Every backyard griller and smokemeister has his own set of disciplines governing that marriage of meat and fire. Often these are techniques learned from dad or other family members. Tradition dictates they be followed.
But Adam Perry Lang would have you chuck most of what you hold dear and start from scratch. Using his new cookbook, Charred & Scruffed (Artisan Books, $24.95), of course.
To call his approaches to grilling unconventional would be an understatement. Lang upends most of what we thought we were doing right to achieve perfectly grilled steaks, pork chops, and chicken. Nope, our methods are suspect. Our fires are phooey. Our rubs are too complicated. And our sauces hide our mistakes.
"More than a lot of types of cooking and cuisine, barbecue grilling tends to get into a more superstitious following of techniques," he said. "I want to give people a little more freedom to develop the skills they might not yet have or improve on what they have already."
Freedom? Charred & Scruffed is a lot to take in (I had to read some of the techniques several times to understand) and asks a lot of the cook. But serious grillers already are invested in procedurals, so they might be fascinated by Lang's arsenal of techniques. Whatever, Lang's approaches might have you spending a lot of time in your backyard before you perfect them yourself.
Ultimately, though, the grilling nonconformist said his methods are meant to construct a "more powerful taste narrative" by layering flavors and textures. His goals are crunchy crusts, succulent meat, and layers of intense flavor in every bite. This technique-based cookbook -- he calls it "a dialogue with fire" -- will help you take your grill game to the next level. Think of it as a Mac upgrade, he said; grilling 2.0.
So what gives Lang the platform of brave new world griller? He's a classically-trained chef who cooked at Le Cirque and Daniel in New York and Restaurant Guy Savoy in Paris before the thrill of the grill took hold. He went on the barbecue competition circuit and eventually founded Daisy May's BBQ in New York, later co-founding Barbecoa in London with Jamie Oliver and working on sourcing and aging meat with Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich at Carnevino in Las Vegas. The author of two previous barbecue cookbooks, Lang is a grill maverick who isn't satisfied with a griller's quest to simply replicate a good restaurant steak or a beloved barbecue shack's smoky pork. He wants you to take that legacy and make something new and original.
Some of what Lang preaches goes against grilling gospel. And that's OK, he said. He's simply trying to give you more ways to think about the interaction between protein and fire. "It's something to add to your arsenal," he said. "These things are new techniques and revisitation of the old as well. It's a fresh look."
Here are some of Lang's methods:
Seasoning: First, season the meat. Salt and pepper works just fine, and Lang prefers it over complex rubs that contain paprika, onion powder, celery salt and spices. Lang's seasoning is a marriage of salt, black pepper, garlic salt, and cayenne. He liberally applies the seasoning to room-temperature meat, moistens his hands and rubs the seasoning into the meat, creating a "meat paste" on the surface. This paste will form a glaze as soon as the meat hits the grill or smoker.
Scruffing: If meat stuck to a grill grate tears as you move it, that's a bad thing, right? Not for Lang, who encourages torn and cut muscle fibers as more surface area to create flavor. He even roughs up certain cuts of meat by deliberately scoring the flesh with a sharp knife, making 1/2- 1/4-inch hash marks.
Basting: Instead of a basting brush, Lang creates his own mop of bundled herb sprigs (rosemary, sage, and thyme) attached to a dowel, handle of a wooden spoon or long-handled carving fork. The brush releases flavors as it is used to baste meat while cooking. As for the actual basting, Lang again flies at convention. Instead of basting before flipping, he bastes after turning the meat at the precise time the surface is "dancing" as the crust pops and fizzles. "This is the perfect time to apply your baste," he said.
Flipping: Veteran grillers will tell you to place your meat on the grill and don't move it so that it develops a crust. Not Lang, who prefers flipping, moving and constantly basting the protein in order to create a flavorful crust or bark.
Board dressing: If you're leaving all those wonderful meat juices on the cutting board, you're ignoring flavor development. Lang amps up those juices by creating yet another flavor heightener directly on the cutting board. He calls it a board dressing. It's olive oil, parsley, salt, black pepper, and maybe an acid all scrambled together on the cutting board. He even chops the tips of the herb basting brush into this slurry. When the meat is sliced on this seasoned board, its juices mix with the dressing.
