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Hearth & Home November 2018

Greg Blonder, professor of Mechanical Engineering at Boston University, Boston Massachusetts.
©2018 Photo Courtesy: Jackie Ricciardi for Boston University Photography.

Professor BBQ

By Lisa Readie Mayer

Greg Blonder takes a scientific approach to outdoor cooking, and destroys some fallacies along the way.

Some say barbecuing is an art. Greg Blonder says it’s much more about science. The professor of Mechanical Engineering at Boston University, with an undergrad degree from MIT, and a Ph.D. in Physics from Harvard, is a scientist, inventor, and entrepreneur. He holds over 100 patents in wide-ranging fields such as Green energy, medical devices, computer systems, and consumer products. He also happens to be an avid barbecuer.

But, unlike outdoor cooks who use a combination of culinary rules-of-thumb, passed-down traditions, estimation, and guesswork to feel their way through the process of coaxing fire, smoke, and meat into deliciousness, Blonder relies on proven, science-based facts.

In fact, he wrote the book on it. He co-authored, with Meathead Goldwyn, the book “Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling,” and is the chief science advisor and contributor to the AmazingRibs.com website.

Blonder cuts out the fat and tells it like it is when it comes to outdoor cooking. He delights in debunking long-held barbecue myths such as “oil the cooking grid to prevent sticking” (false: it’s much better to oil the food) and “pre-soak wood chips and chunks in water to create the most smoke” (false: the water barely penetrates the wood and makes no difference in smoke creation). His recommended techniques and suggested methods are based on factual evidence gleaned from rigorous scientific experimentation, and yield proven and consistent results.

Hearth & Home interviewed Professor Blonder to learn how he came to merge science and smoke, and in the process, help backyard Joes become barbecue heroes.

Hearth & Home: How did you get into barbecuing and grilling?

Greg Blonder: “Cooking has always been an interest since I was a kid. In college I was very good at cooking in my dorm room with a hot pot and a hot plate. I’ve always grilled a lot.”

What are your specialties?

Blonder: “My wife and I make chicken wings and pastrami in a pellet smoker. We do ribs, briskets, steaks – now that our kids have grown and left, we tend to do more steaks. I grind my own meat for burgers – I like a coarse grind, using a 30-70% blend of brisket and chuck so it tastes more steak-like. We also like to grill fish, and even cook bacon on the grill – we pre-cook a lot of bacon at once and freeze it.”

So, is barbecuing more about art or science?

Blonder: “All cooking is, at its root, a science. Science allows you to consistently achieve the flavor goal you desire. Note I said the flavor profile you want. I hate it when a recipe claims to be the world’s best chocolate chip cookie or whatever. It may be the best to them, but not to everyone. For some people, the flavor profile they remember and associate with grilled food actually includes the taste of lighter fluid. For them, it’s part of the nostalgia.”

How did you first connect science and outdoor cooking?

Blonder: “My wife is a good baker, but sometimes the pastries would fail. I would notice the recipes were contrary to the laws of thermodynamics, so I’d help my wife redesign them based on scientific knowledge. I would use my tools to calibrate the oven – ovens can be off by 50 degrees. And, many times recipe instructions are ridiculous. They’ll say to start at one temperature for a certain period of time and then drop the temperature for the rest of the baking time. It makes no sense. Ovens vary a lot in the time it takes to increase or decrease to the desired temperature, so the results could never be consistent for everyone.

“I would do the same (type of analysis) when I barbecued. For instance, when I smoked brisket, I noticed it went through the stall (when the internal temperature of the meat rises steadily, then plateaus for several hours before ticking back up again). I found an interesting article online by Meathead with a graph illustrating the stall and wrote to him about it. He asked me, ‘Why does it stall? Can you explain it?’

“So I went back as physicist and created an experiment. There were many previous theories about why this happens, but what I discovered is that the stall is caused by the evaporative cooling of moisture being released from the cells within the meat. The stall stops when the meat runs out of moisture and bark develops on the exterior.

