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Lessons from Elizabeth Karmel: Best BBQ and Grilling Tips

How to avoid grill “stickage,” secrets to perfect beef brisket and more essential lessons from Hill Country chef and barbecue/grilling expert Elizabeth Karmel.

Why is it essential to lightly oil any food before grilling or barbecuing?

That’s one of my mottos (I’m all about the mottos!): “Oil the food, not the grates.” A thin layer of oil on the food holds in moisture. Many grilling authors tell people to take a rag or a paper towel, dip it in oil and coat the cooking grates of your lit grill with it. Number one, that is literally a torch waiting to be lit; that’s a big fire hazard. Number two, oil has a very low smoking point; you only have to oil the grates once to know that the oil will burn instantly. And anyone who’s washed a sauté pan knows what burned oil feels like: It’s really sticky. If you oil the grates and not the food, you’re effectively gluing the food to the grates. And “stickage” is a huge issue (I made up that word because anyone who grills knows that feeling). And if that wasn’t enough, by not oiling the food, any salt you’ve sprinkled on won’t stick to the food—it will bounce right off. And finally, as the food sits over the fire, all the food’s juices and natural moisture will slowly evaporate out. So all you’ve done is dehydrated the food and glued it to the grates. If you put the oil on the food instead—let’s say a piece of eggplant—you oil it and put some salt on it, the salt will stick, all of the moisture inside bubbles and boils and cooks the flesh. The outside caramelizes while the inside turns silky and delicious.

Unsung vegetables and fruits for the grill?

  1. Cabbage: I would never eat stewed cabbage, unless I went to someone’s house and was being polite. But if you take a whole cabbage and core out the hard center, put a little butter and some barbecue rub between the leaves to season it and barbecue it, it is divine. Wrap the cored and seasoned cabbage in a sheath of heavy-duty aluminum foil and cook it indirectly while you’re barbecuing some ribs or pork shoulder or brisket, and let it cook for hours until you can pull the leaves off the core individually like plucking an artichoke. It is a life-changing food experience. It’s the food equivalent of turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse.
  2. Brussels sprouts: One of my favorite things to do in the fall is to buy a handful of Brussels sprouts, the stalk with the sprouts still attached, which now you can actually buy at Trader Joe’s—I used to only be able to find it at the farmers’ market. I add my grilling trilogy of olive oil, salt and pepper and roast it over indirect heat until the outsides of the sprouts are browned and crispy and the insides are soft and tender. I love it. It’s impressive when you put it on the table and let people cut or pull a Brussels sprout off the stalk.
  3. Bananas: I’m also crazy about grilled bananas. In fact, the dessert chapter in my first book, Taming the Flame, could have been called “Bananas for Grilled Bananas,” because there were so many variations on grilled bananas. It’s something I discovered early on. I was at a barbecue contest, Memphis in May, and felt a little tired of eating pork—only for about five minutes, because it’s very hard to get tired of eating pork. On a whim I decided to grill my breakfast banana. I couldn’t believe it—it tasted like bananas Foster. The heat of the grill intensifies the natural flavors of any food, and a lot of bananas these days taste really starchy. But once you cook them, they taste delicious and bananalike. I season them with what I call “my dessert rub”: cinnamon, sugar and a pinch of salt. You leave the skin on and put them cut-side down to get those good grill marks—because we all eat with our eyes first—then turn them over. You know they’re done when the flesh separates from the skin. In the summer one of my favorite things to make for a party is a grilled banana split bar. I grill the bananas while we’re eating, then put them out on a platter with every kind of topping, nuts, sauces and ice cream and let people go to town.

Best way to barbecue a beef brisket?

Get the right cut. You always want to cook the whole muscle. A cross-section of a brisket would reveal three parts: Two pieces of muscle (one called the flat or lean, and one called the deckle or point) and a fat cap. A lot of people cook only the flat or the lean part, which often comes out tough and dry. People should go to their butcher or their grocery store and say, “I want a whole, untrimmed brisket.” The butcher will say, “Oh, no you don’t! Here, you want this nice trimmed brisket.” You tell the butcher you know what you’re talking about, and that you want the whole fat cap on it, because that will keep the meat moist and protected during the long, slow cooking time.

Use the right temperature. I like to barbecue most meats between 280°F and up to even 325°F, a slightly higher temperature than a lot of competition barbecuers (who typically smoke between 180°F and 210°F), because you want the cooking environment to be hot enough to render the fat from the meat and melt those connective tissues. If the heat’s not up there, then you cut into the meat and you’ve got pockets of white fat. I want all that fat to melt and render out so it leaves the flavor behind, but none of the grease.

Cook until it’s ready. Every piece of meat is a little different, so the cooking time will always vary a little. When the meat is done, it will generally shrink anywhere from 30 to 50 percent, depending on how fatty it is. You want to make sure that there’s a nice dark bark. If you cook it right, the meat will be really juicy.

How do you cook...

Salmon? One my favorite ways to make salmon is to put a deboned, skin-on side of salmon on a cedar plank. The wood protects the skin from scorching, which can give it that awful fishy flavor (just think if you opened a capsule of cod liver oil and burned it). I cook it at 325°F indirectly on a wet, water-soaked cedar plank. I like that temperature because it’s really important to me to get a nice crust, a nice crispiness—a good color on the outside, still juicy and perfectly cooked on the inside. It takes about 45 minutes to cook a side of salmon. You want to leave it a little rare in the center, because salmon is much more delicate; it has no connective tissue to melt away, so it can dry out. Because it’s sitting on the wood, you can very easily slide your spatula underneath between the flesh and the skin, and it’ll easily come off.

Chicken? Beer can chicken: Roast it whole on the grill on a beer can. You get this great crispy skin, and you infuse the chicken with beer, which gives it a really nice depth of flavor and keeps the meat really juicy. Whatever beer you drink is what you should use. You do have to be very careful in the way you position the chicken or else it’ll topple over. I have a chicken sitter that I created because a lot of people were scared that it might topple over. I made it black porcelain so that when it’s on the grill, it fades away and looks like the chicken is just sitting on the grill. You can do it in a 325°F oven—just take my chicken sitter, fill it with beer, prepare the chicken with oil, salt and pepper and set it on the sitter in a round cake pan for stability.

Ribs? Pick up the ribs and give it a bend: If it’s nice and flexible but not springy or rubbery, then it’s generally done. If it falls apart immediately, then it’s probably overcooked. When the meat pulls away from the end of the bone and the ends of the bones are nice and clean, too, then you know that your ribs are probably done.

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