Clinching: Quite simply, this is placing meat directly on coals. You can't do this with briquettes (too ashy); it has to be lump charcoal. Lang said the direct application of meat to coals "closes the gap" so there is no room for acrid flame buildup. If this method seems a tad too caveman, you also can do the "clean on the screen" method of placing a thin grill or grate (such as a wire-cooling rack) directly on coals. Cooking on that surface also closes the gap and results in less ash on the meat. Clinching works best with cuts with a smoother muscle surface such as rump, New York strip or tenderloin. Best for cuts cooked rare or medium rare.
Man Steak with Thyme Zinfandel Salt
1 6-pound "man steak" (bone-in rump or sirloin)
1/4 cup Four Seasons Blend (recipe follows)
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
Basic Baste (recipe follows)
Board Dressing (recipe follows)
Thyme Zinfandel Salt (recipe follows)
Preheat the grill to medium-low.
Season the beef all over with the seasoning blend and black pepper, then lightly moisten your hands with water and rub the seasonings into the meat. Allow to stand for 10 minutes to develop a "meat paste."
Put the beef on the clean (un-oiled) grill grate and cook, without moving it, for 1 minute. Turn, grabbing the bone portion with your tongs, baste with the herb brush and cook for 1 minute.
Turn the steak, baste with the herb brush, and continue to cook, turning the meat every 2 minutes or so and basting each time you flip it, for 17 more minutes. The meat may stick and tear a bit, but this is OK, even desirable -- "meat scruffing." The surface should begin to crust after scruffing. Transfer steak to a large platter and allow to rest for 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, clean and oil the grill grate. Put the steak back on the grill and cook, turning and basting it every 4 minutes, until the internal temperature registers 115° on an instant-read thermometer for rare, 25-35 minutes.
Meanwhile, mix the board dressing directly on the cutting board. Finely chop the tip of the herb brush and mix the herbs into the dressing.
Season the steak on both sides with the thyme salt, transfer to the cutting board, and allow to rest for 10 minutes.
To serve, slice the meat 1/4-inch thick, turning each slice in the dressing to coat, and arrange on plates.
Pour the board juices over the meat and finish with a sprinkling of thyme salt.
Four Seasons Blend
1 cup sea OR kosher salt
2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons garlic salt
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Combine all in a small bowl. Transfer to a spice grinder or clean coffee grinder and pulse to the consistency of sand.
Store in an airtight container for up to 1 month.
Herb Basting Brush
Secure a bunch of herb sprigs (rosemary, sage, or thyme, or a combination of other herbs depending on what you're cooking) to a dowel, the handle of a wooden spoon, or a long-handled carving fork.
1 1/4 cups extra-virgin olive oil
10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter
1/2 cup rendered fat from the meat being cooked (optional)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 tablespoons grated garlic (use a Microplane) OR garlic mashed to a paste
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
2 tablespoons grated Spanish (red) onion (use a Microplane)
2 teaspoons sea OR kosher salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Combine all the ingredients in a 2-quart saucepan and bring just to a simmer; remove from heat. For the best flavor, refrigerate in a tightly sealed container for 1-2 days (reheat over low heat to melt the butter before using).
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Sea or kosher salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Combine directly on the cutting board. You also may add grated shallots or garlic (use Microplane), finely chopped chiles, chopped scallions and/or other chopped herbs such as rosemary, thyme and sage.
Thyme Zinfandel Salt
1 cup sea or kosher salt
⅓ cup zinfandel
1 tablespoon dried thyme
Combine the salt and wine in a bowl, stirring until slushy. Spread the salt mixture out in a thin, even layer on a parchment-lined dehydrator tray and dry in dehydrator at 105° for 12 hours. Alternatively, spread the mixture on a parchment-lined baking sheet, put in a convection oven set at the lowest setting, prop the door ajar with the handle of a wooden spoon, and let dry completely, about 12 hours.
Finely grind in a spice grinder or clean coffee grinder and dry for another 2 hours.
Transfer the salt mixture back to the grinder, add the dried thyme and pulse to the consistency of sand.
Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 month.
Yield: 6-8 servings.
Source: From Charred &Scruffed, by Adam Perry Lang