“Meathead then had questions about other barbecue topics, so I did more experiments. As a teacher, you have to dispel the old and incorrect theories before people will accept the new. And you have to explain the facts in a non-scientific way.”

Cutting meat right after cooking is the way to go.

Why is it important to bust these long-held barbecue theories and myths?

Blonder: “Through science I can tell you how to simplify a recipe and avoid problems. A trained chef can learn how to compensate for differences in meat, cooking appliances, and outside conditions to create a dish consistently. But a home cook needs recipes based on science for consistent results.

“Take the idea that you can touch a steak and compare it to your palm to judge whether it’s rare, medium, or well done. Maybe a seasoned restaurant chef, buying meat from the same supplier, and cooking on the same grill every time, can tell by touch. But most home cooks don’t have that ability. Everyone’s hand is different, natural products vary, different cuts of meat vary in firmness. The only way to guarantee doneness is to use a meat thermometer. You will be shocked at how much better the results are.”

Is judging doneness a home griller’s biggest issue?

Blonder: “Getting time and internal temperatures right are the main things cooks get wrong. The biggest mistake people make is overcooking or undercooking food. Chicken breast is very difficult to grill and people overcook it constantly. White meat is unforgiving. You don’t want it to get above 150 degrees, but also you don’t want it to be unsafe at 135. Dark meat chicken has collagen, so it’s more forgiving, and chicken wings are hard to abuse. Using a thermometer is the best solution. Another big issue is knowing when to salt.”

Shouldn’t we salt before cooking? Or are we doing that wrong, too?

Blonder: “It’s useless to salt immediately before cooking. You salt meat to break down muscle proteins and retain moisture, but it takes a long time for salt to penetrate. You need to salt a one-inch steak overnight and a big brisket takes several days for the salt to get to the center. If you salt far enough in advance to penetrate, the meat will yield 5% more – that’s more meat for your money for a home cook and more profit for a restaurant.

“After proving this, we changed all recipes on AmazingRibs.com to eliminate salt from the rubs and add it separately. The guideline we suggest is half a teaspoon of kosher salt per pound, but find the amount you like. Rub it on the outside of the meat, let it sit a day or two (in the refrigerator), then add the herbs and spices just before cooking. You can add finishing salt before serving.”

Salting meat immediately before cooking is useless, according to Blonder.

That’s a revelation. What other myths have you disproven?

Blonder: “Resting meat after cooking is irrelevant. Conventional wisdom is that meat needs to rest to retain juices. But through experimenting, we found if you cut it right away, the difference in the amount of juice that runs off is inconsequential; it’s about a teaspoon’s difference. Also, that nice crust gets soggy under an aluminum foil tent while you’re waiting. (Barbecue expert, author, restaurateur, and competitor) Adam Perry Lang doesn’t let it rest. If you like a crust, don’t let it rest. We’re not arguing one way is better than another; it just depends on what you want.”

Where and how do you conduct your grilling experiments?

Blonder: “I own 11 smokers and grills. When I experiment, I have to make sure the results are not specific to the tools and appliances. I test everything on electric, gas, charcoal, and wood grills and smokers to make sure it’s replicable, and also to settle bar fights.”

Have you settled the gas versus charcoal debate? Can you weigh in from a scientific perspective?

Blonder: “Gas grills dominate because they are ready in an instant and act like an oven – they produce heat, but no smoke. Frankly, for mild foods that cook in 15 minutes or less, gas is perfect. Charcoal offers good direct heat and flame. It adds flavor from fat dripping on the coals and is better for getting a hard char and for smoking.”  

Do you have a go-to grill?

Blonder: “Depends on what I’m cooking. I use gas for quick-cooking chicken, fish, and vegetables. For a burger or a steak, I’ll always go to charcoal. I like to reverse-sear steak because it cooks the interior and exterior perfectly. You set up the grill with two-zones and start out cooking the steak slowly over low heat on the indirect side. When it’s almost done, you move it over to the very hot charcoal flame to get a crusty char.

