Ah, the sweet sizzle of cowflesh on a hot grill is music to a carnivore’s ears. Steak is one of the most common cuts of meat to hit the grill, but it’s also one that’s often poorly prepared – overdone, underdone, badly done. Grilling is such hot and fast work that it’s easy miss your mark and reduce a good steak to fodder for the doggie bag. Here are some tips to keep that from happening:
Pick USDA Choice or Prime beef. These top two grades will have enough marbling (thin streaks of fat in the muscle) to give you a tender, juicy, flavorful steak.
Know your cuts and what you like. Filet mignon will be oh-so-tender, but not necessarily very flavorful. Rib-eyes have excellent flavor, but can be very rich. Strip steaks have good flavor, but are tougher. Sirloin is tasty, but lean and can get dry. T-bones and porterhouses offer a compromise by combining the strip and the filet. Experiment with different cuts until you find your favorite.
Once you pick a cut, get a nice one. Don’t pick from the case. Decide what you want and have an honest-to-god butcher cut your steaks right off the primal (the whole straight-off-the-cow rib, short loin, or sirloin). Get them at least an inch and a half thick. Look them over. You want a nice, red, compact steak with a minimum of excess fat.
You do not want to overwhelm the meat, but even good steak can use a little enhancement. I like to let the steaks marinate overnight after giving then a light coating of olive oil, a splash of red wine vinegar, and a dusting of kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper.
Take the steaks out of the refrigerator at an hour before you start grilling. Contrary to popular belief, this is not in an effort to bring the steaks to room temperature. The center of an inch-and-a-half thick steaks will never get to room temperature in any kind of healthy time frame. Rather, letting the steaks sit out increases the steak’s temperature gradient – the difference between the outside temperature and the inside temperature.
A steak that has sat out for an hour and has a 50-60°F external temp and a 37° internal temp will grill up with a much bigger band of pink and much smaller band of gray than one right out of the fridge that has a uniform 35°F temp throughout.
Grilling is nothing but inverted broiling, so you want your grill HOT. We’re talking a minimum of 600°F, but the hotter the better. A loaded kettle grill can reach 700°. Some of the infrared burners on the gassers go to 1200°. The Big Green Egg will hit 1500° with all the vents open. Once it’s hot, get the grate clean. You want nice sear marks, not a lot of sticking.
Do a final prep before putting the steaks on. Dust them again with a little more kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper. Shape them with your hand so that they are as tight, high, and compact as possible. You don’t want any loose bits to burn off.
Put the steaks on the grill using tongs or a spatula (no forks allowed). Put the steaks over the hottest part of the grill and close the lid. Give them 60 seconds of undisturbed searing. After a minute, flip them over. If they won’t come away from the grill easily, give them another 30 seconds. Once flipped, close the lid and give them another 60 seconds of undisturbed searing.
Now open the lid and leave it open for the rest of the cook. Flip them again – yes this violates most “perfect steak” rules. But flipping the steaks often minimizes flareup and maximizes the amount of steak that’s done the way you like it. Keep flipping the steaks once a minute until they are done.
When is it done? Press on the center of the steak or use an instant-read thermometer to determine doneness:
* Rare is 125°F, warm bright red center, feels soft like a sponge
* Medium-rare is 135°F, mostly pink with a hint of red center, yields easily to a little pressure
* Medium is 145°F, has a large pink center, yields only slightly
* Medium-well is 155°F, has a hint of pink, and feels firm
* Well is anything over 160°F, the meat is solid brown with no give
Most steaks are at their best at medium-rare, but will be tasty anywhere from rare to medium. Leaner steaks will start to suffer at medium-well. When in doubt, err on the side of under-cooked. You can always put a steak back on the grill if it’s too rare, but you can’t uncook a well-done steak.
When they are done to your liking, put the steaks on a warm plate, cover them gently with another plate, and let them rest. Meat is muscle and muscles contract when cooked. If you want tender steaks you need to allow time for the muscle to relax and the juices to redistribute. Let them sit for about 15 minutes before serving.