Dave Carrier knows that grilling is much more than crafting a meal — it’s creating art. The owner of Certified Burger and Beverage on St. Simons Island finds the entire process to be almost meditative and cathartic.
“I really think it is so relaxing. You sit and watch the fire dance, it’s almost like water in a stream ... it has that same soothing feel to it,” he said. “Then everything cooks down and the embers are glowing. You almost transcend to another state of mind.”
There will be a lot of folks looking to get on that level of zen this weekend. Summer, also known as the “grilling season,” will officially kick off on Monday, which is Memorial Day. Carrier knows that a lot of happy memories are often associated with these types of gatherings. And he has a few tried and true tips to help make these dinners extra special.
The best burgers (and honestly any grilled meal) begins long before the fire is lit. It starts in the aisles of markets and stores.
“The first thing is that you want good, quality meat or vegetables. That’s the first piece. So you have to find those at a farmer’s market like Uncle Don’s (on St. Simons Island),” Carrier said.
As far as selecting meats, he always opts for those with the least amount of interference or processing. Sticking as close to nature as possible is always his guiding principle.
“There are a lot of schools of thought about ‘organic,’ and hormones versus no hormones ... all that sort of thing. In my opinion, there really isn’t anything like good, sustainably raised meat ... and I’ve had it all,” Carrier said. “Make sure the chicken, beef, pork or fish is really high quality. That’s a crucial step.”
Once the meat and produce are secured, the question often becomes — to marinate or not to marinate. Carrier is not opposed to the practice but also wants to avoid overpowering the taste of the food. Instead, he likes to create layers of flavor, gently building the taste from the ground up.
“A lot of people will marinate their meat for hours and hours, but the problem with marinade is that it hides the flavor of the meat,” he said. “It can really suck the flavor out of food. So when you get a good piece of meat, you want to layer the flavor with salt, aromatic vegetables like shallots or onions, spice and pepper.”
To do that, a cast-iron pan can be used with butter, shallots, vegetables and spices, sautéed together then set on top of a gas grill. Once the meat has be initially introduced to the heat, it can be removed and placed in the pan to finish the cooking process.
“That layers the flavors. It’s all about building those layers that makes your end result balanced yet complex,” he said.
That’s not the only foundation. Carrier also likes to build a flavorful fire. While everyone has their preference, adding wood to the mix really ramps up the taste.
“I’m a huge advocate of wood. I think that Bennie’s Red Barn has the best steaks here because they cook it over wood charcoal,” he said. “You start with wooden logs then it becomes coal. It has a huge impact on flavor and that is crucial.”
Heat is equally important. While Carrier doesn’t have a particular brand of grill he favors, he does maintain that the fire must be intense.
“A lot of people swear by the Green Egg, and I love cooking on those too,” he said. “But the way I use a grill, you can get the same effect from an inexpensive grill at Parker’s, one of the disposables, as you could with a Weber or something else. The key is to get it really hot. I have actually used a leaf blower on a fire to oxygenate it.”
While heat is obviously a must when it comes to grilling, it can be too much of a good thing. Carrier says that a fire too hot can scorch the meat. This can be remedied by simply removing the burger from the grill until it cools down or by using a griddle to provide a buffer.
“You should start extremely hot and you can come down off of it. If you’re using a gas grill, you can put the griddle on top which would be another layering piece. You can use the melting fat to keep the flavor rather than it falling into the grill,” he said.
“Also if you’re using a gas grill with the steak directly on it, you can use two burners that are really hot. Put the meat on the really hot burner to get a good sear then turn the fire down and move it to the other side and use indirect heat so you don’t burn or scorch it. That’s a good way to get a medium or rare temperature.”
Carrier notes that these are all tips and tricks that take some time to master. But he encourages would-be grill masters to embrace experimentation rather than worrying about following the rules.
“Cooking is like a science experiment every time. There are so many variables. I just think that a lot of times we’re so quick to following the recipe — three minutes per side for instance — but cooking, especially grilling, is about observation,” he said. “Recipes are a guide but you have to pay attention and tune into it. Don’t be afraid. Use your common sense and observation skills.”