2000s Archive

The Thick of It

Originally Published June 2004
Grilling large cuts of meat can be tricky—unless you have the “secret weapon” of grill chefs.

We call it the Grilling Paradox. Cooking over live fire is about as primal, as simple, as basic as it gets. For us, no cooking experience can quite match serving a subtly smoky bluefish or a fire-singed porterhouse that’s been prepared over a glowing bed of coals using nothing more technologically advanced than a grill grid, two cinder blocks, and a bag of hardwood charcoal.

So why is it that grilling inspires an endless wave of gimmicks, gadgets, and gizmos? A recent visit we made to a kitchen supply Web site turned up more than 380 entries under “Grilling Equipment,” from the downright silly (a multipronged device designed to cook a dozen hot dogs simultaneously) to the merely superfluous (a meat fork with a thermometer embedded in it). In the name of supposed ease, innovators seem hell-bent on destroying the atavistic pleasure of the grill.

As strict adherents of the “less is more” school of grilling, we hesitate to add to a backyard cook’s list of near-essential gear. We did, however, notice that one of our very favorite tools was conspicuously absent from the almost endless list of grilling doodads. This seemed particularly odd given that you will find it in the kitchen of any restaurant that has a live-fire grill. No, it’s not some technologically advanced electronic device or sleek, high-design European import. Look carefully, and somewhere close to the grill you’ll inevitably find a stack of dented, worn, smoke-blackened disposable aluminum pans. This cheap, flimsy item, found hanging on a peg in the kitchen supply aisle of every supermarket in America, is one of those chef’s secrets that few backyard grillers seem to set much store by, yet it paves the way to the holy grail of grilling: thick, substantial cuts of meat cooked so the outside has a dark, slightly crunchy, ultraflavorful crust, while the inside remains juicy and tender.

Where exactly does this humble accoutrement fit into the grilling repertoire? Obviously you don’t need it for classic grilling, which involves cooking thin pieces of food such as a sirloin steak or a skewer of shrimp directly over the flames. And there’s clearly no place for aluminum pans in what we call “smoke-roasting,” where large items like a leg of lamb or a whole chicken are cooked on a covered grill by indirect heat, often for several hours.

What you do need these pans for, though—at least if you want to get the best possible results—is those foods we think of as the “in-betweens.” From a superthick pork chop to a bone-in chicken breast to a small roast of lamb or beef, these items occupy the middle ground of grilling. Too thick to be cooked directly over the flames because they will be incinerated on the outside before they are cooked all the way through, they’re not particularly well suited to covered cooking, either. We like to put the cover over the flames only when we’re smoke-roasting something that needs to be on the grill for at least 45 minutes to cook through. Any less time than that, and the food ends up with a subtle but noticeable off flavor, vaguely metallic, with a kind of stale, soggy smokiness. Like most cooking times, this three-quarters of an hour prescription is somewhat arbitrary. But that is approximately how long it takes for the complex layered smoke flavor to overcome the “covered” flavor.

Putting a disposable pan over the food achieves the same mini-oven effect as putting on the grill cover. It slows down the direct-heat cooking of the outside of the food while allowing the ovenlike radiant heat to continue cooking the inside. In fact, the mini-oven effect is more intense when the food is enclosed in the small space under a pan than it is when the cover of the grill is closed. And there’s no off flavor.

Like most grilling processes, this “sear, move, and cover” technique is actually very simple. But there are a few basic requirements.

First, you’ll need to build a multilevel fire. After the charcoal is well lit, leave about one quarter of the grill vacant and spread the charcoal out across the rest of the area so that the coals are about three times higher on one side than on the other. This not only provides you with an area with no coals at all, it also gives you graduated heat along the area over the coals.

When the flames have died down and all the coals are coated with gray ash, check the temperature of the fire. To do this, hold your hand about 5 inches above the grill rack directly over the thickest layer of coals. If you can hold it there for 3 to 4 seconds but no more, you have a medium-hot fire, which we have found best for this technique.

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