For those of us who enjoy grilling one of the primary reasons we like it is the wonderfully complex flavors that can only be achieved via this method of cooking. Who doesn’t love that unique combination of sweet, smoky, and spicy that can only come from the perfect grilling session.
However, more is needed than simply dropping a piece of meat on the grill and slathering it with a little sauce. Sure you can get an acceptable burger that way but for a really great experience a little more technique is needed using marinades, rubs, and a good sauce.
Each of these techniques has its time and place as well as purpose. As a general rule Marinades are used well before grilling, from 30 minutes to over night. Rubs are usually applied just before grilling and sauces towards the end of the grilling session.
Marinating does more that get flavor into the food. Marinades are liquid preparations includes various spices and most importantly an acid. They not only add flavor, but also tenderized meat by breaking down connective tissues. For that reason the type of meat being grilled will in part determine how long to marinate it, the size of the cut too will come into play. Generally speaking though, tender cuts like fish, chicken breast, or a nice filet should only marinate for a short time, about 2 hours or less. Tougher cuts should go longer anywhere from 4 hours or overnight. Take care not to over marinate otherwise you may turn your meal to mush.
Another often overlooked benefit to marinating meat is the fact that it helps protect against the formation of carcinogens that form as the result of grilling over an open flame. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), marinating can reduce HCA formation by as much as 92 to 99 percent.
A rub really is a dry marinade. They can be applied just before grilling but for the most impact they should be applied a few hours before grilling.
Rubs help produce what is called bark, a crisp and delicious crust, that helps hold in the meat’s moisture.
Rubs are generally a combination salt, sugar and a variety of spices. It is the action of the salt and sugar, primarily the salt, that helps carry the flavors into the meat via osmosis. For that reason it is often good to apply the rub a few hours before grilling. As the sugar heats up it begins to caramelize and bring all manner of great flavor to the party. It also creates that crust of bark that helps seal in the moisture in the meat. Care should be taken though when using rubs not to burn the sugars so a low heat is best for this method.
Technically any liquid applied to meat can be called a sauce, but when grilling barbecue sauces generally include sugar in some form. For this reason they are usually applied just as the meat is about done cooking, the last 10 minutes or so.
As mentioned in the section about rubs as sugar begin to caramelize, at temps above 320 for most sugars, they bring all manner of flavor to the dish. Not only does this create great flavor it also helps thicken the sauce so that it stays on the meat. To do this you use a technique often called “sizzling” the sauce.
Sizzling generally comes down to removing any water from the cooker, if your smoking you may be using a water pan, and then applying the barbecue sauce to the meat and grilling directly over the coals for about 10 minutes per side, depending on the cut of meat. Don’t walk away during this process though. Sugar is fickle, it can go from a delicious caramel brown to bitter and black in a flash. So keep an eye on it.