The art of grilling has existed since man was able to create both fire and a crude stone plate to set over top of it. Grilling is essentially cooking food by directly heating it from a single direction, generally from beneath. Grilling that involves heat from above is referred to as broiling in North America. They are both very hot processes, and depending on the tools used, can result in drier food than when using other methods. There are many subsets of grilling, with variations by region, culture, tools, and even altitude.
Grilling was “discovered” by human ancestors approximately half a million years ago, some time after they had figured out how to make and sustain fire. What exactly induced them to apply heat directly to meat is unknown, as it is most likely that before the advent of the grill, the people simply ate their meat raw like animals. It is possible that some hunters came across charred remains of animals after a natural forest fire and decided to try the meat, thus starting man’s love affair with cooked food.
The first cookware was likely not similar to modern grills, and probably consisted of a flat stone that was placed directly on the fire, or a spit - a simple construction which suspended chunks of meat and even whole carcasses over the fire. These methods were used for millennia and were only discontinued when cheap metal became available. Ancient civilizations made use of various cookware of wood, stone, or metal construction, but the modern essence of the grill as a metal gridiron would not come about until the 1700s or so. In the south during that time, pit barbecue became very popular. It produced a very flavorful, tender meat and did not require a great deal of expensive materials - the most important component is a huge hole in the ground.
While grilling became increasingly practiced in the West after the Civil War era, especially in the southern United States, it wasn’t until after World War II that it entered the cultural consciousness as a social and community event. The postwar period saw an unprecedented migration of middle-class families to smaller communities outside of highly populated cities, which came to be known as the suburbs. With more income from better manufacturing jobs, combined with the space afforded by a typical suburban backyard, grilling became ubiquitous with American middle-class life.
The modern grill as we know it today was invented in the early 1950s by a metalworker by the name of George Stephen. He took a metal harbor buoy, the tentpole product of a company he partially owned, and cut it in half. He then cut some holes into it and welded on a small handle, inserted a wire gridiron into the middle, attached some legs, and voila - an efficient, portable grill was invented. These first devices were referred to as kettle grills and have a familiar circular shape. They were affectionately referred to as “Sputnik” due to their similarity to the famous spherical Russian satellite that had fascinated the world around that time. While kettle grills and their variants are still on the market today, they have in many backyards been replaced a larger, rectangular, multi-shelf grill with an attached propane tank. The first natural gas grill was invented in the 1960s by William Wepfer and Milton Lancaster. The two designed the grill while working for a natural gas company, and it quickly became popular due to the convenience of gas when compared to wood fires. Today, both natural gas and propane grills are in use.
While the words “grilling” and “barbecue” are often used interchangeably, they actually describe two distinct and very different types of cooking. Grilling is a basic cooking technique in which high levels of heat are applied directly to the surface of food. It is generally a very quick, simple process. Barbecue is a more involved and skill-intensive process that requires that the food (almost always meat) be cooked slowly on a grill, and often smoked, usually with some kind of sauce or dry rub.
The word barbecue is derived from the Spanish barbecoa, which itself came down from indigenous Arawak tribes in the West Indies, parts of which were later colonized by Spain. The tribespeople cooked their food on a simple wooden structure over a fire. The practice was adapted by Europeans, who would set up large spits over fires and cover the meat with a peppery sauce and then let them slow roast for a few hours. This practice evolved over time and eventually became the modern practice of barbecue, which is a cultural ritual and food preparation method with influence all over the US, especially the southern states. Almost every country has some form of barbecue, with some featuring prominently in national cuisines. China, for instance, has a late-night street meal known as shao kao, in which customers choose skewers of meat, vegetables, and eggs to be grilled in a spice, strongly seasoned sauce. Mobs of young people can be seen crowding shao kao stands after the nightclubs close down each evening.
While many types of meat are cooked in barbecue, pork and beef are the most widely used, in that order. Unlike conventional grilling, barbecued meats are not placed directly over the coals on the gridiron - they are usually at the other side of the coals/heating element/wood, to avoid cooking the meat too quickly. The philosophy of most barbecue enthusiasts is “low and slow” - a mild temperature for an extended period of time. This allows the smoke of the coals to saturate the meat and give it a distinct flavor. It also helps preserve the moisture of the meat and make it much more tender and soft, which is ideal for more inexpensive cuts of meat that would otherwise be tough and unappetizing. Taking this process to the next level is called smoking, which is cooking and preparing meat almost exclusively via heated smoke. It is a point of contention in the grilling community whether hot smoking is a variety of barbecue or constitutes its own distinct style. Regardless, both types share certain attributes, such as the controlled environment of heat and smoke and the extended cooking time. Smoked meats tend to use dry rubs over wet sauces, the opposite of traditional barbecue. A very common wood used in smoking is mesquite, a scrubby tree whose smoke adds a thick, earthy flavor to foods.
Smoking was introduced to Europeans by Native Americans, who used the process to make meat products that were light, portable, and kept for long periods of time - strips of meat that are smoked in a certain way become jerky. The idea of a barbecue as a social gathering in the US grew out of the post-Civil War era, when the hunting and slaughtering of wild hogs was a difficult process and cause for celebration in a community. This would become known as the pig roast. Skilled barbecue cooks began to spring up, and would establish semi-permanent tents or hire themselves out for special events. They would eventually become restaurateurs and develop a distinct brand for their recipes and skills.
