It’s obvious that Meathead Goldwyn knows a lot about meat—but it must be said that after nearly half a century of eating and drinking for a living, he knows a lot of other things, too. His site, AmazingRibs.com, is not only a font of BBQ and meat-centric grilling wisdom, but a resource for information on safety, cocktail recipes, and food science. Being very generous, Meathead was nice enough to hop on the phone and share some of the knowledge he’s accumulated throughout his years in food, including his love for real balsamic, his disdain for The Big Green Egg, and how he makes a true grilled cheese sandwich.
Location: Chicago, IL
Let me begin by saying I love the video of your fridge that you sent.
I went to take a picture of my fridge and I decided, you know, I’ve got a bunch of stuff in here. Why don’t I do a video? And why just limit it to the fridge?
I have specific questions about the contents of the fridge, but I want to start with a general overview. What do you usually eat for breakfast?
I’m not hungry in the mornings. I usually don’t eat anything until 11 o’clock or so when I have some fruit. And then usually around one or two I might make a sandwich. I love shakshuka—a couple of eggs cracked into some tomato sauce. That’s wonderful. I do the occasional grilled cheese sandwich or tuna just in a bowl. Tuna with some chopped pickles and or even egg salad. That’s my typical lunch.
Do you do a sweet pickle or a dill pickle?
My wife makes her own sweet pickle relish. We’re gardeners, or I should say she’s the gardener—she’s actually studying to be a master gardener. We have been gardening ever since we met 40-some years ago. One of my favourite things that you saw in the fridge is the pickled green tomatoes, which you find in a lot of Jewish delis. In the autumn, there’s green tomatoes left on the vine that just don’t ripen. She made a jam out of them this year, which was really quite good. I guess it proves that if you add enough sugar to anything, you can make a jam.
And she, by the way, is the best cook in the house. And I’m not saying that—she’s not within earshot. She is a jazz cook. I am a symphonic cook. She’ll take a little of this and little of this, and 30 minutes later, it all comes together in a glorious dish. I have to work from a recipe like an orchestra leader. I have to have a musical score in front of me. If I’m trying to develop a recipe, I can improvise, but I start by writing it down. She’s Miles Davis and I’m Tchaikovsky.
What kind of cheese do you put on your grilled cheese?
Whatever’s in multiples in the cheese bin. I taste my way around the cheese department; I’m always buying interesting cheeses. I usually start with a cheddar, and we keep sliced Swiss cheese and Colby and pepperjack, and I might make a mishmash of all of ‘em. I also prefer to grill my grilled cheese. I mean, come on now. It’s called “grilled cheese,” and you’re talking to Meathead here. I love to make it on a nice thick Texas toast, and I use mayonnaise on the exterior, and I cook it on the grill, just right on top of the grill and flip, flip, flip. It gets golden with a couple of good grill marks and has a little smoky character. It’s delicious. I have a gas grill right outside my back door and my back door is just a few steps from the kitchen. So it’s no fuss, no muss; just fling open the door, toss it on the grill.
How many grills do you have?
Too many to count. It’s a constant rotating cast of characters. About a year or so ago, my wife laid down the law: One comes in, one goes out, because the deck is groaning under the weight of everything that’s out there. But there’s a good old fashioned Weber Kettle.
If you’re cooking for the public, you’ve got to be able to make sure that whatever you’re cooking will work on a Weber kettle. I have a gas grill, only I have the absolute coolest, bestest gas grill known to man. It’s a Hestan. And, you know, a pellet smoker, a gas smoker, charcoal smoker, a Big Green Egg, which I hate.
I was just going to ask how you felt about the Green Egg.
I’m not a fan. Don’t get me started. “Eggheads,” they call themselves—they’re like Krishnas. They worship this green God. And if you dare say anything about it—negative—you get death threats. It’s a fine oven, but it is not by any stretch of the imagination, a good grill.
A good grill must be easily divided into two zones. Infrared radiation is vastly different than convection airflow, and you have to have both in a good grill. And it’s almost impossible to set up the Big Green Egg so that you can have two zones easily. You can do it but it’s a pain in the neck, and it’s very easy on a Weber Kettle. Plus it’s that big, thick, heavy ceramic. Once it heats up, it takes forever to cool down, and cooking is all about temperature control. I’ve done some wonderful pizzas it. I’ve baked breads on it. I’ll do smoked meats on it, but I wouldn’t grill a steak on it.
