Hoping you can help me to learn how to grill meats so they get really dark and savory-tasting on the outside, while the inside stays “just right.”

Kathi asked Lauren:

Dear Lauren,

My husband and I have a question about gas grilling; since you’re the maven I thought you might have a helpful hint. We like our steak kind of charred on the outside, medium rare on the inside, but on our gas grill, we don’t seem to be able to get the outside charred. Burt (my husband) said he has it turned all the way up, but that didn’t seem to do it. The steak is yummy, but is there a secret to getting the outside more well-done on a gas grill? I seemed to be able to do this better on a charcoal grill (I’m new at gas grilling).

Any secrets?

Lauren says
There are several secrets to getting that sexy, seared exterior, so prized in grilled food. And, by the way, getting these great results are not limited to using an outdoor electric or charcoal grill. Look at the Herb-Scented, Double-Rib Lamb Chops recipe, which gives great results, using a combination of stove-top searing and oven roasting.

First, let’s just define (and differentiate) the terms “grilling” and “barbecuing.” Barbecuing refers to foods that require longer, slower exposure to low to medium heat in order to render them tender and succulent (large pork spareribs, whole poultry, leg of lamb, etc.). On a charcoal grill, these foods are cooked covered, predominantly over “indirect” heat and on a gas grill; they’re cooked on a low to medium setting. Whether cooking on a gas or charcoal grill, you have too choices, either sear the food, first uncovered, over high heat, and then finish it covered, over indirect heat. Or, you can cook the food, covered, over indirect heat and then, when deemed “just done” you can sear it, uncovered, either by first feeding more coals to a charcoal grill or by raising the setting to high on a gas grill. So, it’s either at the beginning or at the end of cooking that “barbecued” food is given exposure to intense heat. Because barbecue sauce is heat sensitive, it’s usually applied close to the end of cooking to prevent it from burning. Then, to give those foods a savory, glistening “finished” look, jack the heat up to high, just to caramelize the exterior. Grilling, on the other hand, refers to a much quicker procedure, cooking mostly uncovered, using high heat, and it’s usually reserved for vegetables and lean cuts of protein (steaks, burgers, boneless skinless chicken breasts, fish fillets). The only exceptions here are when foods are partially pre-cooked (by poaching) and then quickly finished on a hot grill grate.

It’s important to preheat: When working with a gas or charcoal grill and looking to sear either vegetables or lean cuts of protein the first thing you’ll need is high heat (On a charcoal grill: when your coals red hot place a few more unlit ones on top and shut the lid and open the vents. On a gas grill, use the highest setting on your gas appliance and preheat with the lid down). Then you’ll need to wait until the cooking surface gets really hot, so let the grill preheat, on high, for at least thirty minutes before cooking.

The next important factor in getting foods seared to perfection is lubrication: When putting lean, dry foods on a hot grill grate, not only are they much more likely to stick, but because they have little or no fat, these foods won’t naturally “engage” the bottom heat, causing flames to flare. When flames form and lick the foods “just enough,” they will quickly create a slightly charred exterior, without overcooking the interior.

There are many different ways to flavor foods to be grilled, but the most important component to include is some form of fat since fat encourages flame. Olive oil is a perfect choice for most foods but when grilling things like quartered lettuce, very thin skinless boneless chicken breasts, baby squid, skewered shrimp or scallops, adding some melted butter to the lubricant will help give these extra delicate foods the quickest route to becoming caramelized externally. This happens because the milk solids in butter are heat sensitive, so they brown easily. Now, added to your choice of fat, you can include a myriad of things (garlic, herbs, spices, mustard, vinegars, citrus, etc.). It’s also wise, especially when cooking flaky foods (like certain types of fish), to use a branch of fresh rosemary to swab the hot grill grate with oil. But, remember, before placing your flavored foods on the grill, wait for the “newly” oiled surface to become very hot. Oh, and if your foods fight when you attempt to turn them, WAIT, since this indicates that they have not seared sufficiently on that first side.

Here’s a recipe for some really great Rib Eye Steaks to get you grilling in a way that will make your family and friends really happy and leave you feeling totally proud. And, if you don’t have a grill (or if it’s bad weather), just use the broiler!

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