The Best Way to Barbecue, According to Science

Unless you’re master barbecuer Ron Swanson himself, your grill game could probably use a little work — and fast, considering Memorial Day’s just around the corner. Thankfully, science is here to help.

Greg Blonder is an engineering professor at Boston University and author of the science explainer-slash-cookbook Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling. Blonder has patents ranging from green energy to medical devices, but his real passion project is engineering food.

“My wife is a great pastry chef,” Blonder told Inverse. “Sometimes her recipes wouldn’t work and I’d look at the recipe, and say, ‘Well of course, this pastry recipe violates thermodynamics, that can’t possibly work!’” Together, they worked to improve her library of cooking books, with Blonder continuing to apply the same scientific rigor to his grill.

In 2016, his advice ended up in his cookbook, co-authored with rib expert Meathead Goldwyn (yes, that’s his real name). It busts dozens of common myths about meat and aims to ensure readers a perfect rack of ribs or moist drumstick. However, many avid grillers still don’t heed the duo’s advice.

Among all the misconceptions that keep carnivores from reaching their full potential, Blonder says the biggest problem should be the easiest to overcome: resistance to thermometers.

“One of the really big [myths] is that real men don’t use thermometers,” Blonder says, pointing to a sweaty contingent that believes you can tell when meat is perfectly done simply by gripping it between the fingers and sort of just feeling it out.

Blonder doesn’t buy it, though: “That’s all just blatant nonsense,” he says, arguing it leads people to overcook their food so the meat becomes tough.

Instead, people should invest in a reliable modern thermometer, he says, and use it religiously. While tastes vary, Blonder likes his meats on the rare side, so he cooks his pork to about 145, his dark meat chicken to 185, and his white meat chicken to about 150. (Note: Blonder’s recommendations fall well within the range of the USDA’s recommendations for safely cooking meat.) Thermometers are especially crucial for chicken, as “too low is not safe and too high is a doorstop,” according to Blonder.

The second mistake requires a little more foresight to rectify, but it makes a big difference. For the best taste, barbecuers need to brine their steak overnight — or, if it’s a bigger cut, for a full day — before they cook it.

“You’ll see chefs throwing some salt on the meat right before they throw it on the grill, usually in porno fashion these days,” Blonder says. But ultimately that does little for the flavor of the cut. That’s because it takes about a day for salt to diffuse half an inch into a piece of meat, so salting it right before you cook it doesn’t allow time for the salt to soak into the center of the steak or chicken breast. Blonder advises the dry brining technique, with ¼ teaspoon of salt for every pound of meat — and a lot of time.

Like most of his advice, Blonder’s preferred cooking methods go against the grain, too. He likes to cook his meat on a grill in an oily pan. This way, his meat is cooked equally browned all over, instead of the cool — but not super delicious — black streaks barbecuers often aim for. He also loves a technique he calls the “warp 11” maneuver. It requires cooking the steak in a 130- degree bath, then placing it on the chimney of your grill for a quick sear. This last step is “like hitting it with a blowtorch,” Blonder says, and just two minutes on each side will give the already-cooked meat a nice all-over crisp.

While this warp speed method might sound audacious, Blonder actually advocates against showmanship. He promotes instead the virtues of patience and consistency. But not all of his fellow barbecue experts abide.

Hailed as the “Gladiator of Grilling,” Steven Raichlen is one of the pioneers of the so-called “caveman” or “cowboy”-style grilling method. It requires placing meat straight on the coals, with no rack in between the food and the heat source.

This trend has caught on among a range of chefs, including Alton Brown of the Food Network, and been taken to extremes by YouTubers who somehow have access to real, flowing lava. But Blonder’s not sold.

“It’s not crazy,” he says of Raichlen’s methods. “But the problem is, it only takes one bite of off flavor to kind of ruin the steak and I don’t think that’s a good risk to take.” Blonder will concede, however, the cool factor might make up for this potential mouthfeel misfortune. “It’s a great thing to show your guests.”

In the end, the “perfect” barbecue or grilling technique will depend on what works for you and your tastebuds.

Just promise Blonder you’ll never use lighter fluid. “Jesus Christ, that’s a crime against nature,” he says of the pointless and potentially dangerous tool. “Even if that’s what your dad taught you. “

Recipe of the Week: Slow Cooker Barbecue Beef Sandwiches

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 lbs. ground beef (I used 7% fat), browned (save a bit of the drippings! see below)
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • ¼ tsp. pepper
  • ½ tsp. garlic powder
  • 2 tsp. white vinegar
  • 2 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 Tbsp. mustard
  • 1 (12-oz.) jar Chili Sauce
  • ¼ cup brown sugar
  • 1 small white onion, diced
Slow Cooker Size:
  • 4-quart or larger

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Brown the ground beef and keep a touch of the drippings, add to the slow cooker.
  2. Add remaining ingredients and stir.
  3. Cover and cook on low for 5 hours.
  4. Serve on toasted buns and enjoy!

