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Grilling Is Still Bad — Here's What to Do Instead
Four-time James Beard Award winner David Chang agrees: Do not grill your hamburgers!
“I think that this viewpoint could get me in trouble,” chef David Chang said on his very fun podcast last month. “Would you agree with me that the grill is a piece of shit?”
Yes! I would agree, David Chang! Grilling sucks!
And I also agree that the viewpoint could get Chang in trouble. When I spoke truth to power on this issue back in 2021, I racked up nearly 14,000 quote-tweets, which is typically a sign that a lot of people read the article in question, but not that many of them liked it:
My view may not have been popular, but it was correct, and Chang agrees, at least as regards hamburgers. He even shares my reasoning, as does his podcast co-host, Lucky Peach founder Chris Ying.
Let’s go to the tape. Why is grilling bad?
Your grill is dirty and it gets the food dirty.
David Chang, 2023: “The whole idea of imparting ‘flavor’ from the grill — the only flavor that’s being imparted is the carbonized crap that’s on the grill. The stuff that hasn’t been scraped off.”
Josh Barro, 2021: “You turn the heat up high, you scrub the grates with a brush so some soot falls into the fire, and you call it clean. If you did that with a frying pan covered in burned-on food, people would call you disgusting and refuse to eat in your house. Well, I have news for you: It's still disgusting. Every time you grill, you're putting your new food right on top of the burned old food from last time, so it crusts onto your new food. Ew.”
Your grill is not as effective as a frying pan or griddle at searing meat.
Chang, 2023: “You know what’s more delicious? A burger that is compressed down, smashed down, has a lot of Maillard reaction so that all the sugars are caramelized.” For the key context, go to Chris Ying: “You’re going to get more Maillard on the pan.”
Barro, 2021: “Meats need to be seared to develop flavor. Grills do this, but not as well as a heavy skillet on a hot burner does, since the skillet contacts more of the meat's surface area.”
Your fatty burgers drip grease into your grill’s heating element and cause fires.
Chang, 2023: “A juicy burger is going to turn into a guaranteed grease fire.” Ying: “Let’s paint the picture of the summertime cookout… you’ve got 15 people and you’re trying to make a bunch of burgers on the grill. You cannot manage that grease fire. You can’t just simply move that burger to another part of the grill because there’s no other part of the grill available.”
Barro, 2021: “Grease from the meat drips down into the heating element, causing flare-ups… A broiler makes sense. It provides the same sort of open-flame cooking you get with a grill. But it doesn't make a huge mess because gravity carries the drippings away from the fire. The superior tool is already in your own home.”
Bonus observation: those grease fires will impart smoky flavor to your food… but not the kind of smoky flavor you want.
Chang, 2023: “Ostensibly, the grill is great for imbuing smoke and char flavors, wood flavors, charcoal flavors…” Ying: “Black smoke that’s pouring up from the fire as, like, the fat and grease is dripping down onto the charcoal or, usually, gas grate, is not the same flavor as the light, clean, clear smoke flavor of wood… I mean, ‘flame-broiled burgers,’ why is that good? What does a ‘flame-broiled burger’ do for me?” Chang: “I don’t think that flavor is natural.” Ying: “Yeah, it’s not. It’s just the flavor of gas.”
So anyway, if you weren’t prepared to trust me on the topic, I hope you will listen to David Chang, a four-time James Beard Award winner and founder of the Michelin star earning (and retaining) Momofuku Ko and the Momofuku restaurant group: When you grill your burgers, you’re just making them dirty, failing to sear them properly, and flavoring them with the black, sooty smoke that comes from pouring liquid beef fat into a propane fire.
You should stop! And I am here to help. I present to you:
Four summer entertaining strategies that are better than grilling
I get the concept of the grill: When the weather is nice, it’s nice to be outdoors with your guests instead of cooped up in your kitchen, especially if your kitchen gets hot when you cook. This is totally true! But don’t you want to be actually enjoying that time outside with your guests, instead of presiding over a rolling grease fire?
