According to an annual survey conducted by Weber, 80 percent of American households have a grill or smoker, far greater than any other country. (To put this in perspective, South Africa is a distant second.)
Those statistics certainly confirm our country’s obsession with grilling. But how is it that something so woven into the American psyche and lifestyle is so misunderstood? “There are a lot of knuckle-draggers out there,” says “Meathead” Goldwyn, founder of the iconoclastic and rapidly growing meat and grilling website, Amazingribs.com.
Described as a cross between “Guy Fieri and Bill Nye the Science Guy” in a recent Bloomberg profile, Meathead (who at any given moment owns 20 to 30 grills) pairs the inquisitive cynicism of a journalist with the hard facts of food science to question some of the common wisdom we hold about cooking meat.
“People have been conditioned to believe things that no longer hold sway. Now we’re learning more about the way salt works, what temperature collagen melts at. We have new measuring tools and attitudes.”
To help his cause, Goldwyn has recruited people like Professor Greg Blonder at Boston University—a Harvard- and MIT-trained physicist—to start looking at the rules and traditions that have been passed down from “priestly pitmasters or dads from generation to generation.”
“There are people who are adamant about their beliefs and react violently when we tell them otherwise,” says Goldwyn. “It’s like we’ve told them there’s no Santa Claus.”
With the help of science and investigative reporting, Goldwyn is here to tell you that most of what you think you know about meat is wrong. Looks like Christmas came early.
All photos courtesy Meathead Goldwyn unless noted.
Myth: Rest your meat after cooking.
Meathead says: “This is really controversial. It is generally believed that if you take meat right off the heat and serve it immediately, it will gush more juice than if you were to let it sit for 15 to 30 minutes. The reality is, it doesn’t take that long. It’s only about five minutes, and even then, the amount of juice spilled is really minimal. The benefits of serving hot food outweigh any spillage because it’s not really lost. When you cut into steak and juice comes out, you mop it on your fork or it gets into mashed potatoes, right?
If it takes you 20 minutes to eat a whole steak, it’s resting while you’re eating. The other big part of this story is—what is juiciness? It’s not just the water in the meat. It’s the fat. It’s the connective tissues which gelatinize. And it’s your saliva. Saliva is a huge party of the juicy experience, so when you start talking about resting meat to make it more juicy, it’s just not necessary. It doesn’t amount to much of anything.”
Myth: Let your meat come to room temperature.
Meathead says: “I was just reading a cookbook by a very famous chef who says to take your roast beef and let sit at room temperature for an hour. I did the test, and it took closer to three or four hours. A one-and-a -half-inch steak took two hours. Microbes grow rapidly at room temperature, and bacteria doubles every 20 minutes. So you should not take it out from both a safety standpoint and a quality standpoint.”
Myth: Marinating adds moisture and tenderness to beef, chicken, and pork.
Meathead says: “Meat is 75 percent water on average. The other 25 percent is maybe 10 percent fat, and the rest is protein, carbohydrates, and trace minerals. When we buy meat, unless it’s been dried, it’s like a sponge. It’s saturated with water. Think of a sponge full of water and holding it in your hand, and then pick a cup of water and pour it on top of sponge. The water is going to run off. It can’t get in there.
Now let’s say you have a marinade of wine, olive oil, and herbs, and you’re planning to soak this beef sponge. There’s no reason for it to go in. The meat is full of water already. Oil and water don’t mix, so the oil can’t go in. And to make matters worse, the molecules of the herbs and spices are really large—too large to seep much beyond the surface. Sure, there are craters and pockets in the surface, but marinades rarely get past 1/8th of an inch.
Salt, on the other hand, is a magical rock. It’s a very tiny molecule, sodium and chloride, an atom of each. And when they get wet, they often separate and gain an electrical charge. Salt will travel deep into the heart of meat, but most other stuff will not. So salt is an interior treatment, and spices and marinades are exterior treatments.“ (Photo: westbridgebeef.com)
Myth: Bone-in is better than bone-out.
Meathead says: “One common-held belief is that you need to have a rib-eye with bone in it; that bone makes it taste better. Well, bone has marrow, and marrow is fatty and really flavorful. You can cook that meat with the bone in a stew, and that marrow will dissolve and give that stew huge flavors. But a dry cooking method like grilling or roasting—well, that marrow can’t escape. It’s surrounded, in the case of rib-eye, by a quarter inch of calcium. It’s completely locked in. Calcium has no flavor. Bone and marrow are really good insulators, and they take a long time to heat up. So what happens is that when you put your steak in the oven or on the grill, heat enters from all sides, but it doesn’t enter as rapidly on bone side. The bone stays cooler, so the meat closest to the bone will be less cooked.
People say if you’re going to do prime rib, leave the bone in. But what you’re doing is putting a heat shield on the rib roast, so the meat is not going to cook evenly. Now you have this $300 hunk of beef, and the parts next to the bone are practically raw or rare and not cooked evenly. If you take the bone off, now you can cook it evenly on all sides. Everyone loves the crust on roast beef, right? Now you have much more crust since bone occupies 1/3 of the surface. You end up paying for that bone too.”
Myth: Grill marks are important and you should flip your meat only once.
Meathead says: “When you take proteins and subject them to heat, there’s a reaction called the Maillard reaction, where proteins and amino acids change their chemistry and create hundreds of new flavorful compounds. That’s why bread crust tastes different than the center. So when you brown a steak, you create all these wonderful flavors on the surface. Now if you grill a steak and make grill marks using a hatch mark pattern, you end up with little diamond shapes sections that aren’t brown. It’s unfulfilled promise. You don’t just to brand the meat with hot metal marks in an x pattern; you want the entire surface a dark mahogany brown. By turning it often, you get more radiant heat on the surface of the meat, more conduction heat from the hot metal in different locations, and more even brown.“
Myth: Chicken is ready when the juices run clear.
Meathead says: “It may have been true 30 years ago, but nowadays, we’re using different breeds of chicken, and from the day the chicken hatches to the day it’s slaughtered is somewhere in the range of 8 weeks. Can you imagine how fast that sucker is growing? The ends of the bones, like the joints, don’t have a chance to calcify thoroughly. The bone is where blood is manufactured. It’s very common to see purple near the thigh even though its cooked to a safe temperature. That’s because the marrow still contains a little bit of blood.
The other factor is myoglobin. All that liquid that comes out of chicken is slightly pink because it’s water mixed with a protein called myoglobin. If the animal is under stress, it alters the acidity of the meat. And if that acidity is low, it takes more heat to change the color of the myoglobin. (Side note: By the way, juices coming out of the steak is not blood! It’s mostly water mixed with myoglobin. Blood is thick and almost black, and it coagulates. The stuff in steak is pink and thin. I’m convinced that’s why a lot of people won’t eat medium rare meat.)”
Myth: Searing seals in the juices.
Meathead says: “Scientists back in 1800s put forth this idea that somehow if you sear meat you seal off the surface and the juices are locked in. Physically it doesn’t work that way. Meat fibers are not like little balloons that you have to tie off the ends with heat. People say if you sear the meat at the beginning of cooking, it loses more juice. Searing is vital for flavor, but it doesn’t affect the amount of juices. Heating meat always squeezes out juices and nothing can stop the process. Some juices drip off during cooking and some evaporate. In fact, the reason the surface is crusty is mostly because it has dried out a bit due to the high heat.” (Photo: nakedwhiz.com)