Modern barbecue is often defined by its region, which has a direct correlation with the kind of sauce used. Barbecue sauce generally has a vinegar, mustard, or ketchup base, with varying levels of saltiness, sweetness, and spiciness. The recipes and characteristics vary from state to state and even within a state. North Carolina, for instance, has a lot of diversity in sauce. The eastern portion uses a lot of vinegar, while the west prefers ketchup. Memphis barbecue is famous for its strong tomato flavor, as well as its smoking techniques that utilize hickory wood. Texas barbecue uses beef instead of pork and often has a dry rub, with wet sauce on the side.
Braising refers to the process of first searing the food by exposing it to an extremely high temperature for a short time, and then letting it sit in a slow cooker with liquid, such as tomato broth or stock of some kind. This process makes the meat extremely tender, so much so that it can often be cut with a fork alone, such as the famous pot roast. Some cultures make extensive use of braising, such as France and China, where stock and broth are replaced with soy sauce.
The charbroil is another technique used sometimes in America and other locales. When broiling, the heat usually comes from above the food and is at a higher temperature. The food is placed in a special pan with holes to permit higher air flow, and the heating mechanics are convection-based, more like a baking oven. With charbroiling, the heat is raised to the point that the exterior of the meat develops a coating of a burnt, scratchy substance, called char. This gives it a strong flavor and crunchy texture.
Marinating is an oft-used technique with grilling and barbecue. It infuses strong flavor into meat, achieved by soaking it for an extended period, often overnight, in a mixture of sauces and spices. It also tenderizes the meat and can provide a kind of glaze on its surface when it is grilled. A similar technique is the dry rub, which is a dry mixture of herbs and spices, as its name suggests. It can be applied immediately before cooking if desired, and usually does not need to sit on the meat for hours before preparation, although it will not achieve the same level of embedded flavor as a marinade. Marinades have the added benefit of breaking down some of the carcinogens that are found in grilled meats (see below).
Grills and equipment
Besides the gridiron, kettles, and barbecue described above, grilling includes many other options. For serious smoked meat enthusiasts a dedicated smoker may be a wise investment. Smokers come in many shapes and sizes, but they usually have a cylindrical shape, several racks for the meats, a large coal depository, and a small chimney to release the fumes. A cheap and efficient smoker is the upright drum smoker or UDS (also called an ugly drum smoker due to its homemade appearance), a standard 55-gallon steel drum cut in half lengthwise and sat on one end. Various apparatus, like handles and piping, are then attached or welded on. When finished, it resembles a cylindrical refrigerator and the door opens to reveal several racks of gridiron. The wood is inserted into the bottom of the cylinder and lit; it then travels up through the drum, through the food, and out through the chimney. Restaurant or commercialized smokehouses are huge contraptions that can handle large quantities of meat at a time, and also produce vast quantities of smoke - so much so that 911 centers occasionally get calls from passing citizens who are unaware of the smoking process and believe the building is on fire.
Flattop grilling is becoming more popular and as you might expect, does not use a regular gridiron grill to cook food. It makes use of a round, flat cooking surface - it differs from a griddle in that it has a circular heating device, and from a grillpan in that it does not have raised ridges to simulate the gridiron. Like all grills, it has the same basic process for cooking food. While griddles have parallel heating elements, those found in flattops are circular, which spreads the heat out over the surface in an even fashion. This makes it popular with diners, who want lots of heat to put out food quickly, and seafood restaurants, who need even heat for their products. This fashion of grilling is very common in India, Central America, and other parts of the world. Japanese flattops are called teppanyaki and have evolved into a kind of entertainment experience in America, with teppanyaki chefs incorporating elements of comedy and juggling into their cooking, which is done at the guests’ table. Hibachi is often incorrectly referred to as teppanyaki; hibachi is simply a small brazier used for basic cooking.
In North America, the standard grill for personal use is a gas- or propane-fueled rectangular grill, typically with two or three gridiron racks for the meat. Older models use charcoal, and some grillers prefer charcoal because of the smoky essence that they infuse the food with. The grill assembly is set into a cart housing for convenient wheeling, and has some side tables that can hold plates and utensils. Some newer grills also have an infrared component in the rear of the interior, which can be attached to a rotisserie. The rotisserie is powered by a small electric motor, which requires the grill to be plugged in. Infrared cooking helps the meat retain more moisture, and can reach high temperatures very quickly.
Recent trends in cooking and health practices have given rise to clamshell-type grills such as the famous George Foreman Grill, promoted extensively by the retired boxer. Grilling has become more popular because of the perceived health benefits when compared to other methods of cooking, such as frying or baking. The Foreman grill and others like it are angled and coated with a non-stick substance to allow liquified fat and grease to run off where it can be collected and disposed of. This leads to meat with less fat content, although some meat, such as beef, will always contain high amounts of fat.
Potential health problems
While grilling in general is considered a healthy way to cook food, it is not without its risks. Animal proteins cooked at high temperatures develop carcinogenic compounds. These compounds are created when the amino acids of meat are exposed to heat. Parts of the meat drop onto the coals during cooking (called drippings), causing a reaction that carries the carcinogens over to the flames, which then lick the food. Some seasonings, such as sage and oregano, can reduce this effect when applied during grilling. Food can also be pre-cooked in a microwave and then drained of juice before the grilling, but this will change the flavor of the final product and may defeat the purpose.
Grills run the gamut in price, and you can find small charcoal braziers for $20 or pay hundreds of dollars for a huge grill with all the trimmings. The expensive grills are nice, but are not necessary for a quality grilling experience. All you need is a heat source, something to put the food on, and the food itself, and you’ve got the basics down. Just find a good recipe and you’ll be set!