Grilling meat to perfection, using science, innovation
Since the Stone Age, creative chefs have refined grilling methods and techniques through trial and error. Today’s product developers add science and insight to create perfect, flame-kissed bites.
Editor’s Note: The story first appeared in Prepared Foods magazine, a sister publication of The National Provisioner in the BNP Media portfolio.
Most home grillers already know how to grill; cooking over fire is one of the most basic methods of preparing food. The desired flavor components of char and smoke, and the crispiness from well-executed grilling, can be replicated through judicious application of flavorings (through basting sauces, injections, brines and marinades) coupled with direct or indirect application of heat.
Today’s wide variety of flavorings, sauces, pre-grilled items and marinades make it even easier for the home cook to enjoy great grilled flavor with little time and effort, plus a lot of convenience. In developing products for consumers who love grilled foods, it helps to separate these consumers into two categories: the “occasional griller” and the “seasoned backyard griller.”
For the occasional griller, the products that have recently shown up on supermarket shelves are increasingly varied, targeting a range of styles and flavor profiles that include rustic, ethnic, global and healthful. There now are multiple product channels for tasty, grilled items—packaged and ready to reheat—as well as the sides, condiments, and seasonings or marinades that enhance and accompany them. The research and development bringing these items from “chef to shelf” applies technical and ingredient expertise that, in some cases, is in inverse proportion to the ease with which these products are brought to the table.
The first focus of any grilled product development is the selection of the central protein—whether beef, pork, lamb, game, poultry or seafood. Plus, vegetarian options, such as meat analogs, tofu and vegetables (including mushrooms) are increasingly shifting toward the center of the plate when it comes to grilling.
Various types of proteins function differently in a batch-grilling operation. For each, there are multiple considerations to take into account.
Beef is by far the most common protein in grilling and holds an appeal to a wide audience. It also is one of the most versatile with flavor combinations, cooking methods and the variety of different cuts within the category. One of the biggest pitfalls when utilizing beef in batch grilling, however, is allowing that each cut needs to be cooked a specific way in order to achieve the desired result.
For example, to create a “pot roast on the grill” type of entrée, first braise the meat, using a moist-heat cooking method to tenderize it. Then, the meat must be properly cooled and sealed. It’s best to enclose the cooked beef in a wrapper, along with some cooking liquid to retain moisture. This will ensure the beef will be nice and tender when the consumer finishes it on the home grill.
For poultry and game meats, the process can be a little trickier. This type of protein, typically low in fat, tends to dry out a little more when pre-cooked and cooled. Further moisture is lost if frozen, and even more moisture loss occurs when reheated by the consumer. For these types of applications, the best method for moisture preservation is to brine the item with a highly seasoned brine. This will help to retain moisture, as well as provide an opportunity to add additional flavors. Citrus, herbs, smoke and spices are preferred flavorants for brined proteins.
Brining (as well as marinating) can ensure that when the consumer puts the product on the grill, there will be much more flavor already in the meat, before any glaze or sauce is added. The most important part when utilizing a brine is to take into account the amount of salt added. This needs to be balanced at the end of the cooking process to prevent too much salt remaining in the finished item.
Under the Sea
Seafood has its own set of unique issues when it comes to preparation and grilling. The most important is its inherent fragility. Most fish and types of seafood are dramatically affected by strong acid levels or too generous applications of sodium (as salt or other sodium-based seasonings such as soy, potassium chloride or MSG).
Another fundamental challenge for seafood is the improper application of freezing techniques. If any of these characteristics are out of balance, or the freezing process not properly applied, the flesh of the seafood will become either mushy, mealy, rubbery or a general off-texture. These, of course, also lead to off flavors.
Pork also is a protein that has an issue with drying out. Moreover, due to food-safety considerations, pork is an item that must be cooked all the way through, with no traces of pink, in order to be accepted by the consumer. Unfortunately, this means, more often than not, a pre-grilled pork product will be cooked to well-done and derive a significant moisture loss.
The loss of moisture—and hence, flavor—in pork products can be combated with proper brining techniques, as well as modified-atmosphere packaging. Also, inclusion of moisture laden sauces, glazes or other wet applications that soak the item and maintain juiciness during storage will counteract such off textures and flavors that result from moisture loss.
Four Points of Success
In creating grilled items, it also is necessary to identify the familiar components the average consumer associates with classic, backyard grilling. These can be broken down into four categories: appearance (char color, grill marks, browning); flavor (smoke, char flavor, caramelized sugars from the basting sauce); texture (crispiness, juicy interior); and an “item-specific” category (pink smoke ring, blackened crust for Cajun items, saucy/sticky for ribs and wings, etc.).
Appearance could be considered the most important characteristic, because, as experts note, “We eat first with our eyes.” If anything, grilled foods have a greater burden in that regard, since what differentiates them from other cooked and prepared products are the highly visible grill marks. This means getting the proper look to a grilled product is critical.
The visual aspect, however, also incites the potential buyer to purchase that particular item off the shelf. In this sense, the properly executed grilled product markets itself among the many similar offerings next to it on the shelf or in the refrigerated/frozen display case. One of the biggest challenges to appearance is the fact that the Maillard Reaction that helps create that great, grill-seared look is water-soluble. One consequence is that it is possible to expend a good deal of effort in creating that perfect, defined grill mark, only to have it fade away or even dissolve completely in packaging and storage.
Conversely, that same, perfect grill mark can become unstable and flake off the item and stay suspended in the package, causing undesired flecks in what would otherwise be a clear sauce or marinade. Some ways to control this are through proper packaging, judicious application of color fixers, or even edible colors and dyes that mimic the marks from the grill.
