Fourth of July

10 Grilling Myths That Must Go Away

by:
May 26, 2017

Barbecue and grilling are rife with old husband’s tales handed down for generations. But now we have science and curious cooks who have questioned these shibboleths. In my new book, Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling, I dispel scores of these myths.

Here are some of the hardest to kill that won’t go away:

1. MYTH: You can tell the temperature of your grill by holding your hand over it.

I cannot understand why so many talented cooks parrot this nonsense. You absolutely positively definitively without doubt no way no how cannot tell anything about the temperature of a grill by holding your hand over the grate and counting "1001, 1002, 1003" until your palm starts to smoke. Each of us reacts differently to heat and the heat 1 inch above the grate can be significantly different than 6 inches above.

2. MYTH: Get your grill really hot and sear the meat first.

You want a grill that has enough cooking surface that you can set up two heat zones: one side hot, one side not. One side is heated by direct radiant heat, the other by indirect convection heat. On a gas grill, turn the burners off on one side. On a charcoal grill, push all the coals to one side. Now you have temperature control.

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The best technique for thicker cuts of meat is called the reverse sear. (It works indoors, too.) For all but very thin foods, you want to start cooking on the indirect side and slowly warm it and bathe it in smoke, an elegant seasoning you can’t get from your spice rack. By slowly warming the meat, it cooks evenly throughout and enzymes kick in to tenderize the meat.

But you do want a darkly caramelized, crisp crust, so the trick is to move the meat from the indirect side to the direct radiant heat side about 10 to 15°F before it hits the target temp, and sear the snot out of it with the lid open. This concentrates all the heat on one side, browning the surface. Leave it facing the fire for only a minute or two so not too much energy is absorbed. Then flip it and let it cool on the top side while the bottom browns. Flip flip flip every minute or two until the exterior is dark brown, and the interior is the target temp. (It is far easier to hit a slow moving target than a fast moving one.) Try it on a thick steak or chicken or even a baked potato!

3. MYTH: Searing meat seals in the juices.

Meat is about 70% water and most of that is locked in thousands of long thin muscle fibers. Heating meat always squeezes out juices. Some juices drip off during cooking and some evaporate, and nothing can stop the process. Hear that sizzle? That’s water on hot metal.

Although searing browns and firms up the surface, which makes it feel and taste great, it does not somehow weld the fibers shut and lock in the juices. In fact, the surface gets crusty mostly because it has dried out due to high heat, and searing, which needs high heat, causes water to evaporate. Doing side by side tests of seared and unseared meats cooked to the same temp, the seared meat weighs less. And any experienced griller will tell you that even after searing, juices pool on the surface.

4. MYTH: Marinades penetrate deep into meat and tenderize it.

Marinades are primarily a surface treatment, especially on thicker cuts. Meat is a protein sponge saturated with water. There's not much room for any more liquid in there. As for the flavor molecules, salt gets electrically charged when wet and they can split up and penetrate deep into meat. But sucrose, garlic, pepper, etc. are huge molecules that can’t get past the cracks and pores on the surface. Even overnight they rarely penetrate more than ⅛ inch. That’s a lot on a thin skirt steak, but not much on a double wide pork chop or a chicken breast.

5. MYTH: The pink juice from a steak is blood.

Meat juices are simply water tinted pink with a protein named myoglobin, and myglobin is never found in the blood stream. If it were blood, it would be dark red, the same color as your blood, and it would coagulate. Every time we call it "blood", somewhere a teenager becomes a vegetarian. Let's just call it "juice" from now on, okay?

6. MYTH: Cook chicken until the juices run clear.

If you believe it, you could end up badly overcooking your poultry or worse, spend the night on the toilet, or worse still, spend it in the emergency room. The meat and juices in chicken, turkey, and even pork are water that is colored pink by the protein myoglobin. When myoglobin is cooked, its structure changes and the altered molecules no longer appear pink. The question is, at what temperature does myoglobin change color?

Turns out there is no fixed temperature because other factors come into play, especially the acidity (pH) of the meat. Muscle pH differences are a function of genes, pre-slaughter stress conditions, and climate. So the color of the juices can remain pink long after the meat is pasteurized and safe by cooking to 160 to 165°F or they could run clear before the meat is safe.

