Thousands of students have graduated from Barbecue University, the intense hands-on course in live-fire cooking I’ve been teaching since 2001. And nearly all have a common goal: to learn how to grill the perfect steak—crusty on the outside, juicy and sanguine on the inside, and deftly seasoned.
Even among intrepid grillers, the fear factor is high with beefsteak. Miscalculate the cooking time by mere minutes, and you’ve potentially devalued your investment—which is usually substantial—and ruined not only dinner, but your reputation.
As steakhouse line cooks can tell you, consistent results are dependent on having a system. Here’s the one I use.
Buy the best steak you can afford: The top grade of beef in the U.S. is Prime. The majority is sold to hotels and restaurants, although it can sometimes be found at specialty meat markets or purchased online. The grading system incorporates a number of factors, but as a consumer, you only need to know that Prime meat is more generously marbled than other grades. (Fat equals flavor.) Choice is the second best grade, followed by Select. Personally, I prefer grass-fed beef to corn-fed, beef that has been humanely raised and is antibiotic- and hormone-free. One good source is Nebraska Star Beef.
Season the meat: For the best flavor and sear, season the steak on both sides with coarse salt, arrange on a wire rack, and refrigerate (uncovered) for at least an hour or up to a day before grilling. The salt will act like a dry brine, drawing moisture to the surface of the meat. Pat the steak dry before placing it on the hot grill grate. If you don’t have an hour, simply season the steak right before grilling with salt and pepper or your favorite rub. I’m partial to the Malabar Steak Rub, one of six in my new Project Smoke collection of seasonings.
Set up a 2-zone fire: Whether working over gas, charcoal, or wood, set up your grill for indirect grilling—that is, maintain a hot fire on one side and a cooler zone on the opposite side. Most of us learned to first sear a steak, then finish cooking it over lower heat. However, the reverse-sear method is commonly used today: steak is smoked or indirect grilled until its internal temperature is 10 degrees lower than the desired finished temperature, then quickly seared over direct heat to finish. (For more on reverse-searing, click here.)
Is it done? Though I have been known to recommend the Poke Test, a reliable meat thermometer is invaluable when grilling steaks to order. Memorize the temperatures that correspond to rare (120 degrees), medium-rare (130 degrees), medium (140 degrees), and well (150 degrees and up). If you are cooking for several guests, you’ll appreciate Best of Barbecue Reusable Steak Buttons, a set of four small meat thermometers that help you monitor the doneness of multiple steaks. Of course, you can always make a small slit with a knife in an inconspicuous part of the steak, but don’t let anyone see you do it.
Re-season before serving: There are a number of ways to gild the lily. One is to finish the steak with a crunchy sea salt like Maldon. Compound butters—one of my favorites is the Blue Cheese Butter—was served with tomahawk steaks on the set of Project Smoke, Season 3. I’m also a big fan of Chef Adam Perry Lang’s board sauces or dressings, which comingle aromatics and herbs with meat juices right on the cutting board. Click here for a recipe.
Here are more tips to make you look like a seasoned steak pro:
• Buy steaks that are at least an inch thick or more, especially if you intend to cook them caveman-style—that is, directly in the embers.
• Do not let steaks come to room temperature before grilling. They are good to go straight from the refrigerator. Think about it: A steakhouse never lets meat sit out.
• Brooklyn’s Peter Luger’s, one of the premier steakhouses in the country, anoints each steak with melted beef fat once it comes off the grill. Do try this at home. (Use your side burner or stovetop to melt small cubes of beef fat.)
• When searing, work over a screaming hot fire. If the meat doesn’t immediately release from the grill grate when you attempt to move or turn it, let it cook a minute or two longer.
• I’ve always been a proponent of killer grill marks. To get that attractive crosshatching, rotate the steaks 90 degrees before repeating on the other side. But for the best sear, preheat a plancha or cast iron skillet until a drop of water sizzles and rapidly evaporates.
• Steaks—especially blander-tasting steaks like beef tenderloin—benefit from a marinade. Marinate the meat for 4 to 6 hours, then pat dry before grilling.
• Tongs are preferred for turning steaks, but if you use a fork or a specialized tool called a pigtail, Planet Barbecue will not fall off its axis. Steaks are not like water balloons: they will not lose all their juices when pierced. They are more like bundles of cable.
• Do try new cuts, such as petite tenders (a delectable cut from the chuck that resembles a small tenderloin), luscious rib-eye cap, or flat iron steaks.
• Slice less tender steaks, such as flat-iron, across the grain on a sharp diagonal. (I recently partnered with the meal kit company Chef’d, which ships fresh, ready to be cooked pre-portioned meals to your door. Among the steak options is flank steak with sweet corn and chimichurri sauce.)
Do you have any steak tips you’d like to share? Visit the Barbecue Board at our new location on Reddit.