As summer approaches, outdoor cooks are dusting off their grills and getting ready to savor the taste of barbequed food. To get some advice on safe grilling techniques, Associate Editor Amy Dunkin spoke to Evan Lobel, a fifth-generation butcher whose family has run Lobel's Prime Meats on Madison Avenue at 82nd Street in Manhattan since 1952 (www.lobels.com). To escape the noise from the busy store, Lobel, a co-author of Prime Time: The Lobels' Guide to Great Grilled Meats (Macmillan USA, $25), did the entire one-hour phone interview from inside the walk-in refrigerator, where the temperature is 35F. He was wearing short sleeves. Note: This is an extended, online-only version of the interview that appears in the June 2 issue of BusinessWeek.
Q: What's the biggest mistake people make with grilling?
People will baste continuously with the liquid that the meat or chicken was marinating in while raw. Stop basting halfway into the cooking process to make sure there's enough time for the bacteria in the marinade to burn off. Also, never pop the cooked meat back on the original plate.
Q: What's the best way to handle meat before you grill it?
A: Let a steak go to room temperature, but make sure it's covered with plastic wrap while sitting out. Always wash chicken in cold water, pat it dry with a paper towel, pour on the marinade, and put it back into the refrigerator. It should go from the refrigerator right to the grill. Same with ground beef.
Q: Meat blackened on a grill may contain carcinogens. So how do you avoid burning meat?
A: The most important thing is to trim the excess fat to avoid flareups. If you're using charcoal, don't put on the meat when the coals are at their hottest. That's the point after you light the coals when you no longer see any black charcoal left. Wait another 15 to 20 minutes before you start grilling. You can also raise the rack. The closer to the flames, the hotter the surface, the more charred the meat will get.
Q: How else do you ensure food safety?
A: Always wash your hands after handling raw meat, especially poultry. I would also use a charcoal chimney that lets you start coals with paper or an electric charcoal starter instead of lighter fluid. The jury is out on whether lighter fluid ever really burns out.
Q: How do you cook a thick hunk of meat so it doesn't burn on the outside and stay raw on the inside?
A: For a steak one or two inches thick, sear it over hot coals or a hot gas burner for a minute or two per side to keep the juices in. Then turn it three to five times per side and let it cook for a couple of minutes each time. I give it a quick brush with some olive oil, peppercorns, and garlic cloves every time I turn it.
Q: How do you know if it's done?
A: Put in an instant-read thermometer, but try not to poke the meat too many times. For rare, take it off when it has an internal temperature of 120F to 125F (130F to 135F for medium, 145F to 160F for well-done). It's very important for the steak to rest about 10 minutes before you slice it. That allows it to cool down a bit so the juices remain inside.
Q: How much time should you allow for preparation and cooking before you're ready to feed your guests?
A: The key is to get things going earlier than you planned. If you're making steak, I would start the grill about a half hour before you're ready to put the meat on. The coals take about 25 minutes to half an hour to get where you want them to be. The steak will take 10 to 20 minutes to cook, and you have to let it sit for 10 minutes. You're looking at about an hour all together.
Q: You emphasize buying the best cut of meat one can afford. Why is this important?
A: If you use a tough cut, such as brisket, for a type of cut, such as london broil, that you throw on a grill, the meat will be tough as nails. It needs a long-cooking process.
Q: How do you buy a good piece of meat?
A: We sell only dry-aged USDA prime quality beef -- only 2% of meat graded in this country is graded prime. Most of the meat is USDA choice or lower. You want to look for proper marbling (the threads of fat that run through the meat). You don't want to choose meat that looks to be swimming in blood. That could mean it has been thawed out or sitting in the package too long.
Don't buy something browned around the edges, or that looks deep dark red. Really red meat is more likely to come from an older steer and to be tough. The right color would be a rosy red and the fat should be a creamy, milky white.
Q: How do you get the most for your money?
A: For a special occasion, if someone is trying to economize, buy a whole tenderloin. With a few neat tricks, you can make a lot of dishes. It consists of three main sections: the head, the center (the part everyone thinks of as the filet mignon cut), and the tail. Chop off the head and tail and use the center for a dinner party of four to six people. The head can be sliced into bite-sized pieces for fondue or shish kebab. The tail can be sliced thinly for pepper steak.
Expect to pay $30 to $40 up to $125 or $130 for the tenderloin, depending on quality. If you bought it all separately, it would cost up to one-third more. And talk about healthy. The filet doesn't have outer fat and doesn't cause flare-ups.
Q: Can you give some background on your family business?
A: It was started by cattle farmers in Austria, I'm the fifth generation in the business. My grandfather, Morris, came over in the early 1900s, opened a shop in Boston, then he came to the West Side of New York, and in 1952, opened the store at our present location, 1096 Madison Ave. I'm in business with my father, uncle, and two cousins.
About three years ago, we started a virtual butcher shop, lobels.com. We ship only fresh, prime meat, overnight Federal Express. You can order just one steak if you choose. It's the same price per pound as the shop, excluding the cost of shipping.