It is also common to see chicken meat near bone ends turn purple, even when cooked to a safe temperature. The thigh below was cooked to 180°F as measured with a precise thermometer. Believe it or not, it is safe to eat. Purple bones are more common these days because modern chicken breeds are usually only 7 weeks at slaughter and the young bones are still porous so the marrow can be visible or leak out and that's where blood is made. Even though the bird is cooked properly, the purple remains. Bottom line: Color is not a reliable guide in any meat. Only temperature is.

7. MYTH: Lookin' ain't cookin'.

It is widely accepted wisdom, appearing in practically every barbecue book ever written: "If you're lookin', you ain't cookin'." Many say that for long cooks like pork butt or ribs, or beef brisket, you add 15 minutes each time you peek.

But that’s not how it works. Warm air in a grill cooks the outside of the meat, but heat built up in the outside of the meat is what cooks the inside of the meat. Since meat is mostly water and water holds heat better than air, opening the grill may cool the air in the grill, but the meat barely notices. My associate, the physicist and food scientist Professor Greg Blonder of Boston University, did tests on chicken cooked on a charcoal, gas, and pellet grills. He placed thermometer probes in the air, just under the skin of the chicken, and in the center of the breast. Opening the lid drastically reduced the air temp, but had a very small impact on the surface temp and no impact on the temp in the center of the meat. So a minute here or there to baste the meat, rotate positions for uniformity, or to insert a thermometer, is time well-spent. No harm, no fowl foul.

8. MYTH: The more smoke you see the better.

Actually, the opposite is true. Billowing white smoke may be great if you’re electing a Pope, but a faint wisp of blue smoke is the holy grail of low and slow pitmasters. It is barely visible because it is made of tiny invisible particles and gases made by small hot fast burning fires. White smoke comes from smoldering wood starved for oxygen. Blue smoke makes food taste better than white smoke. So if your wood chips burst into flames, don’t sweat it. That’s cool blue happening.

9. MYTH: The higher the BTU rating, the hotter the grill.

Grill manufacturers often tout their grill’s BTUs (British Thermal Units/hour), a measure of energy. But the BTU rating is not indicative of the heat a grill can generate. BTU is derived from a calculation based on gas pressure, the size of the opening in the gas valve, and the type of gas. The more BTU, the more fuel used, not the higher heat. If you were shopping for a really fast car, the miles per gallon would not be a useful guide to how fast the car goes. It's kinda like that.

10. MYTH: Oil the grill grates to keep food from sticking.

So many grill books say to swab the cooking grates with oil to prevent sticking. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It depends on the temperature of the grates. According to Dr. Blonder:

“Metal grill grates, even shiny clean ones, are not really smooth. Under a microscope, there are numerous scratches, pits, valleys, and ridges. The compounds in food are much colder than the grates. When the two meet, a bond forms between them. If you oil the grates when the temp is below the smoking point, the oil actually does coat the grates and helps release protein and fat. But if you keep it above the smoke point, the oil cracks, smokes, and carbonizes almost instantly. The carbon and smoke don't taste good, and the dry, uneven carbon layer simply makes sticking worse.”

The best way to keep food from sticking is to oil the food. The cold food keeps the oil from burning and cracking.

Some other myths we bust in the book:

  • Lump charcoal burns hotter
  • Barbecue is an American invention
  • Barbecue and grilling are different
  • Bright red beef is the freshest
  • Let meat come to room temperature first
  • Meat needs to rest after cooking
  • The fat cap will melt and make the meat juicier
  • The foul smell of gas can ruin your food

This article originally ran in May of 2016.

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Any Night Grilling is your guide to becoming a charcoal champion (or getting in your grill-pan groove), any night of the week. With over 60 ways to fire up dinner—no long marinades or low-and-slow cook times in sight—this book is your go-to for freshly grilled meals in a flash.

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38 Comments

Chuck48 May 29, 2017
Your statement that you want to" darkly caramelized...meat", is technically incorrect. Caramelization happens when sugars brown. Meat is protein and has no natural sugars to caramelize. The browning to which you refer is actually caused by a different effect that causes browning in protein; the Maillard reaction.
 
