Bonus Audio: What's So Sexy About Rawness
It's grey today. Sort of cloudy, muggy, getting cooler - the kind of day that calls out for a strong beer and a rare steak to give it shape. As usual we're trying to figure out what to grill.
D: What is it about a great grilled steak or even a perfectly seared piece of fish that makes everything better?
A: It's about contrast, Dave. One of the amazing things about grilling food, as opposed to any other cooking technique, is that when you take a raw ingredient and put it over fire you get this intense heat at the surface but the heat doesn’t go completely to the center, which gives you an incredible crunchy crust and totally virgin flesh inside. That’s what happens when you grill a steak rare. But the real high point is when you char the bejesus out of the surface and keep the interior absolutely raw – what we call “charring.”
D: And when you’re charring, regardless of the fuel source you’re using – gas, charcoal, or wood – you want to get the hottest and driest fire that you can because that will give you maximum heat on the surface and minimum heat transference into the center.
A: The best fuel choice for that is wood, but most people don’t grill over wood.
D: Right, so let’s take gas. If you’re working with gas you definitely want to preheat your grill with the lid down and the grate in place for at least 15 minutes to get the grill grate really really hot, because your cooking surface is the grill grate.
A: And since gas flames don’t get that hot, the metal of the grill grate is going to be the only thing that can give you the intensity of heat you need to char over gas.
D: Or if you have a sear burner or "infra-red" burner on your gas grill, you’re set. Sear burners have a ceramic brick over the gas jet that heats up like hell. Actually it’s too hot to cook most foods through without burning, but it's ideal for the kind of charring that we’re talking about now – getting a thick crusty brown surface and naked raw interior - which we could argue is the ultimate expression of grilling.
A: But let's say you're a charcoal griller. A raging charcoal fire gives you almost the same intensity as a sear burner. When I char over charcoal, I pump up the heat by doubling the amount of coals that I would normally use, and rather than letting the coals burn down, I pile them up into a bed just big enough to span the ingredient, and start grilling as soon as the grill grate smokes.
D: Even better would be to add some wood chunks to your coals. Since wood is denser than charcoal it will heat up even hotter.
D: Because wood hasn’t been preburned, like charcoal, its potential energy is about 60% higher so when it ignites it burns that much hotter.
A: And it gives you some smokiness.
D: So making a fire with completely dry seasoned wood would be the best because it burns the hottest, and it burns so much drier than gas. Like we've said before, gas contains water in the form of hydrogen, which steams when it burns. And when there's moisture in a grill, less browning can happen, and if you can’t brown well, you certainly can’t char well.
A: As with charcoal, you shouldn’t let the wood fire burn down much. You actually want to be charring over flames rather than glowing embers.
D: Or you could just ditch the grill grate and char your food right in the wood fire. In which case you want to let the wood burn down to glowing embers, rake them into a lumpy bed and throw your steak right in there. So what food can’t you do this way? What food just doesn’t work charred on the outside and raw in the center?
A: Well chicken, for one, would not be safe. But beef would be safe, unless its ground. In fact this is a great place to talk about rawness and safety. Almost all of the bacteria on a piece of beef are on the surface, so if you’re charring the surface, you’re killing any bacteria that are on the steak or roast. But when you grind beef, the surface and interior get mixed together, which is why there is a question about the safety of eating rare burgers.
D: And there are some meats that are safe but just not pleasant eaten too rare, like pork and veal. But tuna loin is great charred, as are scallops, and haddock. Beef is one of my favorites. In our new book we have a recipe for charred beef carpaccio, and we use a relatively new cut of beef that’s sort of cool. It’s the shoulder tender, also called a petite tender. It's a small muscle, about the size of a pork tenderloin, that runs through the center of a beef chuck. You need a petite tender that’s at least 2-inches thick so it doesn’t cook through before the surface is well-charred. You could also use a beef tenderloin in that recipe. But it’s a lot more expensive.
A: What you said about thickness is really important. When you’re charring a tuna steak it's almost impossible to get a good crust and keep it raw in the center (which is the way it tastes best) if the steak is less than 2 inches thick. One way to ensure rawness is to char the whole tuna loin before it is cut into steaks. That way you're working with a tuna roast, a good 6 inches across, which allows you to char the hell out of the outside and the center stays completely untouched.
D: Other things that help is to make sure the meat is well chilled before grilling it and to put a dry rub on the outside to soak up moisture and help you get a thick browned crust. But I keep wondering...who would want to do this? I know we would because we're crazy like that. But most people don't think of keeping things raw when grilling.
A: But you're still getting the taste of grilling, the taste of fire. It’s just all on the edge. The part that hits your mouth first is crusty, a little sweet, and a little spicy, followed by incredibly moist, slight warm, untouched succulent flesh on the inside. It’s completely sexy.
Grilled Carpaccio of Shoulder Tender
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 beef shoulder tender (petite tender) roast, about 1 pound
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
3/4 cup baby arugula or micro-greens
1/2 teaspoon minced shallots
1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup Pourable Herbed Mayonnaise (recipe below)
1 1/2 tablespoons drained small capers
Light a grill for direct, high heat, about 475ºF. Keep the roast cold until just before grilling then coat the cold roast with about 1 teaspoon of the olive oil and season with the salt and pepper. Brush the grill grate and coat with oil. Grill the roast directly over the heat just until grill-marked on all sides, 4 to 5 minutes total. The center should remain raw.
Quickly chill the roast in the refrigerator, then wrap tightly in plastic and freeze until partially frozen, about1 hour. Slice paper-thin on a meat slicer or slice thinly by hand then sandwich each slice between plastic wrap and pound until paper-thin.
Arrange the slices on chilled plates. Toss the arugula or micro-greens with the shallots, lemon juice, and remaining 2 teaspoons olive oil. Mound a small portion of the greens in the center of each plate. Drizzle lightly with the thinned mayonnaise and garnish with the capers.
Pourable Herbed Mayonnaise
Makes about 1 1/4 cups
1 large fresh egg
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon salt
Pinch of ground white or black pepper
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 to 4 tablespoons whole milk
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh parsley
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh tarragon
Combine the fresh egg, lemon juice, mustard, salt, pepper and 1/4 cup of the oil in a food processor. Process for a few seconds then, with the machine running, gradually add the oil in a thin, steady steam. Scrape down the sides and process until thickened and smooth, 10 to 15 seconds.
Scrape into a bowl and stir in the parsley, tarragon, and just enough milk to make the sauce pourable. Cover and refrigerate for up to 1 week.