Going back to the cheeses briefly: What do you think the best burger cheese is?
American cheese is the cheese of choice for cheeseburgers. It has the right flavour and melting capacity. There’s a whole science to melting cheeses—what makes a cheese meltable? I’ve written about it. But if you’re going to make a cheeseburger, you’ve got to have something that will melt on contact with hot ground beef.
You can put a dome over it to help it along, but a lot of cheeses just don’t melt quickly enough. When you’ve got that burger flipped over, you’ve got just a couple of minutes between flipping it and it being done, and you’ve got to get that cheese melted. American cheese is absolutely perfectly designed for it. And it tastes like a cheeseburger! It’s like, if you’re going to make peanut butter and jelly you don’t use sunflower seed butter. You use peanut butter.
Do you like crunchy or creamy peanut butter?
And what kind of jelly?
We keep a bunch of jellies around here and we make make our own. I have some grape vines—a seedless green grape from the New York Agricultural Experiment Station that’s designed for cool climates like we have here called “Himrod.” It’s a wonderful green table grape, and we had a huge crop a couple of years ago. I only had like six vines, but I picked almost a bushel. We made some wonderful juice, some wonderful jelly, and then I cooked it down and made cotto, which is the stuff that real balsamic vinegar is made from. And that makes a wonderful jam or jelly or spread. The red raspberry from Smuckers—that’s my favourite, I think. Fig jam. We were in Florida recently and we got a pineapple and orange marmalade that was lovely.
What is “real balsamic”?
In Modena, where they make balsamic, they don’t have really good regulations over the name, so it’s fairly easy to make an industrial vinegar by taking red wine vinegar, cooking it a little, adding some sugar and some food colouring and just labelling it “balsamic.” I’ve written about it at length, but true balsamico tradizionale is made from a specific couple of grapes, in a specific way.
It’s cooked down into cotto, then it’s aged in what they call a “batteria”—a battery of barrels, and there can be up to 13, 14 barrels in a battery. Often there are a variety of woods like walnut and chestnut and cherry and oak. It takes many years. Anytime you see an age on a balsamic you know it’s not true balsamic. Balsamic is made like a sherry. They put it in a barrel and as it ages, they move it to the next barrel and top off the next barrel. Then the big barrel gets this year’s crop in it. So it’s a blend and it goes all the way down. And the oldest barrel may have stuff that’s 25, 30 years old, but it’s multiple vintages, essentially.
It’s one of these exotic rare foods like truffles and caviar. And because we’re gardeners, we grow fresh tomatoes and it just makes the most extraordinary caprese. We don’t use it like crazy, but I always have a bottle of this stuff. It’s good on ice cream and on strawberries. It’s a little thinner than a syrup, but it’s just extraordinary. Very sweet, but also very, very tart. I can drink it straight from the bottle. And you can, too. It’s almost like a liqueur.
Do you have a wine cellar?
A small wine cellars, with a capacity of about fifteen cases or so. I occasionally go to charity auctions and I buy something special there and we age them, but most everything we buy is under 15 bucks, Anybody can get a great wine for 20 bucks or more. The secret is, can you get a great wine for under 15? We drink wine with dinner every night, I really can’t afford to drink great Bordeaux every night. So we hunt and peck. Knowing a good wine merchant is better than knowing a good stockbroker. It’s right up there with knowing a good butcher. I have an excellent wine merchant and she turns me on to the good stuff.
Do you drink a lot of cocktails?
I am mostly a wino, but not long ago I discovered Negronis. I have become a Negroni addict. It’s just that perfect balance between bitter and sweet and tart. Pretty colour. Fragrant. I don’t do a lot of cocktails, but my next book has a whole chapter on cocktails touched by fire and smoke.
I noticed that the term “hedonism evangelist” has been applied to you.
I put that on my business card. I don’t know why I hung that name on myself. It has gotten some negative blowback from Christian fundamentalists. I’m into pleasure. Some philosophy for you. I’m an old man. I can have a philosophy now: You go through life, you only have five senses. Everything we know about the world is what we gather through these five senses. It’s criminal if you don’t use them all.
I think there’s this idea that food has to be bad for you to be pleasurable, but that’s not necessarily true.
