind of a nice compromise for people. People like it because of its consistency, and they add chemicals to charcoal briquettes so that they burn slowly.
Is it a carcinogen concern if you use lighter fluid or pretreated briquettes?
That’s an abomination against the god of barbecue. That flavor will never disappear, that’s an objectionable flavor and does have some carcinogens. Smoke is already bad; cigarette smoke and barbecue smoke are identical, they’re just as bad for you.
Does that mean you eat barbecue sparingly?
No, because the danger’s from the smoke, not the finished product. The chemicals in the smoke, which will give you lung cancer when you’re standing there cooking, are not the chemicals on the meat. And the epidemiological studies that have looked at eating smoked meats versus other meats versus being a vegetarian have been relatively inconclusive. I worry about many things environmental. This is not one of the ones I worry about.
Do your colleagues know you do this hobby?
They just chalk it up to: every professor is eccentric—this is my eccentricity.