This is the season when every man becomes a chef, at least in his own mind. The backyard grill is fired up, and individuals who could not locate the spatula in their home kitchen become the culinary master of the universe.
The ritual is almost as silly as the raging debate in foodie circles over which region of the U.S. produces the best barbecue. Is it the pork of Memphis and the Carolinas, or the beef and pork combo of Kansas City and Texas? Is dry-rub superior to sauced meat? You don’t have to be Arthur Bryant to understand that the answer depends as much on the individual making it as the person eating it.
In Argentina, where meat is a religion and the barbecue is the high altar, they have two distinct methods of cooking. The first is parilla, similar to the typical American grill, in which the main heat source emanates from below. The second and far superior technique is asador, an enclosed outdoor oven which holds a wood-stoked fire. Because the heat is trapped within the oven, a skilled chef can position different types and cuts of meat in relation to the fire to get the desired effect. It’s interesting to note that all the top examples of U.S. barbecue are cooked in a device that closely resembles an asador.
The backyard chef, though, is working on a traditional grill with a bottom-up heat source, whether it be charcoal or gas. The techniques are well-known: if charcoal (less and less likely), wait until the coals are white hot before placing anything on the grill. Keep the lid closed. Let the meat stand for several minutes on removal.
The secret weapon for success is marinating or brining. Brining is probably the best way to tenderize a tough cut of meat, since it hydrates the muscle cells before cooking and allows it to retain moisture while on the grill. Marinating adds flavor, cuts cooking time, and makes you appear to be a better cook than you actually are.
The basic marinade recipe is three parts oil to one part acid, plus herbs, spices and seasonings; red meat will require less oil because of its fat content. You can go heavy on the seasonings, particularly garlic, since just a hint of them will be left in the cooked dish. Marinating times range from 15 minutes for shellfish to overnight for some tough cuts of beef; use a non-reactive pan (glass or plastic rather than metal), and place it in the refrigerator to avoid the spread of bacteria. Discard any unused marinade, and sit back to bask in the accolades from family and friends.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is now available from Black Opal Books. For more information, go to amazon.com