More than 15,000 years ago mankind tamed fire. Ever since that time fire has been employed in the preparation of food. Exposing food directly to flame or combustion gases is the essence of grilling and barbeque. Food from the fire is frequently redolent of smoke or is crisply browned. It almost always has an ineffable primal appeal.
If there is a cuisine that Americans can claim it is probably this one. Anyone with a hunk of meat and a fire has practiced the art. And that's most Americans - going back long before Europeans arrived here. In the five hundred years since Europeans began barbecueing in the Americas, this technique has predominated because of the relative plentitude of meat and the relatively simple cooking techniques involved.
It may be true that the perfectly grilled or barbequed bit of meat is neither trivially easy to prepare nor all that common in practice, but it is also true that the number of steps and principal ingredients is relatively small compared to most other cuisines. So grilling and barbeque belong to the people. As the world's premier populist nation, that makes grilling and barbeque almost a patriotic duty.
Grilling is a relatively fast cooking method employing high heat. Smoky flavor can develop, especially at the surface, though it rarely penetrates. Surfaces are usually browned by the high heat of the fire or the grill.
Since pieces of food are smaller, the smoke or browning effect can be strong. Browning and searing unlock rich and sweet flavors that frequently do not exist when food is cooked at a lower temperature. Because of this, grilling is not just for hamburgers, steaks, and chicken. It works very well for fish, vegetables, and bread.
Gas is the most convenient way to grill. But one can develop a higher heat with a charcoal grill. And the combustion gases have less moisture, so one can really sear a surface well. A charcoal grill will also have space for wood chips which will impart some smoke flavor to the grilled meat.
Broiling, by the way, is basically grilling upside down. If the piece of food is exceptionally oily, grilling may cause uncontrolled flare-ups. A flare-up occurs when fat from the food drips into the fire below and ignites. It is the burning fat that gives grilling and barbeque its characteristic smell, so some amount of flare-up is desirable. Too much, however, can burn the food. Because broiling drains the fat away from the fire, there are fewer flare-ups.
There is another interesting advantage to broiling: it is easy to cook a relatively thin piece of meat from both sides at once. This is done by preheating a very heavy cast iron skillet or griddle to a very high temperature, say 450 F -500F, placing the flat piece of food in on the griddle, and placing it in the broiler. The heat in the cookware will cook the one side while the fire cooks the other. This is an ideal way to cook salmon fillets. It should work nicely with certain steaks and chops.
Barbeque is a relatively low-temperature cooking method where smoke from the fire slowly penetrates the meat, flavoring it strongly. To keep food moist and juicy, sauces are frequently applied to the surface. Barbequeing is best suited for hunks of meat large enough to serve four or more people.
Barbeque is a relatively slow cooking method employing low heat. Smoky flavor can diffuse into the meat depending on how long the process lasts. Sometimes barbequed food is browned, but in many cases the surface is wetted with a barbeque sauce through the cooking process. This sauce can dry and develop a flavor envelope around the meat instead of or in addition to a browned surface.
Smoke, heat, and sauce make all the difference in barbeque. Get the heat right and you will have cooked meat. Get two of the three right and you will have good cooked meat. Get all three perfect and you have ambrosia. Food that makes the angels sing. But it is not easy. Even some of the world's most famous barbeque restaurants will occasionally turn out meats that are just good.
There are lots of potential problems here are just a few of the most obvious and serious ones:
Since barbeque is made with a large chunk of meat, cooked at a relatively low temperature, the cooking time can be quite long. This means that if you underestimate cooking time by 20% you can be off by an hour, two hours, or more.
It's clear that one of the reasons people who have mastered the art of barbeque are so proud of it, is that it is difficult to do perfectly. The good news is that with some good guidelines, good equipment, and a good recipe, one can make really good food for lots of people with not a lot of fuss.
Eat well and prosper
Copyright S.R. Brubaker 2002 - 2006.