Good lord, a ripe tomato? You put me next to a really ripe tomato and a beautiful steak, and it’s a tough choice. I love them both equally. Sweet corn? I don’t put butter or salt on my corn. We just steam it or grill it and I eat it naked. When our garden is in full flower, we’ll go a week without meat or multiple days. Once upon a time, I went 30 days without meat on a dare.
I was protesting CAFOs, the mistreatment of animals and food factories. It was not hard. We have eggplants. We got zucchinis, we got tomatoes, beans, peas, cucumbers—they’re all there! Peppers—oh we’re into the peppers. We can and preserve them. I smoke the peppers and make pimento. I make smoked paprika. I make a chipotle. She makes pickled relish, makes tomato sauces. Our tomato sauces are far superior to anything get in a jar.
Going back to the jars in your fridge: I noticed that you have margarine and butter, mayonnaise and Miracle Whip.
I’m AC/DC. I go both ways. We have creamy and crunchy peanut butter too. here are just some cases when you want something easy to spread, and when you want to just butter up a slice of bread or something and butter if your butter is as hard as a rock, margarine comes in handy. A lot of Europeans leave the butter out. We just don’t do that. I’m married to a food safety expert. We’re fairly careful about things of that sort, but maybe a little over obsessive. American butter is different than European butter anyhow.
How do you decide between mayonnaise and Miracle Whip?
Oh, God, I was hoping you wouldn’t ask this. My wife is the mayonnaise, and I’m the miracle whip. I have a sweet tooth. I love Miracle Whip. But do not put Miracle Whip on a grilled cheese sandwich. Only mayonnaise will work. You’re you’re familiar with that hack? I like it better than butter. And by the way, have you ever done mayonnaise on fish? It’s a very good anti-stick for fish, especially on a grill. I wrote about in my book several years ago, and now it’s catching on.
Ahead of the curve.
We were ahead of the curve on reverse sear, too. Way ahead of the curve on reverse. We’re experimental. We’re interested in the science.
Is reverse sear is your favourite way to prepare a steak?
A thick steak. It’s not a good technique for a thin steak. A thin steak you’ve got a hot, fast flash. But a thick steak, absolutely. We call it “redneck sous vide.”
How do you cook a chicken?
Many of them are spatchcocked on the grill. And some of them are done in the convection oven. The convention oven gets the skin really crispy and I love good, crunchy, crispy chicken skin. I am always surprised at how many chefs tell you to truss the legs. You want the dark meat to cook more than the white meat. If you truss the legs, you’re basically pulling it in so that it becomes a part of the thermal mass of the body, and the legs aren’t going to cook as much, and you’ll get way overcooked breasts.
If you let the legs fly, you’re going to get better air circulation around them and they will heat faster and cook more. Even Thomas Keller—all these guys—they’re always trussing the bird, and they put it in these roasting pans. You have to lift it up above the pan so the warm air can flow underneath it and cook the underside. I never cook a bird in a roasting pan. I cook it on a rack above a roasting pan, but not in a roasting pan.
And you absolutely must use digital thermometers, especially when cooking poultry. It is the single most important tool in the kitchen. This is 2020. Anyone who is not wedded to a digital thermometer doesn’t know how to cook, and is risking the health and welfare of their loved ones.
In the in the barbecue world, there’s a lot of chest thumping knuckle draggers who say “I don’t need a thermometer.” We’ve converted them. My wife has confided in me that she thinks we have sold more thermometers than USDA and FDA combined, because every single recipe on our website talks about the temperature at which you’re done. You just cannot risk overcooking a steak at current beef prices. Worse still, you don’t want to send grandma or junior to the hospital on the Fourth of July with undercooked chicken. Poultry is kryptonite if you don’t cook it properly, and the part of the chicken that stays coldest is that junction between the thigh and the body.
The other thing is to understand the different kinds of energy. When you’re cooking on a grill, you have three kinds of energy. You have conduction, which is what happens when the meat or the vegetables are in touch with metal, which can be very hot. Then you have airflow, and then you have radiation.
You can put your hand in a 90-degree C oven and hold it there for 30 seconds or a minute or even longer, and it won’t burn you. But if you touch the side of that oven, which is also 90 degrees, when you get back from the hospital, you’ll understand that it’s energy, not temperature that matters. They’re both two hundred degrees, but warm air isn’t going to scald you like that warm metal. Once you understand the three different kinds of energy, then you can actually cook.