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How to grill super-fatty meats without over- or undercooking?

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I'm pretty good at grilling steak and seafood, but I have a lot of trouble grilling two of my favorite meats—pork belly and beef short ribs—which happen to be two of the fattiest meats on the planet.

The problem is flare-ups. The flare-ups burn the meat and deposit bitter soot.

I cook over lump charcoal. If I cook over the coals, I get the flare-ups. If I cook to the side of the coals, the meat doesn't get fully browned, because it doesn't get hot enough. Even if I put coals on one half of the grill and a drip pan on the other half, and move the meat to the cool side as soon as the flare-ups start, it's still too late: the meat gets burnt and sooty no matter how quickly I move it away from the flare-ups.

I imagine that there must be some technique or, more likely, equipment that will drain the fat away from the coals but still allow the meat to get heated by the coals. Yes?

I imagine the Koreans or Japanese have some good solutions to this vexing problem. Maybe Japanese ishi-yaki (hot stone grilling) is the way to go, if I want to cook as caveman as possible?

Notes:

1. I don't use marinades, seasonings, bastes, brines, glazes, etc. due to various food intolerances I have and my caveman philosophy. I just throw the meat on the grill, cook it, salt it, and eat it. I don't know whether such adulteration would help, in any way, but regardless, those are steps I'm not comfortable taking.

2. I know some people advise using a spray bottle with water to control flare-ups, but my research and experience suggest that that is not a good idea, for various reasons (e.g., spreading the grease, smothering the fire, limited effectiveness).

3. I imagine someone might suggest using the broiler instead of the grill. This isn't a solution for me because charcoal grilling is my passion, and besides, I don't even own (or want to own) a gas broiler, and my electric broiler sucks.

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  1. Fat+fire=flareups. That's the simplicity of the issue. You either have to keep the fat away from the fire or the fire away from the fat. Find a method for containing the fat so that it doesn't drip onto the coals. Letting the meat rest on a sheet of aluminum foil as it cooks might work. Cut as much of the fat from the meat as possible before grilling. Arrange the fatty meat on a grate that parallels the coals instead of being directly over them. Cover the coals with a heavy grill or grate. Set the grill at an angle so the fat falls away from the hot coals. Bake them in the oven to render off the fat and finish them on the grill. Use a higher grade of charcoal (not that stuff in a bag from the home improvement center). Or any combination of the above ..... or an electric grill.

    3 Replies
    1. re: todao

      Hi Todao,

      Good suggestions. But I don't think any of them are right for me:

      > Letting the meat rest on a sheet of aluminum foil as it cooks might work.

      I'm looking for charcoal flavor. If I cook on foil, I might as well cook on the stove. Plus, aluminum is toxic, so I try to keep it away from my food.

      > Cut as much of the fat from the meat as possible before grilling.

      In my case, that defeats the purpose. What makes pork belly and short ribs taste so great is the fat.

      > Arrange the fatty meat on a grate that parallels the coals instead of being directly over them.

      Tried it. No matter how hot the coals are or how many coals I use, there's just not enough heat this way to properly brown the meat.

      > Cover the coals with a heavy grill or grate. Set the grill at an angle so the fat falls away from the hot coals.

      By "grill or grate," I assume you mean a griddle, or a non- or minimally perforated piece of metal. That's not a bad idea, but I'm concerned it would diminish or eliminate the charcoal flavor. Plus, setting it up just right could be a major operation.

      >Use a higher grade of charcoal (not that stuff in a bag from the home improvement center).

      I use 100% natural high-quality lump charcoal only.

      >Or an electric grill.

      Goes against my caveman philosophy, and my desire for charcoal flavor.

      1. re: damian

        The fat is the good part, so it makes me a bit sad that you would let it melt and drip onto the coals.

        Here's an idea, which I have never tried, inspired by David Chang. He prepares pork belly by rendering the fat in an oven and cooking it confit-style at low temperature. Maybe you can adapt this to your style of cooking. Can you find an acceptable way to render out the fat while cooking at a low temperature, then later finish it on the grill to acquire that charcoal flavor you desire, while basting the pork in its own fat? I might even use leftover fat as a dipping sauce for the pork.

        1. re: FoodPopulist

          Good idea. Thanks. Someone else suggested cooking it over a drip pan to the side of coals to start, then finishing it over the coals, which would serve the same purpose. Not sure if that will reduce flare-ups enough, but it's worth a shot!

    2. Cook them indirectly, off to side of the hot coals. When they are near done, finish the meat over direct heat. You will get the grilled, smokey flavor and a finishing char without burning.

      5 Replies
      1. re: MGZ

        That sounds great, in theory, but in my experience, the flare-ups start within seconds of putting the meat over the coals. Keep in mind that pork belly and short ribs are *extremely* fatty, so the fat starts dripping in copious amounts very, very quickly. I expect this would happen even if I start cooking them over indirect heat, but perhaps I'm wrong.

        Have you actually tried this successfully with pork bellies or short ribs, or are you just brainstorming here?

