If you want to get a group of barbecue fanatics all fired up, just try using the words grilling and barbecuing interchangeably.
Barbecuing is a slow-cooking technique; smoking a pork shoulder for hours over wood chips would qualify. Grilling, on the other hand—as any purist will tell you—is the act of cooking something quickly over a flame. If you’re loading a tray of wieners or hamburgers onto a propane-fueled appliance in your backyard, you’re grilling. The use of extremely high heat has the advantage of sealing in moisture and flavor, imparting a pleasingly charred look and feel, and transporting us back to our prehistoric roots. (Depending on your preferred online source, evidence of man’s use of fire to cook food dates back tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of years. This column will not strive to resolve the archaeological discrepancies.)
Both grilling and barbecuing have plenty to recommend them, but I want to make the distinction plain before we consider the question at hand: At a time when it seems as though virtually everything on the modern menu has been seared, blackened, flame-broiled, fire-kissed, or otherwise scorched to perfection, what more is there for quick-serve or fast-casual concepts to do with grilling, the most primitive of cooking methods?
The answer, in my view, is two-fold: First, Western quick-serve concepts can turn to various other regions of the globe for inspiration, ingredients, and innovations. And second, they can consider ways to capture the aspects of grilling people love without necessarily applying fire to every element in a given dish. Let me take each of these in turn.
Grilling around the globe
In past columns, I’ve shared my enthusiasm for certain other grilling styles and flavor profiles from South America, Asia, and several Mediterranean nations. And since the last time I did so, in 2010, these trends have only gained greater traction on U.S. menus. Argentinean grilling, which typically takes the form of naked meat seared at high heat before being slathered with chimichurri sauce, has become a mainstay in many large North American cities in recent years. Plenty of restaurants offer their own variation on chimichurri, but the core elements typically are garlic, parsley, olive oil, vinegar, and crushed red pepper.
Indian grilling has taken off in the past several years, as well. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, there are numerous restaurants at various price points offering lamb, chicken, seafood, and other meats that have been marinated in yogurt and spices (including ginger, garlic, cumin, and cayenne pepper) before being committed to the withering heat of a tandoor, the traditional Indian clay oven. Japanese robata grilling relies on a special white-oak charcoal and extreme intense heat that coaxes a few drops of juice from the meat and vegetables. This, in turn, further stimulates the charcoal and sends fragrant, flavorful smoke hurtling back up toward the cooking rack. And Indonesian grilling is notable for the distinctive spices featured in many of its traditional marinades, particularly ginger, turmeric, lemongrass, and garlic.
For quick-serve and fast-casual chains, any one of these grilling styles, married to more traditional menu items, could hold the key to some interesting innovations. No, I don’t expect a multiunit sandwich chain to start serving skewers of traditional Greek souvlaki anytime soon. But what about popping grilled chunks of chicken or pork in a pita pocket, adding some fresh tomatoes and onions, and ladling on a little tzatziki sauce for a novel (and delectable) Westernized version of a Mediterranean lunch?
Smoke it if you’ve got it
The beauty of grilling is that the flavors and textures it imparts can color the character of an entire dish, even if the rest of the preparation hasn’t been anywhere near an open flame. Increasingly these days, we at CCD Innovation see restaurants creating sauces and salad dressings that feature as few as one or two grilled ingredients, but those ingredients’ presence has nothing short of a transformational effect. Vinaigrette dressings with grilled fennel, grilled jalapeño, grilled leeks, and various other herbs, spices, and vegetables are on menus from New York to Nashville to San Francisco nowadays. We’re also seeing upscale watering holes add bits of grilled fruit to their cocktails, which suggests that a piece of, say, fire-roasted pineapple or a grilled strawberry could do as much for a smoothie or soft drink as it might for an adult libation.
Elsewhere, grilling herbs and spices—from peppers and cinnamon to thyme, marjoram, oregano, and garlic—and adding those elements to oils or stir-fry sauces can bring a taste of the rugged outdoors to a dish prepared on a stovetop. And of course, there are innumerable inventive flavor-makers out there who can customize smoky concoctions using both natural and artificial ingredients.
The long and short of it is, grilling is big business, and there are numerous ways for concepts to exploit its popularity without replacing clamshells and griddles with large open grill pits. A little creativity, and maybe a hint of real fire, can do the job beautifully.