Wednesday, March 3, 2010

4. Cooking Temperature: Measure Temperature

This is the first in the following series of blogs on the ideal cooking temperature for grilling a steak over live coals:

1. Cooking Temperature: Ideal Temperature
2. Cooking Temperature: 1600 Degrees?
3. Cooking Temperature: Need to Modify Grill Height
4. Cooking Temperature: Measure Temperature
5. Cooking Temperature: Measure Grill Height
6. Cooking Temperature: Calculate Ideal Grill Height
7. Cooking Temperature: Modify Grill Height
8. Cooking Temperature: Inverse Square Law

The ideal temperature for a backyard steak master to cook a steak on a grill over live coals is 750°, as measured at the grill level. As described in a previous blog, most grills are designed by the manufacturers for a temperature of only 370°.

In order to determine whether the grill owned by a backyard steak master needs modification, the temperature at the grill level should be measured. The easiest and most accurate way to measure this temperature is to use an infrared thermometer.

An infrared thermometer is the same one used by car mechanics to check disk brakes. It is also often used by backyard cooks to check the temperature of the oil when deep frying a turkey. If possible, the grill owner should borrow rather than purchase an infrared thermometer, since it is needed only once. If this is not possible, an infrared thermometer may be purchased online or at a local auto parts store for about $30.00.

Before measuring the grill temperature with an infrared thermometer, check its calibration with boiling water. To do this, bring a pan of water to a boil, and use the infrared thermometer to measure its temperature. It should measure 212F -- the boiling point of water at sea level. (If the altitude is significantly higher than sea level, then the boiling point of water will be higher. To find out the temperature for calibrating to boiling water, call a competent local chef, since all chefs should know the boiling point of water in their location.)

After calibrating the infrared thermometer, light the grill, using the same amount of charcoal as “normally” used.

What is the “normal” amount of charcoal? Every backyard steak master must learn how to use the same amount of charcoal, measured by weight, every time. To learn how much a “normal” amount weighs, fill a paper bag with this amount of lump charcoal, and then use a scale to weigh the bag. A bathroom scale works well: without holding the bag of charcoal, note the weight; then weigh, while holding the bad; the difference is the weight of the bag of lump charcoal.) Use this procedure to ensure that the “normal” amount of lump charcoal is used.

Light the lump charcoal, using no lighter fluid. After lighting, wait until the charcoal reaches its maximum temperature: when all the lumps of charcoal are covered with a layer of ash. Then use long tongs to break up any large the lumps and distribute the love coals evenly in the center of the charcoal grate.

Next, place the cooking grill over the live coals, and allow the temperature of the cooking grill to rise and stabilize, which may take 5 minutes. At this time, place a thin metal object (an empty beer can works perfectly -- just stomp it flat first) on the cooking grill, and allow it to heat up completely, which may takes 5 minutes. When it has reached its maximum temperature, use the infrared thermometer to measure its temperature. Move the metal object to different sections of the cooking grill, wait 5 minutes for the temperature to adjust, and take the temperature again. Repeat this several times, writing down the various temperatures and sections. This list will be useful in the future, so retain it.

The temperature on the hottest spot is the grill’s “current temperature” -- which means the temperature at grill level using a normal amount of lump charcoal.

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  1. Just one adjustment, higher elevation lowers the boiling point not, raises it. This is due to the barometric pressure being lower. For example, as stated, the boiling point at sea level is 212F. If for example you were in Denver, the boiling temp is 202F, in fact if you were to take the pressure to a vacuum, water boils at room temperature.

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