Three Strategies for Perfect Steaks


Dear Up in Smoke Subscriber:

Steak. For the world’s meat-eaters, there is probably no word more seductive (dare I say voluptuous?) than this one. The mere mention of steak triggers pleasurable associations: the audible sizzle, that crusty first bite, the rich, beefy flavor. In short, it’s pure carnivorous bliss. And often there’s some incarnation of potato—baked, mashed, or fried—loitering in our peripheral vision.

But let’s face it: steak can be an intimidating hunk of meat that brings out insecurities in even the most experienced grill jockeys. Overcook a burger, and you’ve only committed a grilling misdemeanor. Overcook a pricey porterhouse, and you’ve got a grilling felony on your record (with, incidentally, little chance of mercy from the court).

No wonder I’m often buttonholed at Barbecue University by anxious students who whisper, “Steven, just between you and me, how do I grill a perfect steak?”

Just in time for Labor Day—which ties with the Fourth of July as the largest beef-eating holiday after Memorial Day, according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association—I’ll share with you my best steak tips and two recipes to help you mark the figural end of summer.  (But not, Up in Smoke reader, the end of the grilling season!)

The word “steak” derives from Saxon-Jute word steik,  meaning “meat on a stick.” In what is now Denmark, fifth-century cattlemen impaled their steaks on long sticks and cooked them over live fire. Beef was introduced to America by early Spanish and English explorers. Descendents of these seafaring bovines eventually formed the great herds that defined the American West in the 19th century; they shaped the “cowboy” culture and whet our country’s appetite for beef in general, steaks in particular.

Here are my three key and interdependent strategies for grilling compliment-worthy steaks.


The United States Department of Agriculture inspects the nation’s beef supply and grades it according to tenderness, texture, and “marbling,” a term that refers to the distribution of intramuscular fat.  (Remember this equation: Fat = Flavor.) There are eight USDA grades, but only two—“Prime” and “Choice”—are of interest to steak lovers.

Only about 2 per cent of U.S. beef is graded “Prime.” Most is exported or sold directly to restaurants, but it can be found at specialty meat markets or through high-end Internet purveyors like Allen Brothers or Lobel’s. “Choice” is the grade generally carried by supermarkets, and because the guidelines for classifying meat are fairly subjective, it can be as good as “Prime,” in some cases.  I often buy “Choice.”

(In-the-know beef eaters have also become aware, mostly in the last decade, of ultra-premium beef such as Japanese Kobe beef and its American counterpart, Wagyu—sometimes called “Kobe-style beef.”   These exceptionally well-marbled meats are also available through the above online butcher shops, but are extraordinarily expensive: A 1-lb. bone-in ribeye can cost more than $100…before shipping!)

I advise you to make good friends with your butcher, and have him or her notify you when they have especially nice steaks on hand.  Tender, generously-marbled cuts—I always prefer bone-in if that’s an option—are best suited to the high, dry heat of the grill.

Good candidates include:

T-bone – This is a happy marriage of a New York strip steak and beef tenderloin;
Porterhouse – Like a T-bone, this cut contains the bone joining the top loin and the tenderloin, but the tenderloin must be more than 1-1/4 inches in diameter;
New York strip – Sometimes known as a shell or club steak, this cut is taken from the top loin;
Rib steak – very beefy, but not as tender as the above. This same cut without the bone is known as a Delmonico steak;
Tenderloin – one of the tenderest cuts of beef, but the least flavorful. (Muscles that are used the least develop the least flavor.) Individual cuts from this muscle are known in restaurants as filet mignon, or if they are large enough to serve two or more, they are called Chateaubriand;
Sirloin – Adjacent to the short loin; moderately tender, but very beefy-tasting.

Other, more fibrous cuts that have become popular with grillers are flank steak, skirt steak (the traditional meat for fajitas), hanger steak, and flat-iron steak.

Here are two other terms steak lovers should know:

Wet Aging – Meat is vacuum-sealed in its own juices in plastic, such as Cryovac, and kept under controlled conditions until natural enzymes tenderize it from within and deepen its flavor;
Dry Aging – In an environment where temperature, circulation, and humidity are scrupulously controlled, meat is held for two to three weeks. Again, enzymes tenderize the meat and deepen the flavor, but because the raw meat’s exposed to air, dessicated parts have to be trimmed off; this makes dry-aged steaks more expensive as approximately 20 per cent of the meat goes to waste. Dry-aged steak is my hands-down favorite.


