Tending the Coals

Modernist Cuisine’s Maxime Bilet Has Some Grill Tips for You

You won't even have to saw your grill in half.
You won’t even have to saw your grill in half. Photo: Ryan Matthew Smith, Modernist Cuisine

While the truly epic Modernist Cuisine absolutely deserves its reputation as being one of the most scientific, esoteric cookbooks ever produced, it’s also very practical. In its approach to grilling, for example, any impractical-sounding technique (chill your meat grinder with liquid nitrogen to deter friction from affecting your meat!) is typically followed by something entirely accessible (for a steak-house-style burger, ask your butcher to grind chuck, sirloin, and flank in a 2:1:1 ratio). In other words, it’s a clearinghouse of well-tested ideas. So, with the holiday weekend firmly in mind, we asked Modernist Cuisine co-author Maxime Bilet for a few more grilling pointers.

What are you cooking this weekend?
The salmon is so good out here [in Seattle], so we’re making some really nice grilled salmon this weekend. For all meats we prefer to first do a very hard sear on one side of the grill, with really hot flames. Then I usually create a buffer, like a layer of sliced onions, on the cooler side of the grill, and put the fish on top of the onions after it’s been seared. That lets the heat circulate and warm it through for about eight minutes, depending on the fish.

In New York City, grilling isn’t often about having the best equipment and more just about what you can fit outside your apartment. Any pointers on making the most of that situation?
Quality-wise, we love kettle-style grills; they’re great. Weber grills come in different sizes, and they’re very reasonable and very versatile, if you learn how to work the zones. We never recommend anything too complicated. I think the Big Green Egg is wonderful, like a tandoor almost, and it creates a tremendous level of heat but it’s expensive, takes up space, and it’s heavy. So it’s not really convenient for the city.

Charcoal, wood, propane?
I usually just use charcoal, unless I’m actually smoking something. The fat, falling on the flames, that’s what creates the flavor. Pyrolyzed fat is the flavor that we tend to recognize as grill flavor, so we never recommend using a liquid starter.

As a chef who has meticulously tested hundreds of grilling techniques, is there something you often see when people are grilling at a party that makes you cringe?
People put very moist food directly on the grill, and that tends to stick, and then you have to pull it off, and it just ruins the texture of the meat. That happens because there’s too much residual moisture on the surface. With fish, for example, the best way to avoid this is to briefly cure it with salt and sugar, like for about 20 minutes. The fish will release some liquid and I wipe it off with paper towels. When grilled, the fish comes off the grill really cleanly. And if I have something like skin on chicken, I would leave the meat uncovered in the fridge overnight, with the skin exposed so that it dries out, almost with a translucent, leathery texture. That chicken will crisp up beautifully on the grill and won’t stick.

Any other tricks?
I watch people grill from raw, but we like par cooking some vegetables sous vide to get the perfect texture. In general, grilling can become a step in the cooking process, instead of the whole cooking process. Let’s say you’re finishing something on the grill by searing it, like a pork chop. You can create a lot of flavor by putting bacon fat and water in a spritzer and spritzing the chop and the flames below it to create that flavor. The fat will paralyze and create these deep flavors really quickly. So the chop will have juicy meat from sous vide and flavor from searing on the grill, even though it might be a quick sear.

If you find yourself looking for an extra Modernist dose to help you get through the weekend, Nathan Myhrvold will be chatting a bit more about gamma-ray-marinated prawns, perfect steaks, and more good food this afternoon on NPR’s Science Friday.

Modernist Cuisine’s Maxime Bilet Has Some Grill Tips for You