Grilling Hacks For a Better BBQ

It’s the season of charred meat. For too long you’ve been cooped up cooking in a kitchen; it’s time to get out. That means it’s time to dust off the grill. But before you go throw some patties on, consider trying one or more of these grilling hacks. Each will help elevate your BBQ game this summer.

Use Your Thumb to Check How Your Steak’s Cooked

This is an old trick, and for those who aren’t steak savvy, it’s great. If you don’t have a meat thermometer nearby, and can’t tell if a cut is rare, medium, or well-done, just use your hand. If you touch the large base of your thumb while your hand is relaxed, that should feel the same as a raw steak. If you put your thumb and index finger together, it should feel like a rare steak; thumb to middle finger should feel medium rare; thumb to ring finger should be medium; and thumb to pinky should feel well-done. Link

Clean Your Grill with Aluminum Foil

Everyone knows the time to clean the grill is when the grates are still warm. What do you do if you don’t have a grill brush around, however? Try using aluminum foil. Make a ball out of it, grab it with a pair of tongs, and start cleaning.

Turn Your Grill Into a Smoker

No smoker? No problem. Start by soaking your wood chips and placing a pan of water in your grill. For indirect heat, you’ll want your flames going on one side, so move the briskets over if you’re using a charcoal grill, or just light one side on a gas grill. If you’re using charcoal, you can dump the chips right on top; if you’re using gas, either put the chips in a pan or wrap them in foil and poke holes. All of a sudden, you’ve got a smoker.

Check Your Propane Level with Hot Water

Nothing kills a party like running out of gas for the grill. Luckily, even if you don’t have a scale, you can get a good idea of how much propane’s left with this trick. Simply pour some hot water down the side of your tank. Where there’s propane, it will feel cold; where it’s empty, it will feel warm.

Cook Fish on Lemons to Keep It from Sticking to the Grill

Anyone who’s thrown some salmon on the grill knows it can leave half of itself behind when you pull it off. No amount of oil seems to truly help. Instead, make a bed of lemons and toss the fish on top. Not only will it take on some of that bright lemon flavor, but you’ll get to enjoy all the fish you intended to eat.

Cook Juicier Burgers with Ice

You may already put a dimple in your burger to keep it from rising while it cooks. Go one step further by placing some ice chips in that indentation. Better than ice, try pat of butter. The ice or butter will keep your patty from drying out while you cook it.

Brine Fish to Keep It from Falling Apart

Fish is a challenge on the grill. Bryan Voltaggio, of Top Chef fame, can help with a little trick. He does a clever quick brine to keep your meal from falling apart. Just mix 1 tablespoon of salt with 4 cups of water, and let the fish sit in the mixture for 10 minutes. When you’re done, pat it dry, and toss it on the grill.

Grill Food Before Anyone Arrives

At some point in a BBQ, guests begin to hover around the grill, salivating, with beers in hand. This is when the pressure mounts, and you rush to get all the burgers or steaks done. Why not just start earlier? Grill meats up to four hours before you want to serve them to just under where you want them. So if guests all want their burgers medium, take the patties off the grill at medium rare, let them sit at room temperature, and toss them on to finish them off when everyone is ready to eat.

Recipe of the Week: BBQ Pulled Pork Egg Rolls

Ingredients:

  • 2 teaspoons avocado oil (or canola)
  • 3 cups pulled pork
  • 1/2 cup diced red onion
  • 1 jalapeño, diced (seeds removed if you want it less spicy)
  • 1/2 cup BBQ sauce
  • 10 – 12 egg roll wrappers
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • oil for frying

Instructions:

  1. Heat avocado oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add in pulled pork, red onion and jalapeño. Cook just until pork is warmed through and red onion and jalapeño have softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in BBQ sauce.
  2. To assemble the egg rolls: using one egg roll wrapper with one point towards you, place 1 tablespoon of filling about an inch from the point closest to you. Working away from you, fold the wrapper over the filling. Next fold in both sides. Dip a pastry brush into the egg and brush the edges. Continue rolling to seal completely. Repeat with remaining filling and wrappers.
  3. Heat 1/2 inch of oil in a skillet to 350 degrees. Fry egg rolls, in batches if necessary so you don’t crowd the pan, until golden brown, about 3 minutes.
  4. Transfer to a paper towel lined plate, sprinkle with salt. Repeat until all egg rolls are fried.
  5. Serve with extra BBQ sauce for dipping.

