VOLUME 18 ... UNDERSTANDING THE SCIENCE OF GRILLING
IN AN ATTEMPT TO ACHIEVE THE PERFECT STEAK
 

 

“Bad barbequing, which I fear is far more often practiced than good barbequing, is the inevitable result of impatience, latent pyromania and the subconscious desire to create an unpleasantly smoky atmosphere in which cheap but cold beer tastes better than it should. Misplaced enthusiasm for the event often outweighs respect for one’s ingredients, with fatal results.”

                               - Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, The River Cottage Meat Book
 

Grilling steaks correctly is an art, as well as a science; this issue of Live to Eat will attempt to shed light on the latter and focus on the physical and chemical transformations of meat during grilling. Our goal is to achieve The Perfect Steak; of course – what that means to you is different than what that means to another person. Some people prefer their grilled steak rare, others medium; some will use a thick steak, others will use a thin steak; some will use a piece of quality organic meat, others will use the unfortunate alternative – the point is, the variables are many and the combinations of those variables are endless. So really, the goal of this newsletter is to equip you, the home cook, with a solid foundation of knowledge that is not commonly found in recipe books – an understanding of how meat changes during the cooking process. Although this newsletter is geared to grilling, the knowledge can be applied to better understand all cooking techniques. Perhaps we will never achieve The Perfect Steak, but so long as your reaction to taking that first bite is “damn that’s good!” then we’re happy butchers.

 

 

continued below

 

LIMITED SPACE STILL AVAILABLE

for this Saturday's (June 2)

WINE & CHEESE CLASS

 

Join cheese specialist Julia Rogers and sommelier/wine importer Bernard Stramwasser for an entertaining and educational evening of wine/cheese pairing. Cost is only $50!

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SOAP FUNCTION

The Healthy Butcher introduces its own line of sustainable suds!

 

We pride ourselves on being a sustainable butcher shop... Whole animal eating we preach... Yet, the majority of beef tallow was going to waste.  No longer!  Soap made the ole' fashion way.  Trust us - this soap is unbelievable!  Your skin will thank you.

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THE HEALTHY BUTCHER &

TEAM BBQ EFFECT FINISH THE FIRST ROUND OF THE CANADIAN BBQ CHAMPIONSHIPS IN 1st PLACE

 

We left the Canadian Barbeque Association's first competition of 2007 with one gold and two silvers, leaving us tied for first place in the standings. 

Next event: June 8 & 9, in Paris, Ontario.

We'll keep you posted.

 

THE HEALTHY BUTCHER PARTICIPATES IN EMPTY BOWLS 2007

 

In support of Anishnawbe Street Patrol, which helps the homeless in Toronto.

 

The Healthy Butcher Chefs Jonathan Abrahams and Jenelle Regnier-Davies made and served a masterpiece... Certified Organic Oxtail Broth, with braised shitake mushrooms, chicken liver dumplings and chive flowers.  More photos here.

 

VOLUME 18 ... UNDERSTANDING THE SCIENCE OF GRILLING

IN AN ATTEMPT TO ACHIEVE THE PERFECT STEAK

WHAT SHOULD WE GRILL?

Grilling is a form of dry-heat cooking that is most popular during the summer months when barbeques of all shapes and sizes crawl out from winter hibernation holes (otherwise known as sheds and garages). As we’ve discussed repeatedly in previous Live to Eat newsletters, dry heat cooking techniques (grilling, broiling, roasting) are appropriate for certain cuts of meat, generally more tender cuts (we will provide the scientific reasoning below); versus wet heat cooking techniques (braising, stewing) are appropriate for tougher cuts of meat. All of the cuts in last month’s Sustainable Steaks are appropriate for a hot grill; of those cuts, we would separate brisket as one cut that would be better suited for slow-grilling or slow-smoking, and the results of that extra time invested are paid off in spades. Of course, beef Tenderloin, New York Strip Steak, and Rib Steak yield superb results on the grill. And although the focus of this newsletter is grilling beef steaks, let’s not forget other meats as well – pork chops, lamb chops, elk chops, bison steaks, chicken breasts and legs, etc., are all cuts of meat that are tender and small enough to make them appropriate for cooking over relatively high, direct heat.