OK, it’s a bad thing to do at work, but it’s essential if you want to nail the perfect steak. Build a three-tiered fire (see How to Grill, page 14 for specific directions) and preheat one part to high—screaming high, actually— one part to medium-high. Leave one part unlit for a “safety zone” where you can move the steaks in case of flare-ups. If using a gas grill, preheat one section to high (600+ degrees F) and another section to medium-high (400 degrees F); keep one section unlit.

For the simplest preparation, season the steaks generously with kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Coarser grain salt crystals dissolve more slowly than fine table salt, so they hold up better during cooking. Steak pros all over the world use this trick. Some people argue salting the meat before cooking draws out its juices, but believe me, you won’t get much juice loss in the short time it takes to cook a medium-rare steak. I like the crust salt makes, and it is fabulous mingled with caramelized meat juices. In fact, I often season the meat both before and after grilling.

Of course, you could also coat soak the steak in a marinade for several hours before grilling. Be sure to dry it well before cooking and scrape off any solid bits—garlic or onions, for example—that tend to burn when the steak is seared. Or you could apply a dry rub to the meat, like Steven’s Best of Barbecue Steak Rub.

Before you bring the food to the grill out, check the heat again, using the “Mississippi” test.

Hold your hand about three inches over the grate and start counting “one Mississippi, two Mississippi.” After that, the heat should force you to snatch your hand away. If not, preheat a bit longer, lid closed.

Place the steaks (they should be refrigerated until the moment of grilling—there isn’t a respectable steak house around that leaves the meat out at room temperature) on the oiled grate, all lined up in the same direction. This might sound obsessive, but you’ll look and feel like a professional and the technique will help keep you organized. After 2 minutes, rotate each steak either 45 or 90 degrees; this creates an attractive crosshatch of grill marks.

Sear the steak until beads of blood appear on the surface, 1 to 2 minutes for a steak 1/2-inch thick, 3 to 5 minutes for one 1-inch thick, and 6 to 9 minutes for a thickness of 1-1/2 to 2 inches. (NOTE: For a steak over 1-1/2 inches thick, it is best to start it over high heat and then finish it over more moderate heat.) Turn the steak using tongs or a spatula. Never stab it with a fork, or the juices will escape.

Continue cooking the steaks on the other side, rotating after 2 minutes. To test for doneness, press the top with your index finger: A rare steak will be softly yielding; a medium steak will be firmer; a well-done steak will be quite firm. (For more explicit information, see page 30 in the new edition of the Barbecue Bible.) Alternatively, use an instant-read meat thermometer inserted through the side. For rare, cook to 125; for medium-rare, cook to 145 degrees F; cook to 160 degrees F for medium; for well-done, look for a thermometer reading of “UGH!”, which translates to anything over 165 degrees F. Never cut into a steak to gauge doneness. (You know who you are…)


If you really want to distinguish yourself as a grilled steak master, let the steaks rest for 2 to 3 minutes on warmed plates or a platter before you serve them, or carve them for serving. Only amateurs rush them from grill to table. The high heat drives the meat’s natural juices to the center, and a short rest allows the juices to redistribute themselves throughout the steak. This gives you time to tend to grill maintenance such as scraping the grill grate, shutting off the gas, closing the vents, etc., that is…unless your menu also includes a spectacular grilled dessert…and I hope it does! In which case you’ll probably want to readjust the heat.

There’s one last thing you can do to aspire to grilled steak perfection, and that’s to top the steak right after it comes off the grill with a splash of high quality olive oil—preferably a fresh one with some pepper on the finish—or a pat of butter, plain or mixed with fresh chopped herbs.

And if you like steak sauce? Well, we defy you to find a better condiment than Steven’s Best of Barbecue Ultimate Steak Sauce.


