When Americans are polled about their favorite foods for grilling, steak always heads the list. A slab of beef is the perfect food for the grill: Its broad surface area soaks up wood and smoke flavors, and it cooks quickly. The most common mistake made in grilling steak is overcooking it; the second most common is undercooking. And in my experience, most grill masters fear both. Because, let’s face it: A great steak can set you back more than a few bucks.
If you’re insecure when grilling a pricey steak, you’re not alone. I can’t tell you how many times students of Barbecue University have sidled up to me to confide it’s the one takeaway they want from the three-day class.
Below is a compilation of my best steak tips gleaned over the years from experience, grill masters, and restaurateurs.
Select the Right Meat and Cut: The best steaks come graded Prime, which means they have the most marbling (that luscious intramuscular fat). You’ll likely need to buy prime beef at a specialty butcher shop or on line.
If you source your meat at a supermarket, Choice is likely what you’ll find. Choice meat has less marbling, but can still deliver a good steak. Just choose a tender cut, like porterhouse, T-bones, rib-eyes, or strip steaks—ideally 1 1/2 inches thick. (It’s no “mis-steak” that premium steakhouses push steaks that are a pound or more and easily serve two people.)
Of course, fibrous steaks, like skirt, hanger, and flank, also taste great grilled, provided that they are thinly sliced against the grain on a sharp diagonal. (This shortens the meat fibers.) If price is no object, invest in Premium grade dry-aged meat. Good online sources include Creekstone Farms, Strauss,and DeBragga, a New York City butcher who sells premium meats to both restaurants and consumers.
One online newcomer is Crowd Cow, which sells distinctive, intensely flavorful grass-fed beef from small farms around the country. Each of their steaks has a unique flavor in a way that reminds me of how a pinot noir wine can taste dramatically differently depending on whether it’s grown in the Napa Valley, Sonoma, Mendocino, Oregon, Washington State, or Burgundy.
Season Generously: One of the big mistakes neophytes make when cooking steaks at home is under-seasoning. Sprinkle your steaks generously from a height of several inches with a coarse-grained salt (kosher or sea salt) at least 45 minutes before grilling. Not only does the salt enhance the meat’s flavor in the same way a dry brine does, but it encourages a steakhouse-caliber crust.
Just before grilling, crush black peppercorns in a sturdy plastic bag using a cast iron skillet. (A spice grinder works, too, but I like the lack of uniformity when the peppercorns are crushed the old-fashioned way.)
Or use a rub, like my pepper- and spice-scented Malabar Steak Rub.
Another tip from the pros is to add a final sprinkle of finishing salt—a crunchy, big-crystaled seasoning like Maldon or Australia’s apricot-colored Murray River salt—the latter a favorite of Nancy Loseke, my assistant. Salt plus caramelized meat juices make for a taste experience like none other.
Keep it Hot, Clean, and Lubricated: You know Raichlen’s Rules—keep it hot, keep it clean, keep it lubricated. Heat your grill to high—steakhouses cook at temperatures ranging from 800 to 1200 degrees—impale a cube of beef fat or half an onion dipped in vegetable oil on a barbecue fork and rub it across the rungs of the grill grate. An oiled paper towel clasped in tongs works well, too. Of course, I prefer my Grilling Grate Oiler Brush system.
Set Up Your Grill for Two-Zone Grilling: Thick steaks (again, 1 1/2 to 2 inches thick) should be charred over a hot fire to develop a deeply caramelized crust, then moved to a cooler side of the grill (covered at this point) to finish cooking. Even gas grills work well for this, though I prefer steaks cooked with natural lump or wood charcoal.
Act Like a Pro: Arrange the steaks on the grill grate so they are all lined up in the same direction. After two minutes, rotate each steak. Normally I rotate them 45 degrees. This creates an attractive diamond-pattern of grill marks on the steaks. Cook the steaks until beads of blood appear on the surface, about 3 to 5 minutes per side for a thick steak. Lately, I’ve been using the reverse-sear for steaks that turn out uniformly pink from top to bottom.
Know When They’re Done: Memorize the target temperatures for steak doneness. Rare is 120 degrees; medium-rare is 125 to 135 degrees; meat cooked to 140 degrees and beyond is considered medium-well to well. (Hopefully, you will not be cooking steaks to these temperatures.) An instant-read thermometer, inserted through the side of the steak, will give you an accurate reading.
Let Them Rest: After you pull the steaks off the grill, a rest of several minutes will contribute much to the steaks’ juiciness. Don’t worry about the steaks cooling; they won’t cool by more than a few degrees (actually, they usually continue to cook for a bit, raising the temperature by 3 to 5 degrees). And the juices, forced to the outside of the meat by the high heat of the grill, will reconvene near the center.
Gild the Lily: Top-rated steakhouses like Peter Luger or Ruth’s Chris finish their steaks with melted beef fat, extra virgin olive oil, beef marrow, or compound butters, making even well-marbled meat more luscious and flavorful. Compound butters are easy to make at home: Simply beat room-temperature butter with minced garlic, minced fresh or dried herbs, salt and pepper or other spices, and a squeeze of lemon juice. Using waxed paper or parchment, form the flavored butter into cylinders and refrigerate for up to a week, or freeze for 6 months. (These butters are great on grilled vegetables, too.)
Carve the Meat Against the Grain: This is especially important, as I said, for fibrous steaks like flank steak or tri-tip and will make even tougher cuts seem more tender. In a cut like tri-tip, the grain can change along the length of the muscle, so pay attention and use a sharp knife.