Cuts Appropriate for Grilling

BEEF:

Tenderloin (Filet Mignon)

New York Striploin

Rib Eye or Prime Rib Steaks

Boneless Blade Steak

Vacio

Tri Tip

Skirt Steak

Flat Iron Steak

Flank Steak

Top Sirloin Steak

Sirloin Tip Steak

Eye of Round Steak

Inside Round Steak

PORK:

Pork Shoulder Chops

Pork Loin Chops

Top Sirloin Pork Steaks

Ham Steaks

 

LAMB:

Shoulder Chops

Rib Chops

Loin Chops

Leg of Lamb Round Steaks

 

CHICKEN:

Breasts

Legs

Wings

 

GAME MEAT

Bison Steaks (same cuts as beef)

Elk Steaks and Chops

Venison Steaks and Chops

Wild Boar Chops

 

SAUSAGES & BURGERS – any type

FAT

 

Fat plays multiple roles in meat. First, the marbling improves tenderness by acting as a lubricant between meat fibers making the fibers easier to pull apart. Second, fat carries flavour compounds; in fact, if all fat was removed from meat, it would be difficult to differentiate between several types of red meat because they would taste so similar. And third, fat stimulates the flow of saliva which has the effect of further stimulating taste and further increasing tenderness. Needless to say, we are fans of fat. Everything in moderation; eat smaller quantities of more enjoyable food and you will feel just as sated, if not more so, than eating a lot of unmemorable food.

FLAVOUR & TEXTURE

 

Heat creates the characteristic flavour of cooked meat in two basic ways. First it denatures the cell membranes allowing the cell contents to mix. Fats come in contact with water-soluble compounds, and reactions between free amino acids, sugars, minerals, fats and related substances, and enzymes can all contribute to flavour. Second, intense heat favours “browning reactions,” exceedingly complex chemical changes that involve mostly proteins and carbohydrates.

 

Grilled, roasted and fried meat develop a crust that is much more intensely flavoured than the rest of the meat. This is because browning reactions are greatly accelerated at high temperatures. The interior of the meat can never reach temperatures higher than the boiling point of water, 212F (100C), until all the water is cooked out of it, at which point it would resemble shoe leather. The outside surface, however, is quickly dried out, and so can reach the temperature of the surrounding cooking medium – perhaps 300 or 400F (149 or 205C) – at which point both flavour and colour quickly develop. In addition, the dry surface attracts moisture from the centre of the meat, thereby concentrating more browning-reaction participants in the crust.

 

The texture of cooked meat is determined by the ease or difficulty with which it is broken down, by knife or tooth, and the way it feels in our mouth. Generally, we like meat to be tender and juicy rather than tough and dry. This means that if we are to achieve The Perfect Steak, we want to cook the steak to the perfect balance of minimal fluid loss and toughening of meat fibers.

TO SEAR OR NOT TO SEAR?

 

Searing meat to “trap juices” is perhaps the biggest culinary misconception of all time. The theory that searing created a barrier against moisture loss gained the most prominence from the German chemist Justus von Liebig, in his 1847 English translation of Researches on the Chemistry of Food. Auguste Escoffier’s authoritative Guide Colinaire of 1902 referred to the process referred by physicists as “capillarity” to explain how juices are trapped in by the “armor” that is produced during searing.

