GL: What is the single most essential gadget for grilling?
MB: A $7 or $8 handheld digital thermometer is critical for success when grilling. One of the essential methods of Modernist Cuisine at Home is understanding what temperature means when cooking food, and more specifically, what every single degree means in relation to the juiciness, the color, and the flavor of what you're cooking. Having an affordable thermometer on hand allows you to verify the doneness of your food so that you're cooking it exactly to the point you want.
GL: Are there any foods you don't recommend cooking on a grill?
MB: You really can grill anything, but one of the foods with the most disappointing results is vegetables, because people cook them straight from their raw state. When you grill raw vegetables, which have a lot of water in them, you end up charring the exterior and getting a rubbery interior, which doesn't taste great. So our [Modernist Cuisine] method is to pre-steam the vegetables in order to render enough of the water out of them while keeping the surface quite moist, and then you grill them and get a beautiful result.
GL: Why is fish often everyone's enemy on the grill?
MB: Fish usually ends up sticking to the grill as a result of the amount of moisture in it. Once it hits the grill, there's so much steam created that the fish actually binds itself to all of the little pores on the grill. People put a lot of oil on the fish to prevent it from sticking, which might help somewhat. But the best way to grill fish is to partially cure the surface by rubbing a little salt and sugar on it and letting it sit for an hour or two. That will draw out the excess moisture on the surface. And then when you do go to grill it, the surface will be quite dry so you want to still oil it, but it will sear perfectly and come off the grates cleanly, plus be perfectly seasoned.
GL: Are marinades and brines worth the effort?
MB: To be very frank, most brining and marinating that anyone ever does is a just surface treatment. They're never going to have the penetration that people presume they're getting. After a whole night in a marinade or a brine, you may only get 3 or 4 millimeters of flavor into the meat. There are a ton of factors that affect how effective they are, including the strength of the marinade or brine, the length at which it's applied, and the thickness of the food. Kalbi—Korean barbecue—is a great example of effective brining because the meat is sliced very thinly and marinated in a very intense soy-sugar brine for several days. So essentially, the meat is fully cured because the brine has penetrated all the way through, resulting in tender, flavorful meat.
GL:: What is the number one lesson you learned through your work with Modernist Cuisine and Modernist Cuisine at Home?
MB: I was fascinated to discover what defines the flavor of grilled food. People have many theories about how grilling is different from every other cooking technique, but it all comes down to the heat. The heat from the coals is what cooks the food, and is what defines grilling as a technique. You are drawing all of the juices and fats from the meat, and their falling onto the hot coals is the essence of grilled flavor. You don't have grilled flavor without that. It's so simple, but it was fascinating to discover that the reaction between the fat and the heat, and the redistribution of the smoke and pyrolyzed fat particles and juices, was what truly defined the flavor of grilling.
GL: What is your single best tip for becoming a master of the grill?
MB: It is critical to understand how temperature affects food, and using a thermometer to measure the internal temperature of your food is essential in all types of cooking, especially grilling. A thermometer will allow you to achieve the ideal result: a beautiful char and a very juicy interior.