UncleBen1630 May 29, 2017
Thank you for the "purple is OK" part. A friend saw a similar color on her chicken, gave me an "EEWWWWW" and refused to eat it.
 
Lynne R. May 27, 2017
39-0-13: Bought your books, appreciate it. Hard to do reverse sear when I have to cook for my family. That's 7 steaks (rib eyes, porterhouse, and T bones) on an old Weber Genesis. Not enough room two heat zones, and I see what some pros do -- crank up the heat as high as possible, put the oiled steaks on the grill (they will fit), let them alone for 2-3 min, revolve them to get the sear marks, and let them sit for 2-3 min more with lid on. Then turn them over for 3 min max, lid on, and then takie the temperatures with Thermopen. If one was done at 125 degrees, I took them all off the grill. My method worked beautifully for a family who wanted rare to medium rare, but I could not do a reverse sear with so many steaks and a limited space on the grill I had. Any problems you see with what I did?
 
Andrea D. May 26, 2017
" Every time we call it "blood", somewhere a teenager becomes a vegetarian." I never expected to laugh out loud while reading an article about grilling. Thank you, Meathead. Well done.
 
Dani May 29, 2017
I thought the same thing! When she was 15, my step-daughter became a "vegetarian" for about 2 months, and this was one reason cited. I tried explaining myoglobin to her, but she was at a stage where she would only believe what her mother told her. She came back to the fold, asking me to cook her a medium rare steak, saying "I don't know what I was thinking".
 
Susan W. May 26, 2017
I love this article! A few times cooking on the grill should have dispelled the searing and marinating myths, as well as the smoke and not looking myths.
 
RSVPPDQ36 July 7, 2016
One of the best and informative articles produced by Food52. This is one book I am going to get.
 
lilroseglow June 25, 2016
Personal anecdote regarding BTU and what it means about heat output. For years, I had wanted to switch from an electric to gas stovetop. Finally made the change, paying extra money to get the gasline installed, and bought a fairly expensive stove top with a high BTU rating. Worst. Cooking. Ever. The heat output was nice and high, just poorly directed. Seems most of the heat came out too wide around the burners with the result of heating only me and the sides of my pots. I could barely boil water. I had two technicians make 2 trips to my house to "adjust" it to no avail. One told me "that's just how it works." After a couple of years, I had it removed and went back to electric. Now at least I can heat the bottoms of my pots instead of ruining the sides of them.<br /><br />All this to say that BTU rating alone tells you little about how well the appliance or grill will generate and properly deliver "cooking heat."
 
jim June 14, 2016
Just thought it bears mentioning after your debate with smaug, almost all of food borne illness does not occur due to poorly or under cooked meats. It stems from cross contamination and time temperature abuse of products that were correctly cooked. You are creating a nightmare scenario, especially considering that harmful bacteria growth always occur on the outer surface of meat(excluding ground meats) and is the reason why i never let anyone else cook my chicken. They are so unjustly afraid of killing me that they always dry it out.
 
Author Comment
meathead June 14, 2016
Fair points. But the fact is that most foodborne illnesses come from uncooked fruits and vegetables.
 
Customer C. May 18, 2016
Hi Meathead,<br />This is Natalia from the Customer Care team. We received this note from a User name Christopher today:<br />"I noticed when I marinate steak in olive oil for at least 20 minutes that it grills better. What is better? The meat is a lot more moist and tender when you cut into it. I do grill at a lower temperature, then sear to finish. What are your thoughts?"<br />Do you have any advice for him?<br />
 
Author Comment
meathead May 18, 2016
Reverse sear is absolutely the best way to do thick steaks and it results in more tender, juicy, and even temp results. As for the oil? Steak is 70% water and oil cannot penetrate it because oil and water don't mix. In this article on marinades, about halfway down the page you can see two photos of a steak with a crater dug in it and filled with oil. http://amazingribs.com/recipes/rubs_pastes_marinades_and_brines/zen_of_marinades.html SO I can only guess that it MAY be preventing a little moisture loss during the first stage of the cook, but it will drip off fairly quickly. My guess is that the real benefits you are getting is from the reverse sear more than the oil. Of course the ultimate test is two identical steaks side by side, one oiled, one not, and then a multi-person blind tasting! SOunds like a party!
 
