Grilling – cooking on a surface that allows fat to drain away – lends itself to the most modern of food trends, such as melding regional cuisines, as well as to the oldest: cooking meat on a grill hearkens back to our ancestors’ simple meals.
From a culinary standpoint, one of the key advantages to grilling is the unique flavour profile it imparts to food. “If you’re frying, you’re always frying in fat,” says Sysco Corporate Chef Bob Villeneuve. “A grill allows it to drain away.” That factor combined with higher heat gives grilled foods their distinct flavour and texture: the outside gets intense surface heat, so it forms a faster-cooked shell while the inside roasts, resulting in that combination of textures we associate with grilled foods.
One other distinctive characteristic of grilled foods is also a result of its high surface contact heat – a very hot, bottom-up heat, with a surface temperature of around 900 degrees Fahrenheit. This type of heat results in the carmelization of the natural sugars in the meat, or in whatever food is on the grill.
“That’s what that distinctive grilled flavour is,” Villeneuve says: caramelized sugar. It’s also what colours the criss-cross markings that immediately identify grilled foods.You can grill anything that you can physically put on a grilling surface – meaning any food that can withstand the grilling process without falling apart. Unlike a flat cooking surface, the ridges on the grill will only provide a limited amount of structural support for whatever food is cooking. Fragile foods tend to fall apart when manipulated on a grill. A delicate fish – such as sole, for example – is too fragile and will just disintegrate. But other fish and seafood, such as salmon and shrimp, lend themselves very well to grilling.
Any meat or poultry can be grilled, and just about any vegetable fares well on the grill. A lot of fruit also lends itself well to this cooking process. Pineapple, pear and peach are just a few examples of fruit that comes alive on a grill.
The main health advantage of grilling foods is that you don’t have to add fat while cooking. Although many grilled foods are healthier choices than fried options, and many nutrition guides recommend grilling – along with broiling and baking – as part of a health-conscious diet, it may be misleading to say that grilled food is inherently low in fat. Although no fat is added to grilled foods, and some fats will drip away during the cooking process, a fatty cut of meat will still retain a lot of its fat when grilled.
“The main thing about grilling from a foodservice standpoint is -- it’s pretty key,” Villeneuve says. “About 80% of restaurants have a grill. For some it’s almost the only piece of equipment. It’s the backbone of the kitchen.”
One of the factors that makes it so indispensable is its versatility. Grilling is the most versatile cooking method because it encompasses so many different ingredients, and so many cultural styles of grilling. It probably crosses a broader culinary spectrum than any other method of cooking.
“There’s the big grills of the southwestern U.S., and there’s the little street corner carts in Thailand,” Villeneuve says. “Both are grills.”
And of course there’s the backyard barbecue revered by Canadians from spring through early autumn, which helps make grilled foods so dear to our northern hearts.
Another factor that makes grills indispensable is customer expectation. When most people in Canada order a steak, they expect it to be grilled, Villeneuve says.
As a cooking trend, grilling has been at the forefront, and continues to remain there. The southwest influence, which has been big for the past 10 years but which many still consider to be new, is continuing. Chipotles, smoked jalapenos, southern barbecue and southern grill are popular options.
For foodservice operators, one of the newest trends is cooking meat on the bone.“We’re seeing a resurgence of grilling meats with the bone in,” Villeneuve says. “Rib eye steaks, veal chops, pork chops. It’s a more rustic look. People seem to like the idea of the bone still being attached.”
Only a kitchen workhorse as versatile and dependable as the grill could inspire a “new” trend that’s as old as gastronomy itself.