Get better grilling through science

Grilled Glazed Boneless Chicken Breasts, left, and Grilled Romaine with Bacon-Blue Cheese Vinaigrette are great recipes for the summer grill. (Juli Leonard/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS)

I've been a food writer for almost a decade. I've learned a thing or two over the years about grilling. Beyond the day job, there are three grills in my backyard.

But two recent cookbooks reminded me that even I can learn something new. The books are "Master of the Grill," by the editors of Test Kitchen, and "The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science," by J. Kenji Alt-Lopez. Both volumes contain science-based tips and tricks for how to achieve grilled-food perfection.

With summer upon us, it's a good time to share this collective wisdom to help us all achieve better grilling through science.

How to avoid the dreaded puffed burger:Burgers can puff up or bulge in the center during grilling; this results from the sides and edges of the meat cooking faster than the middle, which has nowhere to go but up. The solution: Make a slight depression or dimple in the center of the burger before cooking. You will end up with a flat burger.

How to avoid flare-ups:Flare-ups occur because fat or excess marinade drip off the meat and catch fire. Avoid that by trimming meat carefully and patting food dry with paper towels before grilling. Briefly covering the grill can help tamp down a flare-up.


How to quickly thaw meat:Usually we thaw meat one of two ways: either defrost cuts thicker than 1 inch in the refrigerator or place thinner cuts on a cast-iron or steel pan at room temperature. (With the latter, the metal's rapid heat transfer will defrost meat in about an hour.) But there is another method with USDA approval: Smaller cuts of meat in zipper-lock bags can be defrosted by submerging them in very hot water (about 140 degrees). The meat will thaw in about 8 to 12 minutes, which is fast enough to avoid bacterial growth.

How to handle meat before cooking:Skip letting meat come to room temperature. The idea is it promotes more even cooking. But the obsessive Alt-Lopez tested the internal temperature of a steak left to sit out for almost two hours, which only raised the internal temperature about 11 degrees. In a side-by-side taste test with a steak left in the refrigerator before cooking, he found the end results were the same.

How to salt your steak:You have one of two options: either salt immediately before cooking or at least 40 minutes before cooking. What happens in that 40-minute window is the salt draws moisture to the surface, then begins to break down the muscles, allowing what has become a brine on the surface to be reabsorbed into the meat. If you cook the meat during that window, you will not get as good a sear or outside crust. Even better, salt steaks and refrigerate overnight.

How long to let your meat rest:Resting after cooking allows the meat's muscle proteins to relax and the juices to thicken slightly, which prevents the juices from escaping when you cut into it. Burgers should rest for 5 minutes; America's Test Kitchen folks recommend tenting them with foil and placing them on a rack so moisture doesn't collect underneath, which can led to a soggy bun. Alt-Lopez recommends a 10-minutes rest for steaks and offers this guideline for other cuts: Cool until the center is about 5 degrees below its maximum cooking temperature. So a medium-rare steak cooked to 130 degrees should rest until it reaches 125 degrees in the center.



Grilled glazed boneless chicken breasts

If using kosher chicken, do not brine. The milk powder allows these chicken breasts to be both browned and glazed because the protein and sugar in the milk protein allow for faster browning. From "Master of the Grill: Foolproof Recipes, Top-Rated Gadgets, Gear & Ingredients Plus Clever Test Kitchen Tips and Fascinating Food Science," by editors of America's Test Kitchen (Editors at America's Test Kitchen, 2016).


1/4 cup salt

1/4 cup sugar

4 (6- to 8-ounce) boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed

2 teaspoons nonfat dry milk powder

1/4 teaspoon pepper

Vegetable oil spray

—Spicy Hoisin Glaze:

2 tablespoons rice vinegar


1 teaspoon cornstarch

1/3 cup hoisin sauce

2 tablespoons corn syrup

1-2 tablespoons sriracha sauce

1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

1/4 teaspoon five-spice powder

Dissolve salt and sugar in 1 1/2 quarts cold water in a large container. Submerge chicken in brine, cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or up to 1 hour. Remove chicken from brine and pat dry with paper towels. Combine milk powder and pepper in a bowl.

For charcoal grill, open bottom vent completely. Light large chimney starter mounded with charcoal briquettes. When top coals are partially covered with ash, pour two-thirds evenly over half of grill, then pour remaining coals over other half of grill. Set cooking grate in place, cover, and open lid vent completely. Heat grill until hot, about 5 minutes.


