May is National Barbecue Month, and for guys like Ed Price who have made a living grilling, it’s also the season for questions.
What’s better, charcoal or gas?
Which cut of meat works best for the grill?
Is cutting into a steak the ideal way to tell if it’s done?
Price, a Johnson & Wales University graduate, is always happy to share what he knows with a fellow griller.
In his 30 years as a chef, he’s grilled for thousands of soldiers at a military base in the United Kingdom. He’s grilled hundreds of steaks per hour for events as a caterer.
He’s even grilled for Al Pacino – a simple burger-and-dog guy – during a two-week stint as the actor’s personal chef. Price left the job because Pacino rarely ate at home.
“I wound up being more a dog walker than a chef,” he said, laughing.
Next weekend, Price will hold a barbecue workshop for his neighbors in the Highland Creek subdivision. For $20 each, they’ll mix marinades, learn how to prepare different kinds of meat and even grill a few desserts.
“Expect to eat and be filled,” the ad on the neighborhood’s website advises.
But for those outside the neighborhood, he’s offered a few tips, too, that will guarantee a successful grilling season for anyone interested in outdoor cooking.
Charcoal or gas?
“Charcoal, for sure,” said Price. “It’s certainly going to produce wood inflections.”
Although many people shy away from them – the Hearth, Patio, and Barbecue Association reported that consumers purchased 5.9 million charcoal grills and 8.2 million gas grills last year – charcoal provides a better flavor, said Price.
Many people are slow to come back to charcoal, he said, after watching their dads douse coals with lighter fluid to get them hot.
“When you ate that burger, it tasted like lighter fluid,” said Price.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Instead of lighter fluid, buy a charcoal chimney and use newspapers to start the fire, he suggested.
“That eliminates the need for lighter fluid, and makes a burger a lot more palatable and tasty.”
Choosing the right cut
One of the biggest mistakes novices make occurs before the meat even gets close to the flames.
For beef, choosing the right cut will determine the level of tenderness and flavor.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture grades beef by its fat percentage and places cuts into three categories – Prime, Choice and Select.
Prime cuts are considered the best, with fat marbled evenly throughout the meat.
“For steaks, you’re going to look for the better cut of meat,” said Price. “You’re going to look for the marbling.”
Lesser cuts, with big pockets of fat, will just drip onto the coals and cause smoke and flames.
“And trouble,” said Price. “You’re going to pay more for it, but Prime is best.”
The thumb test
How can a chef tell when the steak is grilled to perfection? According to the HPBA, that’s the most common question asked of professional grill chefs.
You can cut into a steak to look at it; you can use a meat thermometer that determines its doneness; or you can use a handy tip called the thumb test that Price picked up along the way. You test the doneness of the meat by how firm it is to the touch.
“If you grab your thumb to your index finger and touch here,” said Price, poking at the fleshy heel of his thumb, “It’s tender. That would be rare.”
When you touch your thumb to your middle finger, the fleshy part of the thumb becomes stiffer. “That would be medium,” said Price.
Thumb to ring finger would be well done, and thumb to pinky would be completely burnt.