2000s Archive

Light My Fire

Originally Published June 2003
A delicately seared fruit kebab may turn some heads, but if you can’t slap a porterhouse on the grill and make it sing, read on.

Not that long ago, cooking fish on the grill was considered a complex project, putting fruit over the fire provoked incredulous stares, and the very idea of going outside in November to smoke-roast a whole turkey seemed completely absurd. Today, though, any griller who craves respect must include everything from eggplant to sea bass to quail in his repertoire, and the occasional mango doesn’t hurt either.

Granted, quail just off the flames is succulently, irresistibly delicious; it’s hard to beat a piece of superfresh grilled tuna; and we even admit to a strong fondness for grilled peaches with blue cheese. But there are still plenty of times when all you want at the end of a summer day is to toss something simple onto the grill. Nothing beats the flavor of the crusty sear on a thick steak or the sheer joy of getting your hands and face covered with somebody’s—anybody’s—secret barbecued chicken recipe.

To reap the most pleasure from America’s holy trinity of steaks, chops, and chicken, though, they must be cooked right—and there’s the rub. With all the advances we’ve made in grilling techniques, simplicity is becoming a forgotten art.

The Setup

The true art of live-fire cookery is the ability to achieve a perfectly formed, flavorful crust on the outside while also making sure that a cut is properly done on the inside. This can best be accomplished by building a fire that allows you to sear the food directly over coals, then to finish cooking it, if necessary, by indirect rather than direct heat. When you build a fire, leave about one quarter of the grill free of charcoal, then bank the charcoal across the rest of the grill so that the coals are about three times higher at the opposite side.

It’s also important to know what temperature your fire is before you start to cook. The method for determining this is simple: Put your hand about five inches above the grill grid, palm side down. If you can hold it there for five to six seconds, you have a low fire; three to four seconds is within the medium range; and one to two seconds means you have a hot fire.

Finally, keep in mind that when meat comes off the grill it will continue to cook for several minutes. Factor that into your timing and remove it from the heat before it is quite done the way you like it. Let the food sit for five minutes before serving, and it will be properly cooked.

The Meat

1. Steak

When the traditional American griller graduated from hot dogs and hamburgers, his first stop was invariably steak. Despite all the advances in grilling, this is still the number one favorite of America’s backyard cooks. These days, however, there is much more variety than there was when Dad capped every weekend with a sirloin over the coals.

If money is no object, our favorite steak for grilling is the bone-in porterhouse for two. Since this single cut includes both the tenderloin (the most tender muscle in the cow) and the top loin (also tender, but more flavorful), it offers a near ideal combination of tenderness and beefiness. The bone is a bonus; it gives the meat added flavor, and it’s there to gnaw on when the meal has become a memory.

As with most steaks, the best plan is to buy your porterhouses thick, so you can get a really powerful sear on the outside and still have the center of the meat remain rare and tender. Grill the steaks over the hot part of the fire for about 6 minutes per side, then move them to the cooler part to finish cooking, about 12 minutes more, turning once, for medium-rare. If you’re dealing with the two-inch-thick monsters that we prefer (this is a primal meat experience, after all), you might even want to cover your steaks with a disposable pie plate to create a kind of oven effect during the period of indirect cooking.

We are also very fond of the skirt steak. Until the fajitas craze boosted its popularity, this long, flat, deeply striated cut was a great way to get steak taste without breaking the bank. It is still less expensive than most other steaks, and it has another, more important virtue: Its relatively high percentage of fat and its well-developed muscle give it plenty of rich, deep flavor. Since it is quite thin, it is best cooked by the direct heat of a hot fire, about two to three minutes per side if you like it medium-rare; it’s also important to slice it very thinly and on the bias, against the grain, since otherwise it can be somewhat tough.

2. Chops

Right after steaks in the traditional American grilling lexicon come chops, and in particular that centerpiece of farmhouse cooking, the pork chop.

There are six types of pork chops, and they are all fine for grilling. Our first choice is the rib chop, which is from the part of the loin nearer the shoulder and has a little more fat than other center-cut chops. This not only gives the meat more flavor but also makes it less likely to dry out during cooking—a particularly useful advantage given the leanness of today’s pork.

As with steaks, we think the best way to get tender, juicy chops from the grill is to buy them very thick—1 inches or thicker. Sear them well over the hot part of the fire, three to four minutes per side, then move them to the cooler portion for about eight minutes per side to finish cooking. Again, for the thickest chops, a disposable pie plate cover is a useful tool to create an on-grill oven.

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