For gas grill, turn all the burners to high, cover and heat grill until hot, about 15 minutes. Leave primary burner on high and turn other burners to medium-high.

Make glaze: Whisk vinegar and cornstarch in a small saucepan until cornstarch has dissolved. Whisk in hoisin, corn syrup, sriracha, ginger and five-spice powder. Bring mixture to a boil over high heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until thickened, about 1 minute. Transfer to a bowl.

Clean and oil cooking grate. Sprinkle half of milk powder mixture over 1 side of chicken breast. Lightly spray coated side of breasts with oil spray until milk powder is moistened. Flip chicken and sprinkle remaining milk powder mixture over second side. Lightly spray with oil spray. Place chicken, skinned side down, on hotter part of grill and cook until browned on first side, 2 to 2 1/2 minutes. Flip chicken, brush with 2 tablespoons glaze, and cook until browned on second side, 2 to 2 1/2 minutes. Flip chicken, move to cooler side of grill, brush with 2 tablespoons glaze and cook for 2 minutes. Repeat flipping and brushing 2 more times, cooking for 2 minutes each side. Flip chicken, brush with remaining glaze, and cook until chicken registers 160 degrees, 1 to 3 minutes. Transfer chicken to plate and let rest for 5 minutes before serving.

Yield: 4 servings.

Grilled romaine with bacon-blue cheese vinaigrette

From Guy Fieri via

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

3/4 cup chopped red onion


1/2 pound bacon, chopped

1/2 cup balsamic vinegar

3 heads romaine lettuce, cut in 1/2 lengthwise

1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese

Freshly ground black pepper

Heat the grill to high heat. Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a saute pan over high heat. Add the onions and bacon and cook until the bacon is crispy, about 20 to 30 minutes. To the same pan add the balsamic vinegar and 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and stir to combine. Remove from heat and set aside. Brush the romaine lettuce on all sides with the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil, place on the grill cut side down, and quickly sear. Serve the lettuce, cut side up, and drizzle the balsamic dressing over the lettuce. Sprinkle with blue cheese and garnish with cracked black pepper.

Yield: 6 servings.

Steak house-style grilled marinated flank steak


J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, managing culinary director of Serious Eats website, won a James Beard award in the general cooking category last month for his book, "The Food Lab." This marinade is his version of A-1 style Worcestershire-based steak sauce, flavored with anchovy, soy sauce, Marmite and brown sugar. The flank steak can be replaced with hanger, skirt or flap meat, also known as faux hanger, bavette or sirloin tip. From "The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science," by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt (W.W. Norton, 2015).

1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce

1/4 cup soy sauce

3 tablespoons brown sugar

4 anchovy fillets

2 teaspoons Marmite (optional)

2 cloves garlic, split in half and gently smashed with the side of the knife

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1/4 cup vegetable oil

2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

1 medium shallot, minced (about 2 tablespoons)

1 flank steak (about 2 pounds)

Combine the Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, brown sugar, anchovies, Marmite, if using, garlic, mustard, tomato paste and vegetable oil in a blender and blend until smooth, creamy and emulsified. Transfer one-third of the marinade to a small bowl, add chives and shallots, and stir to combine; refrigerate. Place the flank steak in a gallon-sized zipper-lock freezer bag, add the remaining marinade, press out the air, and seal the bag. Allow meat to marinate in the refrigerator, turning occasionally, for at least 1 hour, and up to 12 hours. Remove the steak from marinade and pat dry with paper towels. Ignite a large chimneyful of coals and wait until they are covered in gray ash, then spread evenly over half of the grill. Put the cooking grate in place, cover, and allow the grill to heat for 5 minutes. Or, if using a gas grill, heat one set of burners to high and leave the rest off. Scrape the cooking grate clean. Place flank steak on the hot side of the grill and cook until well charred on the first side, about 3 minutes. Flip and continue to cook until the second side is well charred, about 3 minutes longer. Transfer the steak to the cooler side of the grill, cover, and cook until the center registers 125 degrees for medium-rare or 135 degrees for medium, on an instant-read thermometer. Transfer to a cutting board and allow to rest for at least 5 minutes, then carve the steak and serve, passing the reserved marinade at the table.

Yield: 4 servings.

Grilled Glazed Boneless Chicken Breasts from "Master of the Grill: Foolproof Recipes, Top-Rated Gadgets, Gear & Ingredients Plus Clever Test Kitchen Tips and Fascinating Food Science," by editors of America's Test Kitchen. (Juli Leonard/Raleigh News & Observer/TNS)

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