SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This Memorial Day weekend, many Americans will fire up a grill to cook dogs or burgers, tuna, zucchini or tofu. That's our focus as we begin the occasional WEEKEND EDITION series all about seasonal food and drink called Taste of Summer. Alton Brown joins us now, the food historian and scientist. He's best known for his award-winning Food Network show "Good Eats" and for hosting "Iron Chef America." He's currently one of the celebrity chef mentors on the reality competition "Food Network Star."
Alton Brown joins us from the studios of Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. Thanks so much for being with us.
ALTON BROWN: I'm glad to be here, especially when we're talking about my favorite cooking subject of all time.
BROWN: Absolutely. I grill, therefore I am.
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SIMON: Which is not the same as barbecue, although many of us confuse the term.
BROWN: No. Yeah. Yeah. And it's funny - I was giving a talk in Los Angeles just a couple of days ago and out there on the West Coast the word barbecue is a noun meaning a device on which one cooks outdoors. In other words, a grill. Barbecue is of course a product, a meat product, produced by long, slow cooking and exposure to a good deal of smoke and is typically some part of a pig.
SIMON: Hmm. So help us understand scientifically, in addition to everything else, what happens when something edible hits the flame.
BROWN: Well, here's the interesting thing. You don't want flame to hit your food. Flame is bad. Flame does nasty things to food. It makes soot and it makes deposits of various chemicals that are not too good for us. The last thing you really want to see licking at your food while it's on a grill is an actual flame.
And a lot of American men are certainly bad about this, where they put all these, you know, hamburgers out on this really hot grill and of course the fat starts to render out of the meat. It drops down onto either the coals or the gas flame bar and, boom, you've got the towering inferno. And they think it looks real pretty. It must be, you know, a manly way to cook.
It's not something you want to have happen. Flame: bad.
SIMON: What happens in the best sense when hot temperatures...
BROWN: When it's done right.
SIMON: Yeah. Right.
BROWN: Sure. Well, the interesting thing about grilling is you're really talking about three methods of heat transfer, OK? You have of course direct heat transfer from the - or conduction which comes from the grill grates. You're also getting radiant energy, the heat that's actually radiating out of either the flame bars on gas grills or certainly the burning charcoal in a charcoal grill.
And then you've also got convection, which is just the hot dry air rising up that's been heated, you know, down by whatever it is that's burning, that's coming up and hitting the surface of the food. And that is usually what is carrying aromatic compounds, i.e., smoke; certainly in the case of charcoal. So when it's done right you get kind of this beautiful metamorphosis that comes from those three different heat sources being use all together at one time.
SIMON: And what helps ensure that it just not wind up as another piece of charcoal?
BROWN: If we're talking about a piece of meat, and that's what most people focus on, a lot of it comes down to small, small little things. For instance, having the meat at room temperature before it goes onto the grill. A lot of people transfer meat directly from a, you know, a 36 degree refrigerator to a grill and that may mean that the insides of the meat have to take a much longer thermal trip to doneness, if you get my drift.
You also want to have the grill be very, very clean. You get a lot better heat transfer through the grill grates if they're clean. And what also really matters is the surface of the meat be dry. OK. Now, by dry I mean no liquid present in water form. Meaning that you didn't marinate a piece of meat and then immediately slap it on the grill because what happens, of course, is the water has what we call a very high specific heat.
Meaning that it can absorb a lot of heat energy before it changes phase from liquid to steam. So it acts as a heat barrier. So what you want to do is you want to get your meat bone dry and then you want to lightly oil it, which helps to get heat in, helps to lubricate the grill grates. And the other thing is keep things moving.
An average steak I will flip almost four times. That's how you end up getting those kind of grill marks. I turn it and rotate it at the same time so that I don't let one side get super hot.
SIMON: Mm-hmm. What about vegetables or fish?
BROWN: I grill almost all of my fish with the skin on because that gives you real protection at least on one side. It's a nice barrier against super high heat which tends to make a lot of fish to turn really flaky. It's very easy to overcook fish on the grill. But I still brush it with oil before I start. Vegetables are much more forgiving. You know, they're done when they're tender.
SIMON: We've got some questions over Twitter and Facebook we'd like to run by you, if we can.
BROWN: Please do.
SIMON: On behalf of a lot of people, MZ Norman asks: gas or charcoal?
BROWN: Both. I have both. I have gas for weeknights and when I'm in a big hurry and charcoal for when I really want to cook. So I do have two grills. Actually, that's a lie. I have seven grills.
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SIMON: Have I felt (unintelligible). Well, you have reason to, right?
BROWN: I have a reason; it's my profession. Yes.
SIMON: Jazzbird on Twitter asks: What's the best fruit to grill?
BROWN: I've got to go with peaches.
BROWN: And maybe that's because I live in Georgia but stone fruits are amazing when you grill them. And I'll actually take big summer peaches and I will cut them in half and pit them, lightly brush the cut flesh with oil, sear them on a really hot grill, then turn them upside down and brush them with a combination of honey and bourbon. And then let them just kind of sit there and percolate for a while. And then I serve that over ice cream.
SIMON: Let me ask you a question that doesn't have anything to do with grilling but has a lot to do with you, while we have the chance.
SIMON: You say grace before a meal?
BROWN: I do. Yeah. I say grace. I'm a big believer in grace. I happen to believe in a God that made all the food and so I'm pretty grateful for that and I thank him for that. But I'm also thankful for the people that put the food on the table.
The people that grew the food, the people that got the food to me. I think that being grateful, being thankful, makes food tastes better, actually, and it's something that we should take time to do. I do.
SIMON: Might be a good thing to remember on a weekend like this, wouldn't it?
BROWN: Might be.
SIMON: Alton Brown is the creator and host of Food Network's "Good Eats". You can see him as one of the celebrity chef mentors on "Food Network Star." He joined us from Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. Thanks so much for being with us.
BROWN: It was a real pleasure. Thank you so much.
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SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
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