This is the season of outdoor parties and cookouts, as self-professed grill masters and weekend warriors deftly show off live-fire cooking skills in front of family and friends. That is, until the grill flares up and those beautiful steaks are reduced to charcoal and we’re peeling them off the grill through a cloud of smoke.
It’s an all-too-common tragedy. What if there was an easier way?
My challenge was always fish, which would glue itself to the grill whether I oiled the fillets or the grill racks, or both. Then I noticed restaurant chef Michael Cimarusti lightly brush delicate halibut fillets with mayonnaise before grilling. Yes, mayo. He explained that the mayonnaise keeps the fish from sticking to the grill. He adds a very thin layer, “so it’s almost not there.”
This isn’t the first I’d heard about cooking with mayonnaise. It’s often touted as the fat of choice, particularly when making a grilled cheese sandwich.
But what about the grill?
“This is an area I’m playing a lot more with now. Mayonnaise really works,” said Meathead Goldwyn, founder of the popular website AmazingRibs.com and author of “Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling.” “It sticks really well to the food, helps release food from the hot grill surface, and gets a beautiful golden color.”
Part of the reason mayonnaise works so well is because of its composition. “Mayonnaise is an emulsion, which means you have small droplets of oil surrounded by egg yolk, and that has a couple of really cool properties,” said Greg Blonder, professor of product design and engineering at Boston University and co-author of Goldwyn’s cookbook.
This emulsion allows the oils in mayonnaise to stick to food, unlike plain oil. Oil and water don’t mix, which is why it’s hard to get the fat to adhere to foods you want to grill.
“Mayonnaise acts like little time-release oil capsules, and you can put it on thick. And the emulsifiers like to stick to the meat,” Blonder said. Mayonnaise is a great release agent for meat, and is particularly helpful for grilling chicken and fish.
Where oil only heats and browns the food thermally, mayonnaise also browns food chemically – that golden-brown color – through the Maillard reaction, which requires sugars and proteins to work; as these are heated, the nonenzymatic reaction produces browning. “When you just put regular oil on meat, it doesn’t bring these to the table. It only brings fat,” Blonder said.
Mayonnaise may help foods retain moisture as they cook on the grill. “Chicken breasts – they’re the world’s driest food. Mayo is one way to make them moist,” Goldwyn said.
One of the reasons people may be afraid to try mayonnaise is flavor. “They think it will add flavor. But that’s the thing. It doesn’t alter the flavor” of the food, Goldwyn said.
Mayonnaise works well as a vehicle for other flavors. “It’s a white canvas you can flavor with almost anything,” Goldwyn said, including just about anything in your spice rack. “I call it mayo mojo.”
PERFECT GRILLED STEAK
2 (1-pound) thick-cut boneless rib-eye steaks, prime or choice grade
4 to 6 tablespoons mayonnaise
Maldon or other coarse sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Temper the steaks: Remove the steaks from the refrigerator and set aside to come to room temperature, about 1 hour. Blot the steak on all sides with paper towels to remove excess moisture.
Brush a thin layer of mayonnaise over both sides of the steak. Season each steak on each side with 1 teaspoon Maldon salt, or as desired, along with several grinds of black pepper.
Heat a gas grill over medium-high heat until hot. Add the steaks and grill for about 3 minutes on one side, then rotate the steaks and grill for another 3 to 4 minutes. Flip the steaks over and repeat, grilling each steak for a few minutes, and then rotating to get good grill marks.
Check the steaks for desired doneness. Remove the steaks to a cutting board several minutes to give the meat time to rest. Slice and serve.
GRILLED AVOCADO WITH MARINATED TOMATO SALAD
MARINATED TOMATO SALAD
¼ cup olive oil
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ red onion, very thinly sliced lengthwise
6 large basil leaves, very thinly sliced
2 tablespoons capers, drained and crushed
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 pints ripe grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
In a non-reactive bowl, whisk together the oil, vinegar, mustard, salt and several grinds of black pepper. Stir in the onion, basil, capers and garlic. Gently fold in the tomatoes. Cover and refrigerate at least 3 hours before serving, up to overnight.
2 large ripe avocados
2 to 3 tablespoons mayonnaise
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Prepared marinated tomato salad
Halve the avocados and discard the seeds. Brush the cut interior of the avocados with a layer of mayonnaise (this will also keep them from browning before grilling). Season each half with a sprinkling of salt and a couple grinds of pepper.
Heat a grill over medium-high heat until hot.
Place the avocados cut-side down on a grill rack. Grill the halves for a couple of minutes. Using tongs, rotate the halves slightly for good grill marks and grill for another couple of minutes. Remove to a serving platter, cut-side up.
Spoon the tomato salad over the avocados and serve immediately.
GRILLED POTATOES WITH PARMESAN, GARLIC AND ROSEMARY
2 large baking potatoes
½ cup mayonnaise
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Cook the potatoes: Prick the potatoes several times all over with a fork. Place the potatoes on a paper towel in the microwave. Cook the potatoes over high heat for 5 minutes. Prick the potatoes with a knife to see if they are just tender (do not overcook), cooking an additional minute at a time if needed. The potatoes can also be cooked, on a baking sheet, in a 400-degree oven for an hour or so until tender. Cool cooked potatoes to room temperature.
While the potatoes are cooling, make the spread: In a bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, Parmesan cheese, garlic and rosemary. Season with salt and several grinds of pepper, or to taste.
Cut the cooled potatoes crosswise into 1-inch thick slices. Liberally brush the spread on each cut side of the potato slices.
Heat a grill over medium-high heat until hot. Place the potato slices on the grill racks. Grill the potatoes for 1 to 2 minutes, then rotate to get good grill marks. After another minute or so, flip the slices over. Grill the potatoes on the other side for a few minutes, rotating partway for grill marks.
Remove the potatoes to a plate and cool slightly before serving.
GRILLED SALMON WITH DILL
4 (6-ounce) center-cut salmon fillets
2/3 cup mayonnaise
¼ cup chopped fresh dill
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Lemon wedges, for serving
Pat the salmon fillets dry.
Make a dill spread: In a bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, dill, salt and several grinds of black pepper. Brush the spread over the salmon fillets on all sides.
Heat a grill over medium-high heat until hot. Place the fillets flesh-side down on the grill. Grill for about 6 minutes on one side, rotating partway through for good grill marks. Flip the fish over and continue grilling, skin-side down until the fish is cooked to desired doneness, about 6 minutes more.
Remove to a platter and serve garnished with lemon wedges.