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The Food Lab: How to Grill a Steak, a Complete Guide
It's time for another round of The Food Lab. Got a suggestion for an upcoming topic? Email Kenji here, and he'll do his best to answer your queries in a future post. Become a fan of The Food Lab on Facebook or follow it on Twitter for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.
Want to know how to grill a steak? Here's my advice: DO NOT DO IT THE WAY THEY DO IT AT STEAKHOUSES. It seems counter-intuitive. Surely a restaurant with years of experience cooking hundreds of steaks a day knows a thing or two about how it's done, right? Well yes. They know how to cook a steak in a steakhouse setting where their goal is consistency, quality, and more importantly—speed. Hungry customers don't want to have to wait for their meat, and a steakhouse has equipment and techniques designed to meet those parameters.
At home, on the other hand, consistency and quality are important, but speed? Not so much. The fact that you can take some time to treat your meat right means that it's possible to cook a steak at home much better than it can be done at any steakhouse. True story. We'll get to the details of how in a bit.
Summer's here, I've got a brand new balcony to grill on, and a fridge full of beef,* so now seems like as good a time as any to re-examine some of the things we know (or think we know) about grilling beef. Sure, we can all agree on what our end goal is: A perfect steak should have a crusty, crunchy, well-browned exterior surrounding a core of perfectly pink, juicy, tender meat that spans from edge-to-edge. (You well-doners can go eat your hockey pucks on someone else's lawn). A perfect steak should be a nice contrast between the smoky, almost charred exterior and the deeply beefy interior. A perfect steak should be chin-drippingly juicy, and melt-in-your-mouth tender.
*For those of you wondering, the beef is all from Pat LaFrieda and Double R Ranch, who we're working with on a series of giveaways and recipe posts. I plan on having LOTS of al fresco dinner parties over the coming week
We all know where we want to go. The real debate is, what's the best way to get there? You've just dropped $50 on some prime aged beef, and you're rightfully nervous about screwing it all up. After all, there's a lot at... ahem, wait for it... steak.
Ready to dive in? Let's go!
This is a long one, so if you want the quick pay-off, here are the 11 tips we're going to discuss:
- Start with the right cut (I prefer ribeye).
- Check for marbling (you want plenty of intramuscular fat).
- Buy a thick steak (at least 1 1/2 to 2 inches).
- Bone in or boneless, it doesn't make a difference—this is totally a matter of personal choice (I prefer bone-in).
- Get dry aged beef (unless you don't enjoy the extra tenderness or slightly funky flavor of dry-aged meat).
- Salt in advance and salt well (I season mine four days in advance, but you want to go at a minimum of 40 minutes).
- Use hardwood coal if you've got it, but briquettes will work just fine.
- Cook your meat gently, then sear at the end (this'll give you more evenly cooked meat and a better crust).
- Flip your meat as often as you like (the whole thing about only flipping once is utter nonsense, and we can prove it).
- Use a thermometer if you have one, but if not, go ahead and poke or cut-and-peek (it won't adversely harm the end product).
- Let your meat rest (your meat should rest for about 1/3 of the time it took to cook in order to prevent excess moisture loss).
For those of you who want more details, here we go:
Tip #1: Start With The Right Cut
You can't end up with a great cooked steak if you start with a crummy raw steak. For the record, we're talking high-end steaks here—those are the tender ones cut from the loin of the cow that generally command the highest prices at the market.
There are four different high-end steaks that you should know and each one is a little different.
- Ribeye, also known as a Delmonico or entrecôte is my personal favorite. It comes with a large, tender eye of meat surrounded by a swath of fat and a cap that comes from the spinalis muscle. This cap is far and away the juiciest, most flavorful piece of meat that you'll find on any steak. Some folks might find a ribeye to be a little too rich and fatty. Some folks may well be lacking joy in their life.
- Strip, also known as New York Strip, Kansas City Strip, or contre-filet is similar in texture to that central eye of meat in a ribeye steak. That's because it comes from the exact same muscle, just a little further back down along the cow. People enjoy strip steak for its relatively tender texture and good amount of marbling (more on that in a minute).
- Tenderloin, also known as filet mignon is the most tender cut of meat on the cow. When cooked, it has a buttery, almost spoon-tender texture. But what it has in tenderness, it lacks in flavor. as a nearly unused muscle in the cow, the tenderloin generally has very little fat, and almost no flavor to speak of, despite its crazy price tag.
