What, Exactly, Is a Flare-Up?
Imagine the best burger you've ever tasted. Hot off the grill, beefy and juicy, with just the right amount of char. What's the secret to making that perfect burger every time you fire up your backyard grill? Does it lie in the meat, the seasonings, the toppings, the type of charcoal? As it turns out, much of the flavor we love comes from a source that may surprise you. While well-chosen ingredients and a good recipe never hurt, the key to getting those complex smoky flavors is mastering the flare-up: the visible flame that bursts up when cooking juices hit the coals.
Though many of us have been taught to avoid flare-ups, they're not entirely bad. Think of each burst of fire as a burst of flavor. When those sizzling drippings send up licks of flame, that means sugars, proteins and fats from your food are undergoing combustion, creating all sorts of tasty aromas. Those flavorful gases then rise on plumes of hot air to coat the meat, giving it the mouthwatering smokiness we associate with grilled food.
How to Tame the Flames
If flare-ups build flavor, why do grilling experts seem far more interested in putting them out? Well, as with most techniques that involve fire, a little goes a long way. Flare-ups that get out of control can spray your burgers with soot or, worse, send them up in smoke. After all, the last guests you want at your backyard bash are your local firefighters -- at least when they're on duty. Thus grill masters have come up with all sorts of techniques for avoiding this incendiary outcome, from raising the grate above the flames to moving food around with tongs. But when you're trying to tend your burgers while, say, chatting with early-bird guests or keeping an eye on a curious new puppy, you probably want a simpler method.
So here's our favorite way to quickly and easily calm down those flare-ups: Find a spray bottle and fill it with cool water, or for an extra spritz of flavor, wine or beer, and keep it within arm's reach as you grill. Whenever flare-ups threaten to engulf your food, spray them -- or the food itself -- with cold liquid. The flames will die back just after kissing your burgers with flavor, and you'll have the best of both worlds: all the smoky taste controlled flare-ups bring with them, but no burned spots on your burgers. Who says where there's smoke, there has to be fire?
Watch and see just how quickly this technique can douse the flames: