The trick is to smoke the meat and not make the meat smoke

Up in Flames

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Grilling is all about using fire to cook your food, the key here is in a controlled manner. These past two weeks I’ve had two experiences where the fire has gotten out of control and I figured it is worth a blog entry. Now the first thing I’ll say is neither event killed the meal, but it could have and I was lucky. I want to learn from my mistakes and figured it might help others. For one occurrence I know exactly what happened, while with the other I have several theories and plan to make the meal again to test them out. Another thing I will mention is there aren’t going to be any photos of the pyrotechnics. The only reason I got the photo above is that the initial flare-up occurred just as I was getting ready to snap a picture of the burgers on the grill. After that in both cases all of my efforts were devoted to keeping the flames under control.

My first incident involved out of control flare-ups while cooking a recipe called
MEAT LOVER’S PIZZA BURGER. I had a feeling I might have some trouble with flare-ups due to the makeup of the burgers: 75% lean ground beef, grated pepperoni and Italian sausage. One clue was the recipe called for medium high heat, not the usual high heat used with burgers. My first mistake was how I set up the grill. While the recipe alluded to using indirect heat in the event of flare-ups, I didn’t leave some burners off. I was also grilling Texas toast and I needed some burners on for that. I lit all of the burners and set them to medium high. I figured the burgers would use up 1/3 of the grill, the Texas toast used up another 1/3 and it would give me another 1/3 to shuffle things around if the burgers flared up. What I hadn’t counted on was just how badly the burgers would flare and how persistent it was. The burgers were on the grill for only around a minute and I was getting ready to snap a picture when the first flare-up occurred. The flames went nearly two feet high and the heat was very intense. I snapped the picture you see above and put the camera down so I could deal with the flames.

After putting the camera down I quickly put on some long (elbow length) BBQ gloves because there was no way I could get my bare arms to spatula distance without some protection. I took the left pair of burgers in the picture above and moved them to the right of the Texas toast. I took the pair of burgers and put them on the far left side of the grill to the left of the Texas toast. I knew I was in trouble when the first two burgers I’d just moved started flaring up again, followed seconds later by the second set of burgers. These flames were now going to start taking out the Texas toast too. What I ended up doing at this point was to separate the 4 burgers and just keep moving them around in a constant ballet. I wasn’t sure if I even had something edible until I got it in the house because the smoke from the flare-ups was acrid, my eyes were watering and I was having trouble seeing. It turns out they were a bit more charred on the outside than ideal, but they weren’t blackened charcoal briquettes either.

So what have I learned from this incident and what was the cause and solution. The cause was the fatty meat - that is easy. What I have learned is the next time I am going to make something with a high fat content like this I need to leave an area of refuge with the burners off. In the event of bad flare-ups you can put the meat there until things die down and possibly finish them off indirectly. The second thing is a dope slap to me because the recipe said “ In the event of flare-ups....” so I need to not ignore the obvious. I just thought I could deal with it without resorting to taking the burgers off the heat. The solution is a bit more problematic and there are several variables at work. The first was the fat content of the meat. I am going to try 85% lean beef, but it is possible the sausage and pepperoni were the main contributors to the grease and flare ups. I am also going to try medium heat to see if the somewhat lower heat helps here. Now there is a good chance that the only way to pull this off is a combination of direct and indirect grilling. Get as much of a sear on the burgers as possible using direct heat and finish off using indirect heat. Ideally, if I had to go that route, I would like to get a remote read temperature probe into the meat so I could get an accurate temperature reading. Truth be told: I have no idea how long it takes to cook a burger indirectly. I will have to do some research ahead of time if I need to attempt this method. The burger is very tasty and is worth some effort to try to get it right.

The second meal that almost went up in flames was the
CEDAR PLANKED CHICKEN. I tried to make yesterday. I had made 3 meals using cedar planks up until this point and was beginning to feel somewhat confident I had it down. On my grill it took just under 10 minutes before the plank started smoldering where you would flip it and put the food on the plank. The other three times I had stayed out at the grill and at the first smell of cedar smoke I began checking the plank and would let it char for a minute or so more before flipping it. Some recipes have you immediately move the plank to and indirect area where the burners are turned off. This recipe had you flip the plank, add the food and keep using direct heat for another 10 minutes before switching to indirect. I really didn’t worry too much about this extra time over direct heat because this recipe was using medium heat vs. some that actually used high heat. Yesterday was a hot and humid day and I know that affects the amount of heat my gas grill puts out, so I set the burner knobs to one notch below medium. While I was on schedule with this portion of the meal I was behind heating the oven for one of the sides and had to run in the house and take care of that business. Big mistake. Up until this point I’d always stayed out at the grill during this warm up. I cam out of the house 8 minutes into this 10 minute process only to see some smoke coming from the grill. In the back of my mind as I lifted the lid, I was vaguely aware that the grill thermometer read 575 degrees (300 C). When I opened the lid I half expected to see flames. The plank was completely blackened on both sides and had blistered a bit on the side that was facing the flames. Prior to this the top side had never been affected before, but when I didn’t see flames I thought I’d dodged a bullet.

I flipped the plank and was getting ready to put the chicken on it, when small flames started to appear in several places along the edge. I pulled back the piece of chicken that I was about to put on the plank. While I was doing this the flames had started to spread all along the edge of the plank and formed a ring of flame around the perimeter of the plank. Seconds later the entire plank had become engulfed. There was no point trying to spray the plank with water, from start to finish it went from small flames to fully engulfed in less than thirty seconds. I simply turned the gas jets off and shut off the propane tank. Fortunately i hadn’t put the chicken on yet, so the meal wasn’t ruined only postponed. I called my parents and told them that they were still welcome to come over at 4:00 but dinner wouldn’t be at 4:15, it was going to be 5:30. I had to soak another cedar plank for an hour before I could start the process over again.

So what was the cause and what did I learn here? I believe part of the cause was the high temperatures that day which affected the gas pressure in the propane tank and so I was dealing with higher temperatures in the grill. I’d adjusted for them, but not enough. The internal temperature of the grill was well over the infamous 451 degrees Fahrenheit. So the plank was being “cooked” by the direct flames and the high indirect temperature. The second thing I learned was my place was out at the grill when heating these planks. I already knew this but thought I could bend the rules a bit, based on having done it 3 times before and “knowing” it took at least 10 minutes before my plank would char. Had I been out at the grill, I would have smelled the wood charring and I have no doubt I would have turned it over in time. I may have also noticed the temps running high and adjusted for that. The second thing I learned is you don’t have a whole lot of time to react,-where there is smoke there will quickly be fire, yet another reason to be out at the grill. In fact I would say that anything you have around to fight the fire is going to keep the fire from spreading, that plank and your meal if it is on the plank is likely ruined. The last lesson here is to have a spare plank around so if things go up in smoke you have another one around.

I still have some future research to do to figure out how to best grill the high fat content burgers, but the second fire shouldn’t have happened if I was doing what I should have. In the future I will not stray from the grill when grilling on would planks. In fact the only time I’ll feel comfortable leaving the grill would be indirect grilling a roast in a non-combustible roast pan. Even then it should be checked on regularly. I am thankful I learned my lesson with a burned plank, not a burned meal or a more serious fire.

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