- T-Bone, also known as Porterhouse when the tenderloin section is at least 1 1/2-inches wide, is simply a slice of rib with both the strip and the tenderloin still attached. It's certainly an impressive and daunting cut of meat, but I recommend avoiding it. See, the problem is that with relatively little fat and a smaller profile, that small tenderloin section ends up cooking much faster than the larger strip section. What this means is that by the time your strip is perfectly medium rare, your tenderloin is overcooked. You're better off cooking your strip and tenderloin separately if you want both.
Here are more tips for choosing a cut of steak.
Tip #2: Check For Marbling
All beef that's sold in the U.S. is graded by the United States Department of Agriculture on a scale according to its tenderness and degree of marbling. At the top of the heap is Prime, which denotes an abundant degree of marbling in a cow under 42 months of age. Only about 2% of the beef sold in this country is designated Prime, and most of it goes to restaurants, specialty butchers, and high end supermarkets. Below that is Choice, followed by Select, which are the two grades you'll find in most supermarkets.
The grades continue to go down all the way to Canner, which generally comes from very old cows with little fat in their tough meat. Luckily for us, you won't find that grade in stores (it's reserved for such savory applications as school lunches and dog food).
While checking the grade is a quick and easy indicator of the quality of the meat, what you should really be checking for is the degree of marbling—that's the interstitial fat that shows up in white spiderwebs throughout the meat.
Why, you might ask, is marbling important? Two reasons: moisture and flavor. As well-marbled meat cooks, the fat will slowly melt, adding juiciness built right into the meat. Non-marbled meat might have plenty of fat on the exterior, but it doesn't enhance the steak in the same way. Sort of like the difference between drinking a glass of chocolate milk or drinking the milk then shooting the chocolate syrup.
Flavorwise, almost all of the compounds our tongues sense that give us the thought "ooh, that's beefy" are found in the fat. In fact, if you take the fat out of a piece of beef and replace it with lamb fat, it'll taste like lamb. Want chicken-flavored beef? Cook lean beef in chicken fat.
If flavor is what you're after, fat is your friend. Look for meat that's got plenty of marbling.
Tip #3: Buy A Thick Steak
The thickness of a steak is not just about portion control. Without an adequately thick steak, it's very difficult to get that contrast between exterior and interior that is so desirable. Thin, thin steaks will tend to overcook before they can finish developing a nice crust, even over the hottest fire you can muster.
I try to get steaks that are at least an inch and a half thick, if not two inches. This does mean that each steak ends up weighing in at between 12 ounces and a pound—that's big, even for someone with a big appetite for red meat. But remember this: It's better to cook one large steak for every two people than to cook two smaller steaks. Learn how to share.
Tip #4: Don't Listen To What People Tell You About Bones
Talk to most chefs and they'll tell you that it's always better to cook meat with the bone-in because it adds flavor. I've always been pretty skeptical of this one for a number of reasons. First of all, the exterior of a bone does not have much flavor in it at all—you have to dig down into the marrow to get at it (just ask my dogs). Secondly, meat muscle fibers are pretty tough customers when it comes to allowing molecules to move around within them.
If an overnight marinade can only penetrate meat by a few millimeters, fat chance that flavor from a relatively flavorless bone is going to make much difference.
Indeed, I tested this out with a few prime rib roasts a couple months back. One I roasted bone-in, another I removed the bone and tied it back on, a third I removed the bone and tied it back on with a layer of aluminum foil in between (to completely prevent any potential transfer of flavor), and the fourth I roasted boneless.
All three of the roasts with bones tied on them were indistinguishable from each other in both texture and flavor, so there's that myth smashed for ya. On the other hand, the boneless roast did come out a little dryer in the specific region where the bone was missing. Really, a bone accomplishes two things: It prevent some moisture loss by reducing the surface area of a steak, and it keeps that section of the steak from overcooking by acting as an insulator. Ok, three things if you count looking-really-awesome as an accomplishment.
I personally still go with bone-in cuts when I have the option because I enjoy chewing the crispy bits of fat around the bone, but don't let anyone force you to do it if you aren't interested.
Tip #5: Go For Dry Aged (Unless You Don't)
There are two types of aging. So-called wet-aged meat is meat that has been placed in a vacuum-sealed bag and allowed to rest for a few weeks (usually while in transit from packing plant to distributor to supermarket). A wet aged steak shows some improvement over a standard non-aged steak in terms of tenderness—there are enzymes present in the meat that will break down tough connective tissue over time.
