As the season progresses in the northern hemisphere toward summer, we think BBQ. In reality, what most folks call BBQ is actually grilling. Technically - BBQ, or Barbecue, is using offset heat and smoke to flavor and cook foods. Not just meat - pretty much anything can and is thrown in the BBQ smoker these days. Smoked salt, smoked cheese, smoked sugar, smoked nuts, the list is endless. Smoking requires hours of patience and plenty of fuel to maintain a relatively low and constant temperature of about 225 to 275 degrees over many hours. The result is unmistakable, remarkable, and damn good.
But the quicker, and more time efficient method of cooking outdoors is grilling. A hot surface over live coals for just enough time to cook food to minimum temperature. (Remember the thermometer!) Each food has a specific temperature where it is regarded as safe. Even those souls who ask for a wounded calf as they sharpen their knives are actually more likely to be pleased with beef cooked to at least 120 degrees which is considered rare. The enclosed chart is a good reference for meat internal temperatures. Note that the USDA does not recognize nor recommend serving food cooked rare, but they aren't dining at my table. In some cases - rare is absolutely the best option.
No matter whether you use a hot grill, a cold smoker, a multi-chamber BBQ, or a griddle on the stove-top; every good chef knows that the trick is in the seasoning. Even the most expensive cuts of beef need at least a bit of salt for seasoning. To really bring out the subtle flavors of a food, you need to incorporate some spices! Typically - paprika, chiles, thyme, mustard, and cumin make the bulk of rubs and seasonings. There are so many more though! When we talk about beef, we look to the more assertive herbs and spices. In most cases, the desire is not to break down the muscle fiber to make it more tender, but to celebrate the carmelized mix of savory and sweet that comes when fats meet fire.
Some of the more common spices used for beef are basil, cumin, dill, garlic, ginger, onion, paprika, parsley, peppercorns, rosemary, shallots and thyme. A few of the less common spices are anise, dill, fenugreek, juniper berry, lavender, citrus zest, and tarragon.
In many cases, spices will be infused in water, oil, vinegar, or another liquid to create a marinade. The purpose of a marinade is to penetrate flavors deeper into the muscle fiber. Putting a rub on top allows the seasoning to penetrate, but not as deep as a brine-based marinade. (A brine is water/salt solution of approximately 1 gallon water to 1 cup of salt.) During the cooking process, however, a topical rub imparts the flavors throughout the meat as the muscle contracts and draws the flavors inside. Plus, you get the additional complex flavors resulting from the spices toasting along with the maillard reaction when meat browns.
The simplest way to flavor meat for the grill is to use a pre-made spice blend. There are no hard and fast rules other than to use flavors you like, and pay attention to any dietary restrictions for your guests. A good spice blend should have only pure spices and salt should not be first on the list. Preservatives are not going to make your spice blend taste any better, and anti-caking powder is generally made from Silicon dioxide, which is basically sand. Clean sand, but sand nevertheless. When applying a spice blend, the usual measure of thumb is one tablespoon for every pound of meat. That's not a lot. Unless you know the potency and profile of the spice blend, don't over do it with the spices. If you know well how it will taste - feel free to add more and experiment on your friends. Add spice blends a few minutes before putting the meat on the grill. It is not necessary to wait hours, sprinkle it on, rub in on the meat evenly, and wait 10 to 15 minutes for it to normalize and set in place. You should always let the meat sit out for a few minutes before cooking, but keep it lightly covered with a cloth to keep drifting dust and insects away.
Two very important tools in grilling and BBQ is patience and a thermometer. Cook your food to the right temperature. It is ok to take it off the grill when it has a few degrees to go because it will continue to cook for a few minutes after you remove it from the heat. Patience: LET THE MEAT REST. Remember that it is muscle and it will have contracted during cooking. You will want to let it rest for a few minutes so that the meat will retain the natural juices. Carving right away is the surest way to serve dry food. Let the meat rest up to 30 minutes (for a large cut of meat) before carving.
Cook right. Eat well. Stay healthy.