Flavor, while absolute for the success of any formulation, is often the second point of success only because the consumer encounters it after the visual. The obstacles to delivering on the promise of the outside colorful and dynamic packaging are formidable. Flavor, of course, is closely coupled with aroma. Both of these characteristics tend to fade over time in packaging, leading to a bland taste and lifeless grilled items.
Loss of flavor is most easily combated with flavor enhancers, applied either as dry rubs, or wet marinades and sauces. MSG, soy products, yeast extracts, mushroom blends and garlic and onion powders are the most common ingredients of this class used to pump up flavor and make foods more rich tasting—umami, if you will. When used judiciously, such flavor enhancers can be a valuable tool in the grilled flavors kit.
Two drawbacks, however, are that these ingredients tend to be overused, causing a sensation of over-saltiness and a kind of “heavy” flavor. In addition, the process of building up flavors during cooking needs to be applied carefully. The concept of layering flavors throughout the preparing and grilling processes is a traditional and proven method for delivering a taste-and-flavor composite that will be remembered—and repurchased.
The techniques of browning; reduction; seasoning individual components during the grilling stage; using ingredients when flavor is at its peak; and proper balance of flavors at the finish of the preparation all are examples of the layering process.
Texture off the Grill
Texture is the third point of success. It also is one that can be difficult to maintain in heat-and-serve packaging of pre-grilled items. The most easily recognized—and desired—texture is crispiness of the surface of the protein or other grilled item. This is traditionally associated with shallow or deep-frying methods; but, through trial and error, this desired characteristic can be translated on the grill using direct, low-heat grilling methods.
Various coatings (think: Parmesan-panko breading; varieties of cereals; or even nut crusts) can become integral, favorable textures in items that are baked indirectly on a covered grill. They will deliver a nice, crispy-crunchy texture while carrying a hint of smokiness from the grilling process.
Separate packaging of ingredients can also help maintain texture during storage. For example, in an Asian-style, grilled chicken or fish preparation, chopped roasted peanuts can be provided to be sprinkled on at the end of the cooking process. This will deliver desirable texture, but only if the peanuts stay toasted and dry during storage. A small, separate package, in this case, is indispensable.
Proper use of dehydration also can help give the end-user a grilled item that can be easily crisped up on the grill and served. For example, if a chicken leg is cooked through using a moist-heat cooking method, then the outside skin is dehydrated and packaged, this will greatly speed up the final grilling process for the consumer. It also gives a nice, crispy skin on the finished, grilled item. Grilled Peking-style duck would be a prime example of such an execution.
The last characteristic is highly item-specific and one that needs to be applied with consideration: authenticity. As a food manufacturer, the desire to deliver truly authentic flavors and appearance can occasionally lead to unpredictable consumer reactions. For example, a smoke ring is very desirable on BBQ brisket or pulled pork, yet if that same smoke ring is applied to an “authentic” barbecued chicken, the consumer will only think the chicken is undercooked—or worse, tainted—and will reject it.
Similarly, if a blackened spice rub for a roasted salmon is full of whole, dried spices (as is traditionally done), the consumer could perceive this as having an undesirable “toothiness.” The most important thing to remember when creating items for the occasional griller is that these consumers most likely are looking for the more basic characteristics of grilling. If an item is “too authentic,” it can verge into the unfamiliar and, ultimately, the undesired.
The four characteristics from the occasional griller are still valued and needed in creating a product for the more seasoned grilling consumer, but with some modifications. Appearance is mostly provided by the consumer when they cook the item, but the instructions need to be clear and easily followed for an average consumer on an average grill. Flavor needs to be provided in stages, with the consumer adding them throughout the cooking process, in measured doses and with clear directions.
When developing products for the seasoned backyard griller, the task might seem easier, because the end-
user is going to supply the desired flavor components from the home grill. Yet, the demands on the processor can be just as complex as with other grilled product formulating. For the seasoned griller, the packaged item will be more likely to contain separate flavorings, bastings and other add-ons. All must perform with some consistency on the grill, regardless of the skill level employed by the end-user.
Marinades that burn quickly—containing too much sugar, starch or other Maillard-promoting component—can lead to product failure. So, too, having a marinade, glaze or sauce that slides or slumps off the grilled item before it has a chance to flavor it are issues that face the R&D chef during the product development phase.
The variables continue with texture. Although texture is provided by the end-user to some extent, the components that lead to the final texture must perform with that much more versatility. Allowances need to be made for the various types of grills a consumer could have, as well as the skill set. The seasoned griller is most likely looking for the more authentic-type of grilled characteristics and will be dismissive of the product if the subtle flavor/texture characteristics that define a true, authentic, grilled cuisine aren’t there. It is in this arena that R&D chef needs to be more thorough and deliver on what the consumer expects from that particular cuisine, specific to that item.
Developing a true, grilled item, destined for the average consumer’s backyard grill, needs attention to detail and a thoughtful respect to the end-user’s expectations. Proper use of grill techniques and ingredients—from proteins to seasonings to wet and dry-flavoring applications and systems—are critical. So, too, is the application of flavors and textures to give the appropriate level of authentic, grilled food characteristics.
It also is good to remember that for many consumers enjoying grilled foods, the ability to do so year-round provides a substantial opportunity to food product developers. As processors meet the challenges of replicating the tastes, appearances and textures of grilled foods, consumer acceptance of “letting the pros handle it” will lead them to open the doors to more pre-grilled and grill-ready preparations.