Recipe of the Week: Fall Apart Pork Ribs with Chipotle BBQ Sauce

INGREDIENTS

Rub
  • 1½ tbsp sweet paprika
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 1½ tbsp garlic powder
  • ½ tbsp black pepper
  • 1 tbsp onion powder
  • ½ tbsp cayenne pepper
  • ½ tbsp dried thyme
  • ½ tbsp dried oregano
Ribs
  • 5 lb / 2.5 kg American style pork ribs, cut into individual ribs (to fit into one baking dish)
  • 1 bottle dark beer (About 12 oz / 375 ml. Stout, porter or a dark ale)
Chipotle BBQ Sauce (“Sauce”)
  • 14oz / 400g can crushed tomato
  • 3.5 oz / 100g can Chipotle in Adobo Sauce, chipotle and sauce (1/2 a standard can) (Note 1)
  • 1 large onion (brown, white or yellow), diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tbsp tomato paste
  • 2 tbsp brown sugar
  • ¼ cup white wine vinegar (or 2 tbsp normal white vinegar + 1 tsp sugar)
  • ⅓ cup Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tbsp Tabasco sauce, or other hot sauce. Adjust to taste.
  • ½ tbsp salt
  • Black pepper
To Serve
  • Fresh coriander/cilantro leaves
  • Lime wedges

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Combine the Rub ingredients in a bowl.
  2. Pat the ribs dry, then rub with the Rub. If time permits, refrigerate, covered, for at least 2 hours or overnight.
  3. Take ribs out of the fridge, place in a large baking dish in a single layer (squished is ok, they will shrink slightly).
  4. Preheat oven to 160C/325F.
  5. Pour beer into the baking dish and cover with a lid (use foil if you don’t have a lid). Place in the oven and cook for 1 hour.
  6. Meanwhile, make the Sauce.
  7. Take out of the oven and remove lid. Pour the sauce over the ribs, then return to the oven (uncovered).
  8. Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour 15 minutes, turning once or twice, until the ribs are cooked to your liking. The meat should be very tender and comes off the bone easily, and the sauce should be thick and “jam-like”. If the pan starts looking dry, add a splash of water.
  9. To finish the ribs off, grill/broil for 5 to 10 minutes to get a nice browned finish on top (this is an optional step).
  10. Serve, garnished with fresh coriander/cilantro leaves and wedges of lime.
Sauce
  1. Blend or process the canned tomato in a food processor, Chipotle in Adobo Sauce, onion and garlic.
  2. Stir through remaining ingredients. Set aside until required.

Recipe of the Week: BBQ Sloppy Joe Muffins

Ingredients

  • 1 (7.5 oz) can biscuits (10 count)
  • 1 pound lean ground beef
  • ¾ cup chopped onion (1 small onion)
  • 1 tsp minced garlic
  • 1 tsp seasoned salt (or salt and pepper to taste)
  • 1 cup BBQ sauce
  • 1½ cups grated cheddar cheese

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350°
  2. Spray muffin tin with cooking spray. Roll out each biscuit until it’s approx 5″ in diameter. Line each muffin tin with flattened biscuit.
  3. In large skillet cook ground beef, onion and garlic until meat is cooked through and onions are soft. Drain excess fat if necessary.
  4. Mix in BBQ sauce and heat until warm.
  5. fill each biscuit with a few tablespoons of meat mixture, filling each cup top the top.
  6. Sprinkle each filled muffin with cheese.
  7. Bake for 10-15 minutes until edges of biscuit are golden and cheese is melted.
  8. Serve warm.

Recipe of the Week: White BBQ Bacon Burger with Crispy Onion Strings

Ingredients

FOR THE PATTIES

  • 2 lbs ground beef
  • 1 tsp worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tsp mustard
  • ½ tsp salt
  • ½ tsp pepper
  • ½ tsp onion powder
  • ½ tsp garlic powder

FOR THE WHITE BBQ MAYO

  • 1 cup mayo
  • 1 tbsp apple cider vinegar
  • ½ tsp worcestershire sauce
  • ½ tsp salt
  • ½ tsp pepper
  • ½ tsp onion powder
  • ½ tsp garlic powder
  • 2 tsp brown sugar

FOR THE TOPPINGS

  • Onion Strings – recipe found at The Pioneer Woman Cooks
  • 8+ slices of bacon – cooked
  • 6+ onion rolls
  • Lettuce, tomatoes, cheese and avocados if so desired

Instructions

  1. Make a batch of crispy onion strings.
  2. Set aside until ready.
  3. In a small bowl, combine all the ingredients for the White BBQ Mayo and set aside in the fridge until you are ready to use.
  4. In a medium bowl, combine all ingredients for the patties.
  5. Divide the mixture into 6 equal parts and form into hamburger patties.
  6. Place patties on the grill and cooke 5-8 minutes each side until cooked to desired doneness.
  7. Assemble the burgers on an onion roll with a patty, white BBQ sauce, bacon, onion strings, and cheese, lettuce, tomato and avocado if desired.