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Flipping Out: Why Turning Meat On The Grill Is A Good Thing

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Flipping a burger

Flip your meat a lot. Be the human rotisserie.

For years we have been told to not flip often and many cookbooks still perpetuate the myth. They tell you to leave the meat alone. But this defies logic, physics, and math. Watch this clip from famous chef Gordon Ramsey. Start at 54 seconds in.

In fact, there are so many errors in this I don’t know where to begin. Sigh.

When cooking a steak on a grill, for example, the energy comes from a single source, usually a bed of coals, or a gas burner. The energy source heats one side of the food with intense infrared energy. Just as if you are lying on the beach in the sun, the side facing the heat source browns, collects energy, and cooks much faster than the other sides. So you need to flip.

When you grill a steak, the side facing the energy source is getting pounded with intense energy. It quickly heats up and begins to store energy. Some of it works its way slowly through the meat towards the center, which you recall is about 75% water, a notoriously slow conductor. In fact, meat is a pretty good insulator. The result is the exterior gets nice and dark brown and flavorful, while the layer just beneath it turns pale brown, and beneath that it is tan, then pink, and finally a small portion of the steak, perhaps 1/3, is perfectly medium rare.

But if you flip the steak early in the process, much of the energy stored in the surface that faced the flame now faces up and radiates off into the air faster than down towards the center of the meat, so the interior warms much more slowly and does not overcook. Flip again and you start to build that crust while keeping more of the interior cool. Essentially, frequent flipping makes you a human rotisserie. The result is a steak with more optimally cooked meat. On a rotisserie, the meat gets hot, cool, hot, cool, and so on. The heat enters at about the same rate from all sides.

Food scientist Harold McGee first published the concept in Physics Today in November 1999 and in his landmark book “On Food And Cooking” in 2004. Kenji Lopez-Alt and I jumped on the bandwagon soon after, and Prof. Greg Blonder ran experiments that proved the theory in 2016. He proved that meat cooks 20 to 30% faster. In March 2022 Jean-Luc Thiffeault, a Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Wisconsin published a 12-page paper filled with equations in the peer-reviewed journal Physica D titled “The mathematics of burger flipping” a sample of which is shown here.

His conclusion? The same. Flip often. “We find that the optimal improvement in cooking time, given an arbitrary number of flips, is about 29% over a single flip.” And in 2022, Chris Young, co-author of the landmark tome, Modernist Cuisine, and inventor of the best-of-breed thermometer, Combustion.inc Watch his video:

How often to flip? Once a minute is too fast to build a dark crust. Every 2 to 3 minutes will do the trick.

Published On: 8/26/2022 Last Modified: 8/31/2022

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  • Meathead - Founder and publisher of AmazingRibs.com, Meathead is known as the site's Hedonism Evangelist and BBQ Whisperer. He is also the author of the New York Times Best Seller "Meathead, The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling", named one of the "100 Best Cookbooks of All Time" by Southern Living.

 

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