 

Today, as a result of the invention of the meat thermometer and more detailed scientific experiments, the prevailing theory is that searing does not trap juices; in fact, studies show that meat cooked at constant temperature actually lose less fluid than initially seared samples. However, searing is still part of the meat chef’s cooking arsenal today and we strongly urge you to sear your steaks simply because it enhances the flavour by the complex browning reactions that we mentioned above. More specifically, when carbohydrates and proteins are heated together, sugars (from the carbohydrates) and amino acids (from the proteins) combine to form new but unstable chemical structures. As the heat continues to be applied, these compounds in turn break down, producing literally hundreds of new by-products, each of which has a distinctive taste and aroma. As a result, food subjected to this process gains a whole new layer of rich, deep, complex flavours. Searing is an essential part of achieving The Perfect Steak.

WHAT HEAT DOES TO MEAT AND WHY WE GRILL ONLY TENDER CUTS

 

Muscle is held together in a delicate association, and cooking creates a denser, more solid association. As heat is applied to meat, the filament proteins heat up and move around more energetically. At about 100F (38C), the molecules start to uncoil and expose more of themselves to each other. As a result, the filaments bond together, or coagulate into solid masses. There are two clear signs that coagulation is occurring. One is that the meat begins to look more opaque – it is the same process that transforms a clear raw egg white to opaque white when exposed to heat. The other sign is that the meat begins to exude juice. Although it is 75% water, raw meat leaks very little when it is cut, but rare meat is quite juicy. The reason for this sudden appearance of fluid is that the coagulating proteins are squeezing out the water that used to separate them from each other and that used to be trapped in their coiled structure. Think of it as twisting a wet towel. By the time meat reaches 170F (77C), most of the liquid that can be freed by this process has been released. This is the reason well-done meat is dry compared to rare meat, and why meat shrinks and becomes denser as it cooks.

 

Given what happens to the muscle fibers in meat as they heat up, one lesson seems obvious: the cook should stop cooking before all the juice is lost and the fibers dry out and toughen. To summarize thus far, to achieve The Perfect Steak, searing is important for flavour created by the browning reactions, and cooking to a rare or medium rare doneness will achieve the juiciest and most tender results. That being said, if you started with a tough piece of meat, the tough connective tissue will be largely unaffected at the temperatures reached when the meat is rare or medium-rare. This is the reason why we have suggested above only tender cuts to be used for grilling. Very tough cuts of meat (that are not appropriate for grilling) that contain ample connective tissue benefit from continued cooking. At about 140F (60C), the protein collapses and the individual molecules separate from one another into the loose association we call gelatin. Gelatin is the substance that gives stews their richness. The reason we cook tough cuts of meat with wet cooking methods (like braising and stewing) and not on the barbeque is because liquid is far more efficient than air at transferring heat and effectuating the gelatinizing process.

THE PERFECT DONENESS

 

If our goal is to achieve the point where the fiber proteins are coagulating, exuding juice, and are still tender, it is obvious that the perfect doneness lies somewhere in the rare-to-medium rare stage. If a steak is seared and only cooked to Blue Rare (see below for a picture), the internal temperature being maximum 115F (46C), the meat is essentially still raw. At this level of doneness, the meat will remain gel-like, difficult to chew, will lack flavour and lack flowing juices; we enjoy beef sashimi as much as the next guy, but raw beef does not achieve The Perfect Steak.

 

As explained above, the molecules within the meat will begin to uncoil at 100F (38C), causing fat to render (liquefy) and moisture to be released. By 120F (49C), the water and fat are flowing freely as delicious juice. This is the narrow window of The Perfect Steak. To achieve this temperature, you will have to remove a 1” steak from the grill at 110-115F (38-46C), and allow the steak to rest while the temperature continues to rise to 120F (49C). Of course, if the steak is thicker, it will need to be removed from the grill at a lower temperature, perhaps 105F (41C) internal. At 120F (49C), the meat is no longer jellylike but has taken on only the first signs of grain, but before the bundles of muscle fibers tighten.

 

By the time the meat has reached 130F (54C), what is referred to as medium-rare, the proteins coagulate to the point of slight toughness, and a significant amount of the moisture has been squeezed out and either lost through evaporation or dripped into the fire.