Jason May 17, 2016
I prefer to use cast iron grill grates whenever possible, so I oil them before and after cooking, partially for seasoning purposes. That's not a myth, is it?
 
Author Comment
meathead May 17, 2016
No. You must oil them for seasoning. But I am NOT a fan of cast iron because they require so much maintenance. They really don't perform any better than stainless steel. That part is myth. More on the subject here http://amazingribs.com/BBQ_buyers_guide/guide_to_grill_grates.html
 
Dave D. May 16, 2016
Kenji over at serious eats would beg to differ about resting meat . . . <br />http://www.seriouseats.com/2009/12/how-to-have-juicy-meats-steaks-the-food-lab-the-importance-of-resting-grilling.html
 
Author Comment
meathead May 16, 2016
Yes, it is a reare case in which we disagree. BTW, Kenji wrote the foreword to my book.
 
Dave D. May 18, 2016
Love it! I might have to get this book!
 
Paul S. May 16, 2016
Cooks Illustrated -- the arbiters of the famously truly tested strategies -- say to oil the grill. Are they wrong?
 
Author Comment
meathead May 16, 2016
Mostly. It depends on how hot the metal is. In most cases the oil cracks and burns on hot grates. The acrid smoke is not pleasant. If you oil the cold food, when it hits the hot grates it doesn't get messed up. BTW, Christopher Kimball just interviewed me and said at the end he now realized they got a a lot about grilling wrong.
 
Dave D. May 18, 2016
where can we read this interview - and what's Kimball up to now? ATK wrong on something . . . . . never! :)
 
Author Comment
meathead May 18, 2016
It is for ATK radio and which he apparently is still doing for them. It was a LONG interview and we hit it off. It is supposed to air sometime in June. They haven't said when. He said that in his new venture, which I am not at liberty to discuss, he would like me to work with him on BBQ & Grilling.
 
Scottiek May 16, 2016
Most of these I knew, but #8 is shaking my confidence. For smoking meat, I learned from my dad who learned from his father-in-law on an old-school horizontal barrel smoker with a fire box. Grandpa and dad made some unbelievable brisket in that thing and IMHO I have carried on the tradition. One of the cardinal rules that has been drilled into my brain is not to let the wood chips catch fire. If they are on fire, shoot them with water. Of course this produces white smoke. But you are saying that wood chips on fire is actually a good thing and that blue smoke from a hotter fire is actually better than white smoke. This is earth-shattering to me. Wouldn't this make the smoke too hot for "low and slow" smoking? Or is the idea to make a hotter and smaller fire? Of course, another cardinal rule of grandpa's was to put the meat on early in the morning and open a fifth of vodka. The meat is done when the vodka runs out. Please elaborate on this - I want to try it out! Thank you meathead!
 
Author Comment
meathead May 16, 2016
Yes, it is counterintuitive, you want a SMALL hot fire for blue smoke, so you regulate the temp by keeping the quantity of fuel down. As for the timing, I was taught that you buy a 12 pack and when it is gone the meat is done!
 
Scottiek August 10, 2016
meathead - I'm glad I found this article again. Just wanted to report that over the summer I made the blue smoke change to my barbecue and turned out the best brisket and ribs I've ever done. Thanks again!
 
Michele F. May 15, 2016
Loved the back/forth with the elegantly named Smaug and Mr. Meathead. I'm with the logical/scientific/reasonable/fun Mr. meathead. Gotta get his book.
 
Author Comment
meathead May 15, 2016
I fit my name in all its connotations too.
 
JenniferJ May 15, 2016
I enjoyed this a lot. What is missing here is advice on how to share these tips diplomatically with my grill-master husband who keeps all zones on high heat at all times and is sure that every bit of pink juice will kill us all. : )
 
Author Comment
meathead May 15, 2016
Marriage counseling is above my pay grade. Sigh.
 