        1. re: damian

          I'm just brainstorming, but this would be my suggestion as well - indirect heat to get the meat to desired doneness (and to render some of the fat), then a quick sear over high. Pat the meat with paper towels before putting over high heat to remove any surface grease. You could also try placing a drip pan with a bit of water in it directly under the meat to catch the grease (both while they're cooking over indirect and direct heat) - the water will keep the grease from burning, but it might also create too much steam to allow for great browning. You'll have to experiment a bit.

          1. re: biondanonima

            Thanks. You might be right. Perhaps I'll give the method you suggest a try, though I'd also be interested in hearing from someone who's actually tried this or another technique to successfully grill super-fatty meat.

            I also just bought myself a grilling stone (ishi-yaki, in Japanese). Hopefully, that will work well.

          2. re: damian

            I have successfully prepared beef short ribs, as well as other fatty cuts* in this manner. I would not have suggested something that I have no experience with. There are no coals under the meat for the vast majority of the cooking time, therefore there are no flare ups. Placing a pan under the meat is the common practice, but it's primarily done to permit easy clean up. By the time the meat is placed directly over the coals, it is basically cooked - you are simply crisping and/or caramelizing any finishing sauce.**

            * e.g, beef rib bones, pork shoulder chunks, duck breast, chicken skin, etc. My only experience with pork belly on the grill was basically just a higher heat smoking approach.

            **I will often use a rub of some kind, usually salt, pepper, paprika, and/or ground chile. I see no reason not doing this would impact the process adversely.

            1. re: MGZ

              Good idea! Thanks! I'll plan to give it a try!

        2. Flare-ups are going to happen when you grill fatty cuts of meat over an open flame.

          Koreans and Japanese cooks have no secret to this. It happens to them as well.

          Ever go to a Korean BBQ? Flare-ups happen.

          1 Reply
          1. re: ipsedixit

            I have been to Korean BBQ, but I don't remember flare-ups being such a problem, for perhaps a couple of reasons:

            1. I've been to Korean BBQ that uses charcoal and Korean BBQ that uses natural gas. For the latter, they had specially designed dome-shaped grids that drained most of the fat away from the flame. I don't know whether it would be possible to get a grid like that for charcoal, though that may be something I ought to look into.

            2. Korean BBQ often (but not always) uses marinades. And even when it doesn't use marinades, it often uses paper-thin cuts of meat, which requires freezing and an electric meat slicer. Since I'm using fresh grass-fed meat and pasture-raised pork, and I'm not interested in freezing it and buying and using an expensive meat slicer, I can't get it that thin. And due to dietary intolerances and my caveman philosophy, I don't use marinades.

            The marinades may not stop the flare-ups, but the flavors and antioxidants in the marinades may cover up the burnt or sooty parts of the meat.

            And the thinness of many Korean BBQ meats may minimize the fat, and hence the flare-ups as well. Plus, super-thin meat cooks extremely quickly and is therefore less vulnerable to flare-ups.

            As for the Japanese, they have ishi-yaki, hot stone grilling. Since I'm not willing to use marinades or cut meat paper-thin, ishi-yaki may be my best bet (I just ordered a stone in the mail, and I'm looking forward to trying it).

          2. Raise the grill.

            1 Reply
            1. re: Veggo

              It's a good idea, but I'd have to raise it four feet above the grill to avoid the ginormous flare-ups, in which case I wouldn't get enough heat to brown the food. I'll have to find another solution!

            2. What kind of grill are you using? I don't grill pork belly or short ribs (though both sound great! What's your rec's on prep and seasoning?), but I know that no matter what I cook on my Weber Kettle, if I have flare-ups i need only to pop the cover on, maybe close a vent a bit. The flames subside quickly - less oxygen, no flames. From there it is up to you how often you lift the lid, how much you move the food, etc.... it's your dance between high heat and flare-ups. I still recommend building your fire to one side, leaving a "safe zone" where you can move the food if needed. To sear something over high heat, I will sometimes leave the lid a bit askew, allowing more air for a hotter fire, but still holding down flames. If there's a flare, the lid goes on tightly.

              5 Replies
              1. re: Cheez62

                That reminds me that I did not make it clear that I too will employ a closed lid for both steps.

                1. re: MGZ

                  Thanks for clarifying. I'll give that a try.

                2. re: Cheez62

                  I'm using a Weber Kettle too. I'll give your tips a try. Thanks!

                  1. re: Cheez62

                    To answer your question re recommendations on preparation and seasoning:

                    Personally, I use zero seasoning. As I said before, that's just due to my personal food intolerances and caveman philosophy. This makes cooking it to palatability much more challenging, but not impossible. On the rare instances in which I haven't burned or undercooked short ribs and pork belly, I've had some of the most delicious meals I've ever eaten simply by grilling, salting, and eating.

                    If you're interested in seasoning and marinating, look up Korean recipes. The Koreans really are the experts on grilling short ribs and pork belly, in my opinion. Note that Koreans also frequently cook short ribs and pork belly without seasoning or marination, as far as I know, and then eat them with a dipping sauce.