 

Beyond medium-rare, well, the toughness and dryness increase exponentially. It is a narrow window of optimum doneness… but one worth striving for.

LET IT REST

 

Being cooked is an exhausting process. You have to let the meat rest after it’s done. We explained above how cooking contracts meat fibers and squeezes out the water like twisting a wet towel. Well, by tenting your steak with foil and letting it rest for 10 minutes before cutting into it you will allow the muscle fibers to reabsorb the juices, resulting in a more tender and succulent steak than if it was eaten right off the grill. The consequence of slicing prematurely is compromising loss of moisture and flavour.

 

TECHNIQUE

SEASON BEFORE GRILLING

 

We must sound like a broken record as this is a phrase we’ve used in almost every newsletter… season your meat before cooking! Sprinkle a generous amount of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper just before throwing your steak on the grill. The seasoning, especially the salt, encourages the browning reactions to occur.

DIRECT FLAME IS A NO-NO

 

If it is beneficial to sear the meat over high heat because of the caramelizing effect on the surface of the meat, why not sear over direct flame? The answer to this question must be stressed – direct flame (the source of the highest possible heat) is no good for meat. Direct flames will deposit an unpleasant tasting, downright nasty, soot on the surface of meat. We repeat, direct flame is a no-no in the process of achieving The Perfect Steak.

 

If you are grilling over wood or charcoal, don’t rush the process! You need to grill over embers, not flames. Wait until charcoal has turned from black to grey, with red-hot embers peeping through before starting to grill meat.

 

Flare-ups during barbequing are a problem for gas grillers and hardcore wood burners alike. The likely cause is fat from the meat reaching it’s rendering temperature and dripping onto the heat source. If dripping fat is the source of your problem, and moving the meat to another spot on the grill doesn’t help, then you might want to trim off some of the excess fat that is the source of your problem. You know that we are big fans of fat, but if you are having problems with flare-ups, the damage done from keeping the fat on will outweigh its benefits. In any case, you can only remove the caps of fat, not the marbling which makes up the majority of flavour and is rarely the cause of flare-ups.

 

CHOOSING A BARBEQUE

 

A discussion on the thousands of models of barbeques on the market is far beyond the scope of this article. There are many obvious pros and cons of gas grills versus charcoal or wood burning barbeques – all of which are briefly summarized by saying that gas prioritizes convenience, charcoal and wood prioritize flavour. No matter how much we argue otherwise, natural gas and propane grills are here to stay. One obvious feature of a well-designed gas grill is its ability to minimize flare-ups using metal vaporizers or briquets.

 

We suggest enhancing your gas barbeques by using a Smoker Box; The Healthy Butcher sells an inexpensive stainless steel wood chip smoker box, essentially a small metal box with holes at the top and the bottom. Use the box by soaking wood chips (mesquite, hickory, fruit woods) for about 30 minutes, then placing them in the box and placing the box on the grill. The natural smoke will seep out of the box and enhance your barbequed meats (of course, not as much as a wood grill… but it’s a step in the right direction). You can also easily make a disposable smoker pouch with aluminum foil (the thicker the better) – wrap the soaked wood chips in the foil and then poke the pouch with a fork or pencil eight or so times.

 

The more important knowledge comes not in the choosing of a barbeque, but in the understanding of how your barbeque works. Get to know the temperatures that are achieved by turning your knobs on a gas grill – every gas grill is different. And if you’re using charcoal or wood, understand the different techniques for regulating temperature (such as moving the grill higher or lower, or piling up the burning coals versus spreading them sparsely).