Smaug May 10, 2016
You can't tell the temperature of a grill by holding your hand over it, but if you know your equipment and charcoal you can get a relative idea. It may not be blood, but it's not "Juice" in the sense it is generally understood either- need another word. Not only does the food hold more heat than the air, so does the material of the grate and the barbecue and anything else, such as charcoal or wood chips, that's in there. Same with an oven, of course- opening the door for a few seconds does not result in a significant loss of heat.
 
Author Comment
meathead May 11, 2016
A relative ide of oven temp worked in the 15th century. In 2016 a $50 digital thermometer give you precise temp control, and that's what cooking is all about: Temp control.<br /><br />OK, a better name than juice? Let's call it by its proper name: Myowater.
 
Smaug May 11, 2016
On the other hand, a lot of the fun of grilling is in not having machines do your thinking for you. A lot of the fun of cooking in general is in developing and using skills, which don't come from buying more doodads. If you're running a business or entering contests, maybe. I don't think Myowater will do it; it sounds like, well, something else.
 
Author Comment
meathead May 12, 2016
The most fun I get is delivering perfectly cooked food on time EVERYTIME and not wasting money on food. It is NOOOO fun apologizing while the guests wait around or if the meat is overcooked. Or in the emergency room if somebody gets sick from undercooked chicken.
 
Smaug May 12, 2016
Really? A matter of orientation, I suppose. I've always seen life as primarily a learning experience. People have cooked for thousands of years making their own decisions, and been none the worse for it. And somehow, generations of skilled cooks have managed to avoid all of your grotesque scenarios, while preparing things the way they wanted to rather than the way they were told.
 
Author Comment
meathead May 12, 2016
Consumer Reports tested 300 chickens last year and found 90% had pathogens, half of them were antibiotic resistant. This was NOT the case generations ago. But generations ago MANY more people died of foodborne illnesses so not-so skilled people were falling over from improperly cooked food. In fact not long ago, foodborne illnesses were among the leading causes of death in the world. Still are in many countries. A $30 digital thermometer has in NOOOOOO way diminished my pleasure of cooking, and it has increased my peace of mind. MANY top chefs carry thermometers. <br /><br />I love to write, I am a trained writer, and when I went to Journalism school I wrote with a pen and typewriter. My computer has not diminished my love. Stay a luddite if you wish, argue for the sake of argument if you wish, but this is the last I have to say on this so you can get in the last word. I am tired of pointless debate.
 
Smaug May 12, 2016
It's a deal, and you get to be the last one to attempt to label someone else with your stereotypes.
 
Bill F. July 7, 2016
Smaug ... you need to get a life man.
 
Neil May 10, 2016
Number 9 is only a myth in one very specific sense, but is actually true in almost every practical sense. It is true in that a higher BTU rating will not necessarily translate to a grill (or other appliance) that reaches a higher (hotter) absolute temperature than a grill with a lower BTU rating. A 10,000 BTU grill and a 16,000 BTU grill may both max out at 700 degrees under a given set of environmental conditions.<br /><br />However, higher BTU grills do produce more heat than a lower BTU unit. The BTU by it's definition is the amount of work (energy) required to raise the temperature of one pound of water 1 degree Fahrenheit. So a 16,000 BTU grill will produce significantly more energy (i.e. heat) than a 12,000 BTU grill. In theory, this means it will reach its maximum or your desired temperature faster and could cook faster by generating significantly more energy that is transferred to your food. A good example is that a 16,000 BTU burner will boil water much faster than a 10,000 BTU burner even if the flame temperatures are the same.<br /><br />So for the car analogy, yes, MPG tells you nothing about a car's top speed, but (unless the manufacturer is just awful) a lower MPG translates to more horsepower and typically acceleration (comparing gasoline to gasoline and diesel to diesel). You will get from 0-60 MPH a hell of a lot faster in a Porche that gets 17 MPG than a Focus that gets 40 MPG. You could also pull significantly heavier loads and lose less acceleration while doing so.<br /><br />So yeah, burning more fuel means you can do more work, whether it's moving a car or cooking a steak.
 
Author Comment
meathead May 11, 2016
You are right about more energy, but in practical use, flux is MUCH more useful when buying a grill.