                    The cutting method is also important. I've tried many different ways of cutting short ribs, and my current favorite is called flanken cut, Korean-style, or LA-style. Basically, the cut is through the bone into ~1/4 inch slices. The traditional Korean cut in Korea is different, but in Los Angeles, a number of years ago, from what I've heard, Korean-Americans started cutting it this way with a band saw, which is why it is called "Korean style" in the United States in general, and "LA style" within the Korean community. The advantages to this cut are (1) it is the easiest way to get it thin, if your butcher will do it for you, and (2) cutting against the "grain" of the meat this way (i.e., through the fibers) makes it much more tender than cutting with the grain. Alternatively, if you have a Korean market in your area, you may be able to find paper-thin frozen short ribs, either bone-in or boneless, which I've found cooks even better, but may be lower quality meat than what you can find from your local butcher (especially if you eat grass-fed, like me).

                    As for pork belly, it's simple: Just buy a hunk, remove the skin, and cut it into strips like bacon. Or, better yet, ask the butcher to do all that for you :)

                    1. re: damian

                      The best preparations of pork belly I have enjoyed were in "little hunks" and not strips.

                  2. Let it Burn!

                    Hot heat/coals, thin/very thin slices, plan on turning once. On a "stick" works too, soak bamboo, thread protein on bamboo stick. When I turn, I use: fork, spatula, tongs. Very hot coals, cook for a minute or so, then turn.

                    Salt/Season before laying on the grill. You want to concentrate on cooking the meat once it is on the grill, get your utensils ready.

                    Thin slices; pork shoulder/boston butt/rib eye; 1/4" to 1/8". Meat with bones; ~1/4" thick.

                    All of the other comments are correct: fat + fire = flareups. Minimize the time over the fire.

                    A sugar/shoyu based marinade can increase the carmelization vs time.

                    Try foil with holes cut in it, similar method, lay protein flat on foil, lay foil on grill, cut holes in foil between protein. You will want very high heat, if it didn't work, simmered vs charred protein, your heat wasn't high enough. To me, foil is similar to using training wheels.

                    For thicker pork belly, par boil it; a favorite is to simmer in teriyaki for ~20-30 min, then grill over
                    indirect headgrill, boil teriyaki, after ~15 min, dunk pork belly in teriyaki "glaze" and finish over direct heat. First cook to season/render, then roast, then grill.

                    For shortribs, get english cut, and trim off the fat, and cook over med not high heat coals. Trim off the Fat! Hold your hand over the heat for 5-7 seconds. Can't do it, then the heat it too hot.

                    1. My very simple solution to control flare-up is to use the lid of your bbq grill to cut off the O2.

                      What I do with my kettle grill is to leave the vent at the bottom fully open and use the vent on the lid to control the air flow.

                      For fatty foods, you'll probably cook with the lid on for about 95% of the cooking time.

                      If you have a charcoal grill with no lid, buy one with a lid. A 22.5" Weber Silver edition kettle grill was $99 at Home Depot last week. You can find less expensive non-Weber kettle grills for around $50.

                      Water bottles are terrible because it kicks up the soot/ashes onto your food.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: dave_c

                        Thank you. This is very helpful. I'll give it a try.

                      2. Another approach would be to use a hair dryer to blow the ash off the coals and put the meat directly on the coals for a minute or two on each side, then finish cooking on the grill via indirect heat. (Hat tip to Alton Brown's method for cooking butterflied skirt steak this way.)

                        5 Replies
                        1. re: Karl S

                          That sounds pretty cool (no pun intended), but don't the coals burn the meat, isn't there always going to be some ashes left on the coals, and isn't it difficult to cook evenly because the coals don't create a smooth surface?

                          I can see why this would work with skirt steak, because skirt steak is *much* leaner than pork belly and short ribs, but I'm concerned that this would create enormous flare-ups with fatty cuts of meat.

                          1. re: damian

                            Ok, it's just one minute, then in foil. Fat doesn't have time to render and doesn't splatter/aspirate. Skirt steak actually has a fair bit of surface fat.

                            http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/al...

                            1. re: Karl S

                              Very clever. Thanks. Perhaps I'll give it a try.

                              1. re: damian

                                Obviously, you will need to cook it longer than skirt steak, but you could adapt this by moving it to indirect heat to finish cooking. (If you want to keep the foil open at top, that will help enhance the smokey flavor, I would imagine; I think the final resting off heat in closed foil is a good idea.)

                                1. re: Karl S

                                  Makes sense. Thanks. I'll put it on my list of things to try.

                        2. Yes, I also put a lid on it. We hardly ever grill with the lid off.
                          With fatty cuts, I usually simmer or roast them to render some of the fat off, then finish on the grill.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: wyogal

                            Grilling with the lid on seems to be the theme here. I always prefer to grill with the lid off, to heighten the heat and have more control over the food, but it sounds like I need to start cooking with the lid on to reduce flare-ups. I'll give it a try.