TEMPERATURE OF GRILL

 

High heat is necessary for searing the exterior of your steak and is the appropriate temperature for grilling most steaks cut about 1” thick. However, if grilling a thicker steak, or for that matter, a bone-on chicken breast, you will want to reduce the heat after searing to ensure the interior reaches your target level of doneness without the exterior looking and tasting like an ash tray. Determining the temperature of a charcoal grill is a little difficult, since there's no thermometer. Here’s a good way to estimate: Hold your hand over the center of the coals. The amount of time you can hold your hand in place gives you an idea of its heat - 10+ seconds is low heat, 6-8 seconds is medium heat, and 2-4 seconds is high heat. To achieve The Perfect Steak, 4 seconds is the perfect temperature.

JUDGING DONENESS

 

The most accurate gauge for doneness of meat is internal temperature; insert an instant-read meat thermometer through the side of the steak into the centre of the largest portion of the steak. To achieve The Perfect Steak, with a 1” steak remove the steak from the grill when the internal temperature reads 110-115F (38-46C). Let rest on a rack for ten minutes. For red meat, and especially beef, we usually use colour as our gauge. We can do so because the pigment myoglobin is also a protein, and its changes parallel those of the fiber proteins. Up to about 140F (60C) myoglobin remains unaffected and its colour stays red, but temperatures from 140 to 160F (71C) disturb its structure: it loses the ability to bind oxygen, and the iron atom at its centre gives up an electron, thereby forming a new, tan-coloured compound called a hemichrome. In this temperature range, the colour of the meat will run from deep red to light shades of pink. By 175F (79C), enough hemichrome has accumulated to produce a light brown-gray shade. As the fiber proteins get more solid, dense, and dry, the pigment gets more and more drab. This is why rare meat is pink and juicy, well-done meat brown-gray and dry.

 

Blue rare (115F)- seared on the outside, completely red throughout.  Meat remains gel-like in texture and difficult to chew; juices are not yet flowing freely.

 

Medium (134F) - seared outside, 25% pink showing inside. Much drier and tougher than The Perfect Steak, but still palatable.

 

Rare (120F)- seared and still red 75% through the centre.  Once the heat transfer is completed during the resting period, this steak will achieve The Perfect Steak - tender & juicy.

 

Medium well (150F) - done throughout with a slight hint of pink.  Past the point of no return.

 

Medium rare (126F)- seared with 50% red centre.  Just passed the point of The Perfect Steak.

Well done (160F) - 100% brown.  Waste of a good quality steak.

 

The problem with using colour as a gauge of doneness is that you have to compromise the nicely seared outside in order to see inside – the so-called “nick & peak” technique. In the absence of a meat thermometer, one of two other techniques will prove useful. The first is the time method; that is, a 1” steak over a hot grill will take approximately 3-4 minutes per side to reach rare; 4-5 minutes per side to reach medium-rare. Of course, steaks aren’t always going to be the exact same thickness, nor is your grill always going to be the exact same temperature. So, the preferred technique to measure doneness of a steak is the touch method.

 

Loosely form a circle with your thumb and index finger of your left hand. With your right index finger, poke into the fleshy party of your left hand between your index finger and thumb. This is how a steak cooked rare will feel to the touch, i.e. it will offer very little resistance, be soft and springy. For medium-rare, make a circle with your middle finger and thumb of your left hand. Again, using your right hand index finger, poke the fleshy part. This is how a steak cooked medium-rare will feel to the touch, i.e. it feels less springy and a little firmer than the rare steak.

FLIP ONLY WHEN NEEDED

 

The theories of minimal- versus frequent-flipping are all over the map. We believe a steak should be flipped, at maximum, three times. In doing so, and as a bonus, you can achieve the classic criss-cross pattern on both sides by changing the angle of the meat 90 degrees when grilled on the same side the second time. Harold McGee, the author of the seminal book “On Food and Cooking – The Science and Lore of the Kitchen,” (that happens to be the most significant source of information for this newsletter) is principal of the opposite school of thought – that is, steaks should be flipped frequently.

 

According to Mr. McGee, not flipping frequently reduces the heat diffusion because of the huge difference in temperatures between the side that’s facing the fire and the side that’s turned away. He actually used computer models to prove that the optimum flipping time is every fifteen seconds!