“For smoking, I like to use a dedicated smoker, because I want clean smoke. I would recommend having one good gas grill and one good charcoal grill. If I could have a third, it would be a pellet smoker, and beyond that a stick-burner. That’s how I ended up with 11 grills!”

The pellet grill category seems to be catching fire lately.

Blonder: “I have two pellet grills. If you’re just getting started in smoking, I would recommend a pellet grill. You just set it and forget it. They cost a little more money, and need electricity, but in terms of convenience and consistency, they’re hard to beat.”

How about kamados? Do you test on kamados too?

Blonder: “Yes. Kamados excel as lower-temperature ovens because they hold heat well. I know people use them as generic appliances, but they are more specialized. They’re great for smoking and baking. I don’t use them as much for direct grilling.”

Weight loss is a good indicator of doneness, Blonder says.

We noticed you taught a university seminar on cooking a better Thanksgiving dinner. Have you ever taught a barbecue course?  

Blonder: “The Thanksgiving class was for fun. I have taught about the math behind cooking, but never barbecuing. I have had students design and build an oven scale and a spatula with a weight sensor, because weight loss is a good indicator of doneness, particularly for baked goods. Students experimented by weighing the chicken and cookies raw, and periodically throughout the cooking process, to determine doneness.”

Based on your interaction with young people today, do you think the next generation is learning about or interested in barbecuing and grilling?  

Blonder: “In the Northeast, the big trend is eating out. Cooking has become more of an assembly process, rather than true scratch cooking. People go to Trader Joes and buy a salad kit, and other partially assembled ingredients, and put dinner together.

“Meals are becoming less formal and prescribed. In a restaurant, it’s common to have a mix of appetizers for dinner. ‘Bowls’ are popular, where everything is thrown together in a dog bowl, and you can eat it with a spoon or fork. When they do cook, people want uncomplicated recipes finished in half an hour. They don’t have the time, attention span, or skills. They have no trouble buying pre-brined brisket or pre-seasoned ribs, but barbecuing is slow and messy.”

How can the barbecue industry better connect with young people to ensure a market for the future? Are high-tech smart grills and apps the way to go?

Blonder: “Personally, I believe technology is not the main issue to attract Millennials to grilling. A lot of young people are scared to cook because they don’t have the knowledge or training. People turn to partially cooked or easy-to-assemble meals because they reduce the risk of failure.

“Wi-Fi may be eye-candy that sells, but what they care about more than Wi-Fi are grills and recipes that get a lot of good reviews. Positive reviews and community recommendations validate a grill, accessory, or recipe, and consumers trust it will make them a better cook and host. Of course, reviews can kill you, too.

“Novelty also matters with this generation. It’s really important to give them something that’s not too hard to do, but a little different. It’s a “constrained novelty,” like adding chocolate to a barbecue sauce. It’s foolish to try to fight trends; you need to find a way to tie in.”

What about live-fire cooking as a way to connect with young people? Statistics show Millennials are on-board the fire pit trend.

Blonder: “Fire-pit and live-fire cooking is special-event cooking. You get some beers, gather around, build a fire, cook, and graze. It’s more about the experience than putting a meal on the table, but it definitely fits in with the experiential trend.”  

Any final thoughts to share?

Blonder: “Well, I can tell you that in high school, I was at the forefront of the Outdoor Room trend (laughing). I earned money building brick patios for neighbors. It was in the ’70s, when decks and patios were uncommon. Interlocking pavers weren’t available then; I used sand, red bricks, and railroad ties. I never got building permits. I just knocked on doors and did one or two projects a summer. Some people wanted built-in planters or to extend the patio to their natural-gas grill. I was good at figuring the math and geometry patterns to lay them out.”

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