Source: Recipe courtesy of Steven Raichlen
Method: Direct grilling
Serves: 4

For the rub:

2 tablespoons ground dark roast coffee
2 teaspoons coarse salt
1 teaspoon pure chile powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

4 ribeye steaks, at least 1-inch thick (8 to 10 ounces each)

You’ll also need:

Red-Eye Steak Sauce (recipe below) for serving (optional)

1-1/2 cups wood chips or chunks (optional), soaked for 1 hour in cold water to cover,
then drained

Make the rub: In a small bowl, combine the coffee, salt, chile powder, onion powder, garlic powder, coriander, black pepper, and cinnamon. Mix well.

Place the steaks on a platter and sprinkle on both sides with the rub. Let them sit for 15 to 20 minutes while you prepare the grill.

Set up the grill for indirect grilling and preheat to high. If using a gas grill, add the wood chips (if using) to the smoker box before preheating. If using a charcoal grill, toss the wood chips on the coals. When ready to cook, brush and oil the grill grate. Place the steaks on the hot grate and grill, turning with tongs, until cooked to taste, 4 to 6 minutes per side for medium-rare. Transfer the steaks to a warmed platter and let rest for 3 minutes.

Serve with Red-Eye Steak Sauce, if desired.


Makes about 1-1/2 cups

1 tablespoon butter
1 shallot, finely chopped (about 3 tablespoons)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon minced celery
1/2 cup brewed coffee
1/4 cup ketchup
1/4 cup tomato sauce
2 tablespoons heavy cream
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons bourbon
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon style mustard
1 teaspoon liquid smoke
Coarse salt (kosher or sea) and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan. Add the shallot, garlic, and celery and cook over medium heat until lightly browned, 3 minutes. Stir in the coffee, ketchup, tomato sauce, cream, soy sauce, bourbon, Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, mustard, and liquid smoke and gradually bring to boil.

Reduce the heat slightly and simmer the sauce until thick and richly flavored, 8 to 10 minutes, whisking from time to time. Correct the seasoning, adding salt and pepper or any other ingredient to taste



This recipe comes from an unassuming steakhouse in Juarez, Mexico, called Mitla. Mitla’s steaks owe their extraordinary flavor to the fact that they’re cooked over blazing mesquite logs. You can approximate the flavor by tossing a couple cups of soaked mesquite chips on a backyard barbecue grill. The fire-charred salsa reinforces the smoky flavor of the beef.

Source: The Barbecue! Bible by Steven Raichlen (Workman, 2008)
Method: Direct grilling
Serves: 4

2 to 4 chiles de arbol (4 give you a nice heat)
2 large ripe tomatoes
1/3 medium onion, sliced
1 clove garlic, sliced
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped cilantro
1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 T-bone steaks or sirloin steaks (each about 3/4-inch thick)
4 large or 8 small flour tortillas

You’ll also need:
2 cups mesquite wood chips, soaked in cold water to cover for 1 hour, then drained (optional)

Soak the chiles in a bowl of warm water until pliable, about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, set each tomato directly on a gas stove burner and roast it over high heat until the skin is charred and blistered on all sides, 6 to 8 minutes in all. (Or do the tomatoes in a previous grilling session.) Transfer the tomatoes to a plate and let them cool.

Drain the chiles and remove the seeds if you prefer a milder salsa. Place the chiles in a blender with the cooled tomatoes and the onion, garlic, and cilantro, and process to a coarse paste. Add the lime juice and season with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer the salsa to a serving bowl.

Set up the grill for direct grilling and preheat to high. If using a gas grill, add the wood chips (if using) to the smoker box before preheating.

When ready to cook, if using a charcoal grill, toss the wood chips on the coals. Brush and oil the grill grate. Salt the steaks generously on one side. Arrange the steaks on the oiled grate, salt side down, and grill, turning once with tongs, until cooked to taste, 2 to 4 minutes per side for medium-rare. Transfer the steaks to a platter and let rest for 3 minutes.

Meanwhile, arrange the tortillas on the grate and grill until soft and pliable, but not browned, about 20 seconds per side. Serve the steaks with the tortillas and the salsa on the side.

Yours in righteous grilling,
Steven Raichlen, Grill Master and Editor-in-Chief
Nancy Loseke, Features Editor

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