Grilling: A Butcher's Case Against High Heat


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It seems that any truly useful lesson I've ever learned about cooking has been the product of an accident or a fundamental misunderstanding of proper culinary technique. The subject of this article falls into the former category: happy accidents.

Several summers ago, when I was relatively new to meat and butchering, I was invited to a friend of a friend's house to have a barbecue for about 10 people. Working alone in a tiny room with access to a locker full of beef and a band saw will lead you to do strange things: among them, deciding to cut one giant steak to feed 10 rather than 10 small steaks.

After work I happily loaded the 4-inch-thick, bone-in sirloin into my bag and biked over to the party. Revealing the mammoth steak to the guests filled my heart with rainbows and unicorns, so sincere and loud were the oohs and ahhs laid upon the preposterous slab of beef. I rode high on that wave for the next five minutes until I discovered that the unfamiliar gas grill in this strange and wonderful post-industrial patio had some pretty significant issues.

The next morning I awoke groggy but possessed with the desire to get to the bottom of why something that
should have been an epic fail had turned into one of the best meals of my life.

Although the tank was full of gas and the burners were turned up to 11, the gleaming stainless steel showpiece was only capable of mustering about 250 degrees worth of heat with the lid closed. For a guy raised in the high-heat world of California backyard barbecues, this was a serious problem. How would it sear, and, more importantly, how long was it going to take to cook this big bastard? Well, with no back-up charcoal grill there was really only one thing to do and one way to solve the issue: put it on and see what would happen.

As it turned out, the eight-pound steak took about an hour and 45 minutes to cook. To be honest, our collective memories of the event were clouded by all the red wine we drank while we waited for it to finish, but that number seems to be the general consensus.

What we all agreed upon was that it was far and away the best steak we'd ever tasted: it was more tender, flavorful, and evenly cooked than any of us knew a steak could be. The next morning I awoke groggy but possessed with the desire to get to the bottom of why something that should have been an epic fail had turned into one of the best meals of my life.

A large part of American steak culture is about high heat. Whether you're watching a cooking show or talking to an avid home chef, you will usually hear something about a smoking hot cast-iron skillet and getting a good sear or crust. The truth about this deceptive heat-mongering is that most home kitchen ranges are pitifully inadequate as far as raw BTU output goes and require a sort of running start to get anything like a good sear on the outside of a steak before the thermal inertia of the pan is quickly drained. The problem with this sort of advice is that it leads the average weekend warrior to believe that blistering heat is the be-all and end-all, which is unfortunate for both the steak and the grillmaster.

Read any tome on food science and you will discover that cooking meat gently for a long period of time allows the meat fibers to break down more thoroughly and produces a steak that is more evenly cooked to temperature. The mechanics of this are too nerdy and long-winded for a mere blog post, but if you do a bit a research you can read the science for yourself.

Regardless of the dorky particulars, this is an experiment that you can prove at home: try cooking two identical steaks, one over a bed of raging hot fresh coals and another more slowly over the coals once they have burned down by half. I think you'll find that your more leisurely roasted meat will be more tender and evenly cooked through than the one that has been exposed to extreme heat and thermal shock.

An additional benefit to the more laid-back approach to grilling meat is that lower-temperature grilling allows a much broader margin of error than the high-stress, high-heat methods, where the difference between a perfectly cooked steak and one that has been broiled past the point of no return may be only a matter of seconds.

Live better. Eat better. Grill slower and lower with bigger steaks. Barbecues are for sipping wine, sharing stories. I think you and your dinner guests will agree with the science.