BBQ used to mean one thing: Hot dogs and hamburgers cooked on an outdoor grill. But David Kamen, an associate professor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., says American backyard chefs today are experimenting with different barbecue techniques. Kamen, who contributed to the institute’s new cookbook, “Grilling: Exciting International Flavors from the World's Premier Culinary College,” says they’re slow-cooking meats, smoking meats, and making desserts on the grill. We caught up with Kamen to ask him about the latest BBQ trends and what he likes to throw on the grill.
Q: Why is BBQ so popular in the U.S.?
A: There are two reasons. The first is the perception that is it healthy. Americans today are nutritionally aware. In the wake of the Atkins’ craze, we’re being careful of carbohydrates. Grilling is a cooking method that doesn’t require fat, and it is a way of rendering away a lot of fat. So it has a healthy aura.
The second thing is the bold flavors. One of the trends that we’re seeing in the food world is bolder, stronger, richer flavors. And grilling is a great way to capture that flavor. Grilling uses intense direct heat and what that does to all foods — not just meats, but also vegetables and fruits — is browns them. And with fruits and vegetables, we see caramelization. The heat is so intense, it creates dramatic, dark browning, and that’s where a lot of flavor is developed. When we grill we get more of a smoky, charred flavor than we can in a sauté pan or an oven. You can’t get that high of a heat in a sauté pan or frying pan.
Q: What are the latest trends in grilling?
A: Once upon the time, especially in the Northeast, BBQ meant getting a charcoal grill and cooking hot dogs and hamburgers. I think people are realizing that’s there a lot more to it than that. People now are slowing down the cooking method. BBQ is something you cook very slowly. That’s the difference. Another trend is using a lower heat or indirect heat; having the coals on one side and the food on the other side.
Q: What does lower heat do?
A: In order for a tough piece of meat to get tender, you have to cook it slower. Traditional southern BBQ involves cooking ribs, brisket, or pork shoulder. Those are typically less tender items. To get them tender, you have to cook them more slowly. And people are experimenting more with smoking. People are realizing that it’s not very difficult — you throw a handful of wood chips on the fire, and you get that smoky flavor going.
Q: What about grills? Is one type better than another?
A: The most important consideration for a grill is the actual grill — the actual rods or cooking surface. The rods should be made out of heavy-duty cast iron, because cast iron gets very hot and holds the heat. And that gives your food a really good sear.
Q: Should a consumer look for special labeling?
A: No, but when you’re looking at grills at Home Depot or your local garden center, look inside and see if it has a heavy-duty cooking surface. Manufacturers won’t boast about it, but it’s important. Usually they talk about whether it’s fueled by gas or charcoal, or whether it’s made of stainless steel. Stainless steel is OK for the outside, but it won’t give you the heat transfer you need for cooking in the inside. It won’t give you the same crusting and charring and flavor.
Q: Are gas grills better than charcoal?
A: That’s personal preference. Charcoal will give you more of a smoky flavor. Gas will have a more neutral one.
Q: What tools do you need?
A: A pair of tongs, a long pair, and a metal spatula. Some people use a fork, but we frown on forks. They can poke holes in your food and then you’ll lose that all important juiciness.
Q: What’s your favorite BBQ?
A: I use a charcoal grill, a Charbroiler. I like to do something like jerk pork, jerk tenderloin, or jerk pork chops.
Q: Why pork?
A: Pork is great BBQ meat; it’s naturally fatty and more forgiving on the grill, so it lends itself more to BBQ.
Q: What do you drink when you have a BBQ?
A: I’m an iced-tea drinker. Beer is the typical drink with BBQ. Some wines that go with the smoky flavors are gerwertztraminers and rieslings. They’re light, but sweet. The sweetness and fruitiness goes well with the bold, smoky flavors that you get from BBQ foods.
Q: What about desserts on the grill?
A: One of my favorites is pound cake with a coffee granache. It’s an old favorite of mine. When I was a kid, I’d toast a slice of Sara Lee pound cake, and then I’d put Betty Crocker fudge icing on top. So I like to toast a nice pound cake on grill. You could use Betty Crocker icing, but the coffee-flavored chocolate sauce is a nice complement. It’s a comfort food.