When it comes to barbecue, there are many rules to follow, from when to flip the food to how to handle a flare-up, but not all of these directives are accurate. There are actually several barbecuing myths that may be preventing you from being the best cook you can be on the grill. Once these myths are debunked, you will feel you have upped your grilling game.
Myth: Searing Locks in Juices
Searing meat calls for heating the grill as hot as it will go and cooking a steak a few minutes per side until there is a nice crust. This technique is said to lock in the juices; the concept is that if the surface of the steak cooked hot and fast the juices will stay inside. It may sound logical, but it is actually false. The moisture in meats is inside the individual cells. Heat prompts these cells to contract, draining juices from the meat and causing it to get dry. The more you cook the meat, the drier it will get. High-temperature searing won't affect the moisture of the meat. What it does do is brown the surface of the meat in processes known as caramelization and the Maillard reaction. These processes affect amino acids and sugars on the meat giving it that rich, sweet flavor. So sear for the flavor, not the juices.
Myth: Marinades Will Tenderize Meat
Marinades are believed to tenderize meat and add flavor throughout. It is also thought that acids in the marinade, such as lemon juice, wine, and vinegar, are necessary for breaking down the connective tissue that makes meat tough. The truth is that marinades only penetrate the outer layers of the meat and do not reach the center. In addition, acids will not help make a piece of meat more tender; they can cause the exterior to turn mushy, however.
But that doesn't mean that marinades aren't beneficial. While marinades won't turn the toughest cut of beef into filet mignon, they will reduce how much the meat will dry out while cooking, and in turn make it more tender. Marinades also add flavor and encourage seasonings to stick to the surface of the meat. As an added bonus, a marinade protects meats from the intense heat of the grill, reducing the formation of cancer-causing substances. The American Institute for Cancer Research has stated that the formation of HCAs (Heterocyclic amines) on the food's surface can be reduced by marinating meat for a minimum of a half an hour before grilling.
Myth: Deal With Flare-Ups With a Spray Bottle
Flare-ups are grease fires, and, simply stated, you don't put water on a grease fire. Spraying your flare-up with water might put it out for a minute, but it will actually spread out the grease. Thus, the grease will fire up again and you will now have a larger grease fire spread over a larger area of your grill.
Reducing the fat in the first place will reduce your risk of flare-ups. When a flare-up does occur, open up the lid, move the food out of the way, and wait for the flare-up to subside. If you have a flare-up on a charcoal grill, close the vents and put the fire out by eliminating the oxygen. Don't fight flare-ups, rather, control them.
Myth: Frequent Flipping Makes the Meat Tough and Dry
Many of us have learned that when we place a piece of meat on the grill, it should not be touched until it is ready to be flipped to the other side and that turning it over several times will allow the juices to escape, resulting in a dry and tough piece of meat. This is actually false. When meat is left for several minutes on a hot grill, one side is retaining heat while the other is not, leaving you with a piece of meat that has very different temperatures on each side. When the meat is flipped, the side that was in contact with the grill will continue to cook a bit, while the other side has only just begun. This means that the meat is cooking unevenly.
Flipping over (and turning around) the meat a few times, therefore, is a good thing. It allows the meat to remain at a more consistent temperature, cooking both sides and all parts of the meat equally.
Myth: Salting Before Cooking Causes Dry Meat
This is somewhat of a complex issue—and a controversial one. One reason is that salt will have different effects on different types of meat, such as pork versus steak. When added ahead of time, salt will make for a dry piece of pork while it can do the opposite to steak. And timing is the other issue; professional chefs debate on whether it is better to salt meat well ahead of time or add the seasoning right before cooking. When the salt is added can result in very different outcomes (mainly in relation to steak).
Salt has the ability to pull out moisture as it sits, but meat also has the ability to reabsorb the moisture—if it has enough time to do so. If a piece of meat is salted well before it is cooked (some studies say 40 minutes or more is the magic time), then the salt and meat have plenty of time to do their thing. If the meat is salted right before it is cooked, the interior juices are still intact and the salt adds nice flavor to the exterior. If it is salted any time in between, the juices may begin to release and not have time to reabsorb, meaning the meat will turn out dry.
Myth: Poking Meat With a Fork Lets Out the Juices
It has been taught that it's a no-no to use a grilling fork to stab and flip the meat, and doing so will cause some of the juices to escape and result in a drier steak. This is untrue. Poking the meat while it is cooking to help you turn it over has no effect; the meat will have the same amount of moisture loss as when a set of tongs are used. The moisture loss is due to the muscle fibers contracting and squeezing out their juices, which is caused by the heat of the grill, not any tool.
Myth: The Hotter the Better
Much of the appeal of grilling is the direct high heat, but the truth is that a good grill can reach a wide range of temperatures, not just hot. Different foods need different temperatures. Searing steaks needs a high temp while chicken needs a lower temperature to prevent it from burning; fish needs an even lower temperature to keep it intact and to prevent it from drying out. The grill is also great for indirect heat, which means one part of the grill is hot while another is cooler and the food may be moved back and forth. Learning how to use your grill is learning how to control the temperature.
Myth: Grills Are Self Cleaning
Crank up the heat, let it go for about 10 minutes, give the grates a quick brush and your grill is clean, right? Wrong. Grills, whether gas or charcoal, need to be cleaned regularly. This means getting inside the grill and cleaning out all the parts. A clean grill cooks better, has fewer flare-ups, and lasts longer.
Myth: Soaking Bamboo Skewers Prevents Burning
Most recipes for kebabs and skewered food say to soak bamboo skewers in cold water for 30 minutes to prevent them from catching fire on the grill. But the reality is that the amount of water that a bamboo skewer can hold after soaking probably won't fill a thimble. This is hardly enough water to keep the skewers from catching fire and any water they do hold will evaporate in a matter of seconds. To prevent bamboo skewers from burning, try placing a piece of aluminum foil under the exposed ends to protect them. Also, it is best to use metal skewers for high-heat items like beef and lamb, and bamboo for lower temperature cooking like shrimp and seafood.
American Institute for Cancer Research. Cancer Experts Issue Warning on Grilling Safety. May 21, 2019.
Farrimond S. The Science of Cooking: Every Question Answered to Perfect Your Cooking. DK. 2017.