Grilling tips, plus top myths busted

July 15, 2020
Grilling myths busted. An older man grills with a little girl and a dog in the backround.
Boost your grilling chops by busting these grilling myths and learn these grilling tips. Photo: Getty Images.

Grills just wanna have fun. But we mess with ‘em and way too often, simply disrespect them.

Last grilling season, I watched a badge-wearing carnivore destroy, just destroy, close to $200 dollars’ worth of beef ribeye steak. He assembled an inferno in his Weber, piling up an entire bag of briquettes. It reddened so that I could feel it, feet away, as if I were peering over the mouth of Kilauea.

After he flung the meat on the grill, he stood there while the inevitable flames lapped up the now-dripping fat and, thus ravenously fed, charred the undersides of the meat to blacker than a poodle’s nose.

It was so sad. A bit later, the charred bits chewed like coal.

Get more cooking tips and great recipes from Bill St. John.

Gentlemen, I address you (us) particularly. Our gender owns this problem. Tongs in hand and the fire afore us, the male chest is the first portion of the body to enter the backyard, when what should have preceded it is the head.

Here are some myths of the grill to dispel, along with some grilling tips to note for figuring the fire.

Myth busted: Searing meat doesn’t “seal in” moisture; in fact, it burns or evaporates it away. (That sizzling that you hear all the while that a steak is cooking, in either a skillet or on the grill? Moisture rushing from the interior of the meat to the surface and burning away.)

What looks like a comely crust forming under a sear is what’s called the Maillard Reaction, a chemical effect that explains the caramelization of proteins and sugars in browned foods of any sort (for instance, cookies, steaks, caramel itself, and roasted vegetables).

A steak’s crust isn’t impermeable; it’s just nice to taste. The sought-after moisture in a steak or piece of fatty fish isn’t so much about water as it is about fat content (which is why the marbling in meat is highly regarded).

Tip: Teach yourself to “feel” temperature: It’s easiest to learn to take the internal temperature of meat and fish by touch rather than by time or instant-read thermometer, although of course they work too.

Push down with your fingertip on a piece of meat or fish as it cooks and gauge its resistance. That will tell you whether it’s done or not. It’s a rule that is a bit difficult to learn, but fish or meat that is cooked to medium-rare —the preferred doneness, as far as most chefs think — will feel like pressing the inside base of your thumb when your palm is nearly stretched out.

Tip: But whether you measure by feel or instant-read thermometer, remove meat and firm-fleshed grilled fish from the grill just before — not when — it reaches the temperature that you’re after. Then let it rest. This is key. Let’s say that you want a medium-rare steak (135-140 degrees in its center). Pull it off the fire at 130 degrees and let the steak rest, away from the grill, for a minimum of five minutes. (You may loosely tent it in aluminum foil, although that is not mandatory.) Any meat’s internal temperature continues to mount at least five degrees up the scale even after being removed from its heat source because of what’s called the “carryover effect.”

Then the great Bourdain Effect occurs.

The resting time allows the meat’s juices, as the late Anthony Bourdain put it, “left undisturbed and unmolested, to redistribute through the resting meat in a lovely and rewarding way.”

Myth busted: It’s OK to cut into a steak to tell if it’s done, but that only ruins the aesthetics, not the juiciness. A steak’s moisture doesn’t “run away” due to a knife cut or a fork poke. Of course, it’s easier and simpler just to use an instant-read thermometer or, as noted, to learn to feel for temperature.

Myth busted: Flip away. The idea that you should flip a steak or burger only once is wrong. Single-flip meats do darken on the outside, but just under that char, the interior heat climbs quickly — and often unmanageably. Flipping several times both crusts the outside well and allows the interior temperature a steadier, less dangerous climb.

Myth busted: Certain marinades, yes, will tenderize meat, but only those that contain a lot of acidity (such as those that contain lemon or lime juice, wine or yogurt). Also, they can over-tenderize easily, making the meat muscle fibers mushy, so beware. But flavor-only marinades or rubs (such as today’s recipe) don’t penetrate into the meat to tenderize it. They merely flavor the outsides. That’s fine, as long as you know that’s all that they will do.

Myth busted: Don’t prick sausages to prevent them from bursting. They’re not filled, anymore, with stretchers including water that will steam. What they are filled with is delicious fat that will drip away if it finds holes in the casing. Grill sausages using the indirect method, off to the side of the main heat, in order to brown them all over without burning them and especially so that the casing will crisp up nicely.

Spice paste for steak

From Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger on; makes enough for 4 steaks.


1 tablespoon cracked black peppercorns

1 tablespoon ground white pepper

1 tablespoon coarse salt

4 garlic cloves, minced or pressed

1 and 1/2 teaspoons mustard seeds, cracked in a mortar

1 and 1/2 teaspoons dried Mexican oregano, crushed

1 teaspoon ground cumin seeds

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper

1/4 cup olive oil

4 6-ounce beef tenderloin steaks


Combine all ingredients but steak in small bowl. Rub mixture over both sides of steaks. Cover and refrigerate at least 1 hour and up to overnight. Prepare barbecue. Grill or broil steak to desired doneness, about 4 minutes per side for medium-rare.

You may reach Bill St John at [email protected]

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.