When I entertain in the summer, I look for menus that get most of the preparation out of the way before guests arrive, and that ideally don’t require any searing, whether on a grill or a stovetop. Often, I look for foods that I can serve at room temperature — often more appealing than hot food on a hot day anyway. These recipes mean that I can entertain guests — inside or out — while my food just does its thing in the oven. I even use a bluetooth-enabled Weber meat thermometer so I can monitor the doneness of my meat or fish from anywhere in my house.
One strategy for avoiding both the stove and the grill is a hearty salad with lean roasted meat. My go-to recipe of this type is a pork tenderloin panzanella salad from Cook’s Country. It’s super simple: you glaze pork tenderloins with a mix of brown sugar, balsamic vinegar and whole-grain mustard, and surround them on a baking sheet with oiled, cubed sourdough bread and sliced yellow squash, red bell peppers, red onions, roasting them all on high heat until the meat reaches 140°. (Watch the croutons for over-browning and toss occasionally; if they’re getting too brown, cover the baking sheet with foil.) While the meat rests, you toss the roasted vegetables and croutons with cherry tomatoes, English cucumber, and a tangy garlic, caper and balsamic dressing.
Then you pour it all out onto a big-ass platter and top it impressively with your thinly sliced pork, like so:
What could say ‘summer’ more than that?
A second approach is baked fish. My current go-to is a halibut oreganata with roasted vegetables. I cut fennel bulbs into wedges and slice zucchini; toss them with olive oil, pepper and salt; and roast them on a baking sheet at 450° until tender.
Meanwhile, I take six-ounce halibut fillets and coat them very generously with minced garlic, olive oil, lemon zest, and dried oregano in a large casserole dish. I surround the fish with cherry tomatoes and top the fillets with sliced lemon. Then I broil the fish on high until the halibut reaches 130°. (Watch the lemon and tomatoes for over-browning; switch to baking at 400° with foil over the casserole dish if they’re getting too brown.) When everything is done cooking, add the fennel and zucchini to the casserole with the fish, and serve with white rice:
So fresh and light! Of course, it doesn’t have to be halibut. This would work great with salmon (if your husband eats salmon) or cod, too. And you can of course change up the vegetables.
A third way to go is a summer stew. Stews taste best when they’re made ahead of time, so you can make this a day or two before you’re entertaining and just heat it up when your guests are coming. Of course, lots of stews are too heavy and hearty for summer. But I love this French-style pork stew from Cook’s Illustrated — it has smoky flavor that doesn’t require a grill because it comes from kielbasa and smoked ham hock; a light, clear broth that allows the flavors of peppercorns, cloves and thyme to shine through; and vegetable heft from potatoes, carrots, and Savoy cabbage. One big plus for summer is this stew does not require a browning step — the meat goes straight into the braising liquid to simmer.
Alternatively, spicy stews can be great in summer — Alison Roman’s famous chickpea stew is great for the season, as are light curries with lemongrass and coconut milk. There’s no law that says you can’t have stew outside — bring your Dutch oven or your Instant Pot right out into the backyard and serve up the bowls there!
And a fourth, dead-simple option is a make-ahead grain salad with simply cooked chicken breasts or fish. I’ve written about these before — I’m still a big fan of Giada de Laurentiis’ Israeli Couscous Salad with Smoked Paprika and this Leek, Chickpea & Farro salad from the New York Times. I normally serve these with skinless chicken breast — I buy high-quality air-chilled ones, toss them with salt, pepper and flavorful olive oil, and bake them at 300° until they come up to 160°. Then I slice and serve them warm or at room temperature. If you prefer, simply baked salmon fillets would work just as well — a perfect, light garden lunch for a hot summer day.
I can tell you one thing — I had a lot of people mock me for that grilling piece, but I’ve never had anyone who I served one of these meals tell me they’d rather have a filthy, gas-smoked burger from the grill instead.
So, I hope that guidance is useful to you this holiday weekend, and that you have celebrations that are delicious, weather-appropriate, and do not involve food covered in soot.
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