They're not a sign of grill skill—they're a mark of unfulfilled flavor potential.

May 22, 2020
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Christina Holmes

As Memorial Day approaches, many things will be wildly different. No groups of friends and family crowded around the patio. No need to special order countless slabs of baby backs. If you manage to get a few pieces of chicken or a flank steak on the grill and cook it to your desired doneness instead of charring it to a cinder while you stare off into the middle distance and contemplate the cruel vicissitudes of life, you have my sincere respect. But I am here to take at least one thing off your proverbial plate as you grill: Stop worrying and give up on the char marks.

I don't mean to imply you lack the skill to achieve them, but if you're after that savory Maillard reaction—that golden brown, just slightly smoky and scorched flavor—grill marks aren't The Way. I learned this shocking truth recently while reading the wise words of Meathead Goldwyn, legendary grillmaster, author of Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling, and founder of AmazingRibs.com, a treasure trove of grilling and barbecue knowledge.

Grill grates "are a branding iron," Goldwyn explains. Metal conducts heat more efficiently than the radiant heat of lit coals or gas burners, so those grill grates have the power to deliver the savory Maillard reaction that creates an unmistakeable "cookout" flavor in your meat—but only to the places where meat meets grate. But what about all those patches of barely browned meat in between them?

"It’s tan, it's unfulfilled potential," Goldwyn says. "Brown is beautiful, brown is flavor. But when you have cross-hatch marks, you’ve branded the meat. You have these stripes of Maillard, and then these tan diamond patches. The entire goal is to get everything dark brown."

Evenly brown crust, rosy pink interior = textbook steak.
© Con Poulos

As Goldwyn points out, steakhouses across the country endorse the same anti-grill-mark perspective. "They know better," he says. "Visit the most renowned ones, and you'll see nary a grill mark in sight on steaks—just a deliciously dark brown exterior that contrasts with the rosy pink meat within. What's more, the process of creating grill marks can easily lead you to overcook your steak. Since you're blasting the meat with heat, without moving it around on the grates, until it achieves some sort of cosmetic browning, it can be tough to nail the desired doneness at the same time."

He continues, "Somewhere down the line, it became an old husband’s tale—don’t flip your food." Sure, it's a good idea not to flip your meat right when it hits the grill, since it has a tendency to stick. But we're going overboard, leaving meat motionless on the grill and blasting it with heat that's too high for too long. To create glorious overall browning on meat while precisely control the doneness of most meat and chicken that's thicker than 3/4-inch, Goldwyn recommends a combination of gentle cooking and high-heat searing with plenty of flipping—the grill-based version of a reverse sear. This technique is especially essential for bone-in, skin-on chicken, which has the tendency to scorch on the outside while the interior is still underdone.

Set up your coals or gas burners to heat just one half of your grill, then cook your meat on the other half with the lid down. "With the grill lid down, you're cooking with convection, you’re gently warming or roasting it," Goldwyn explains. If you have a grill-safe thermometer, track the temperature near the grates and aim for about 225°F on the indirect side (the built-in thermometers on grill hoods are notoriously unreliable). You can also use your instant-read thermometer to track your meat's internal temperature. Once your meat is about 20°F below your desired doneness, it's time to finish it with a blast of the most intense heat your grill can muster.

Pete Lee

But, again, we're not aiming to make grill marks here—and definitely not those cross-hatched grill marks. "We’ve learned that flipping the food is a good idea. Especially if you’re into the sear phase," Goldwyn says. Rapid-fire turning of the meat over a direct high heat creates the overall browning that's worthy of the steakhouse, along with the smoky notes that can only come from a grill.

To crank up the heat without overcooking your food, Goldwyn recommends an unconventional move: Transfer your almost-cooked meat to a platter and close the lid while you crank up the burners (if your gas grill has a sear burner, now's the time to use it) or add a fresh batch of lit, ashed-over coals to the direct-heat side of the grill. That way, your meat won't overcook as the grill gets up to temperature.

After 5 to 10 minutes, your grill will be smoking hot and ready for searing with the lid open. "You move the meat over to the direct heat side, and then you flip flip flip, you become a human rotisserie," says Goldwyn. After flipping every 30 seconds to a minute or so, the meat will soon attain a gorgeous overall mahogany color. Test the temperature often, and pull it off the heat when it's about 5 degrees below your desired final temperature to account for a bit of carryover cooking.

And there you have it. Perfectly cooked, juicy meat that's rosy inside, steakhouse-brown on the outside. The only thing missing is some beloved friends share in the bounty of your new grilling technique. The good news? You have plenty of time to practice your newly upgraded grill game.