 

With all due respect to Mr. McGee, and he may very well be correct with respect to more effective heat diffusion, we find that flipping frequently encourages sticking on the grill and, frankly, there are more things that can go wrong than right by constantly having your tongs on the steak. This especially applies to homemade burgers like those sold at The Healthy Butcher – by flipping frequently, you will inevitably be picking out pieces of ground beef out of your coals.

MARINADES

 

Marinades can serve a dual purpose: to increase tenderness or enhance flavour. The tenderizing effect of marinades is achieved either with an enzyme (usually plant based) or acid (like vinegar). The problem with marinade tenderizers is that only the surface of the meat is fully exposed to marinade. Usually, the result is meat that is mushy on the outside and unaffected on the inside. We’ve heard of people poking holes in the meat to allow the marinade to penetrate, but this technique will cause greater fluid loss during cooking. Ultimately, we are not proponents of marinating to increase tenderness. Our opinion is we’d rather use our jaw muscles a little more if it means a better cooked, better textured, and more flavourful steak. If you are convinced on using a marinade to tenderize, then limit your choice of cuts to thin ones that can benefit from tenderizing, like flank steak for example. Leave the tenderizing to us using the ‘ole fashion technique of dry-ageing.

 

Using a marinade to enhance flavour is also a technique we don’t recommend to customers buying meat at The Healthy Butcher. The simple reason is this: the properly fed, Certified Organic, dry-aged, steaks we sell have a very dominant and delicious flavour on their own. All you need is salt and pepper. It sometimes surprises us how foolish the common meat purchaser has become – they will pickup a cheap, predominantly corn-fed, tasteless cut of pre-packaged meat from a grocery store fridge rack, then walk over to the barbeque sauce section and spend more money on the sauce than on the meat, simply to compensate for the meat’s poor quality and lack of flavour. In the end, the total purchase price is about the same – who wins in this equation? Certainly not the consumer. Don’t get us wrong, marinating to compliment the flavour of meat has its place in artful cooking… but we stress complimenting the flavour already found in good meat, not marinading to give flavour to otherwise flavourless meat. Use marinades that are oil-based – don’t drench the meat, just use enough oil to mediate the transfer of flavour from the herbs and spices. Prior to grilling, wipe off excess oil to avoid flare-ups, but leave a fine coating film on the surface; a thin coating will prevent the meat from sticking on the bars of the grill rack. Indeed, meat that has not been marinated will benefit from a light oil massage to achieve the same effect.

 

SUMMARY OF PROCESS

 

  1. Get your barbeque hot, wipe the grill with a little oil if your steak does not already have a thin layer of oil;

  2. Pat dry your steaks and season generously with good quality salt and pepper;

  3. Flip when the meat is well seared on the first side;

  4. Regulate the temperature (or move the meat) to adjust for steaks of different thickness or different meats;

  5. Remove a 1” beef steak when the internal temperature has reached 110-115F (38-46C). Remove thicker steaks a few degrees cooler;

  6. Season again;

  7. (OPTIONAL) Spread a little good quality room-temperature butter or drizzle a little good quality olive oil;

  8. Let rest for 10 minutes on a rack over a plate;

  9. Enjoy.

The next time you're visiting your friend’s place for a barbeque and you're asked how you would like your steak – answer “I would like The Healthy Butcher’s Perfect Steak please”.
 

Read our Guide to Sustainable Steaks by clicking here.

 

SOURCES:  This article could not be possible without referencing large portions from Harold McGee’s seminal book, “On Food and Cooking – The Science and Lore of the Kitchen” (1984, Scribner: Toronto). For any serious foodie, this is a book we whole-heartedly recommend adding to your library.

To learn more about various cooking methods and

appropriate cuts for each method, refer to:

"The Healthy Butcher's Cooking Guide"

 

To access past issues of live to eat? Click here.

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