Dry-aged meat is meat that has been stored in a temperature and humidity-controlled room for anywhere from a week and up to 10 weeks or longer. During this time, three things happen:
- Moisture loss is a major factor. A dry-aged piece of beef can lose up to around 30% of its initial volume in water loss, which concentrates its flavor.
- Tenderization occurs when enzymes naturally present in the meat act to break down some of the tougher muscle fibers.
- Flavor change is probably the most relevant. Due to numerous reasons including enzymatic and bacterial action, properly dry-aged meat will develop deep nutty, cheesy aromas.
Whether you want dry-aged meat or not is a matter of personal choice. I personally love the funky, blue cheese notes of a very old dry-aged steak and am willing to shell out the extra 20 to 25% it costs. Others prefer the cleaner flavor of fresh beef.
And despite what some folks may tell you, it is pretty much impossible to dry age properly at home. To age a steak, you require an intact, untrimmed portion of beef (the outer layers become inedible and must be trimmed off). You can leave a steak in the fridge for a few days and some amount of tenderization will occur, but this is hardly the same thing.
Tip #6: Salt in Advance, And Salt Well
Should you salt your meat right before cooking, well before cooking, or how about after cooking? This is another point of contention amongst home cooks and chefs alike, and one of the ones for which steakhouse-methods often get cited as evidence. At (most) steakhouses, they salt the steak right before throwing it on the grill or under the broiler, so that must be the best way to do it at home, right?
Well, consider that at a steakhouse, when a customer places an order for that giant côte du bouef, It's gonna take a minimum of 20 minutes to get it to medium rare in the very center. That's a lot of minutes in waiting-at-a-restaurant-for-your-food-to-come time. They salt right before cooking because they don't have the time to let the meat sit after salting.
Truth of the matter is that you should salt your meat about 40 minutes before it hits the grill. When the salt first hits a steak, it sits on the surface. Through the process of osmosis, it'll slowly draw liquid out of the mat, which you'll see pool up in little droplets. As those droplets grow, the salt will dissolve in the meat juice, forming a concentrated brine. At this stage in the game—about 25 to 30 minutes in—your steak is in the absolute worst shape possible for grilling. That moisture will evaporate right off, leaving you with a tough, stringy crust.Give it a bit more time, and eventually that brine will begin to break down some of the muscle tissue in the meat, allowing the juices to be re-absorbed, and taking the salt right along with it.
What does this lead to? Meat that is both better seasoned and more tender and moist when you cook it.
Personally I season my steaks at least a few days in advance, to give the salt maximum time to work its way into the meat. Why steakhouses don't do this is a mystery to me.
EDIT: Do use kosher salt, not regular table salt. The larger grains of kosher salt (which should more accurately be called "koshering salt," as salt itself is always kosher—kosher salt is coarse salt used in the koshering process) are easier to sprinkle evenly with your fingers, and will also draw more initial moisture out of the meat to dissolve than table salt.
Tip #7: Choose Your Coals Wisely
Plenty of grill-snobs will insist on only using hardwood coal for their grilling, claiming superior flavor in the finished product. And it's true. Given the same amount of coal and the same exact treatment, a steak cooked over hardwood will have a better, crustier sear and a smokier flavor. This difference largely has to do with the relative densities of the two products.
Hardwood is not nearly as dense as a briquette and is thus better ventilated when burning. This leads to a hotter, faster burn. Measure the heat at grill level from a chimney full of briquettes and a chimney full of hardwood, and the difference can be as much as a hundred degrees or more.
On the other hand, charcoal briquettes are easier to find (I can't get real hardwood within a 20 block radius of my apartment), more inexpensive, more reliable, and longer burning (making them great for extended grilling sessions).
That said, there's an easy way to get more flavor out of your briquettes: just use more of them. I use about 1 1/2 times the amount I'd use if I were going with standard lump charcoal, and it gets plenty hot.
Pro-tip: Avoid the lighter fluid (and, for god's sake, the Match-Light), and invest in a good chimney starter.
The same argument applies to gas vs. coals. Gas is far more convenient, but it will not burn nearly as hot as even briquettes do, nor will it impart the same smokiness. In the end, it's a tradeoff between convenience and flavor. For me, the convenience of briquettes trumps the minor flavor advantages of hardwood.
Tip #8: Cook Your Meat Gently, Then Sear At The End
At this stage in the game, I don't think I need to tell any of you that the old saying that "searing locks in juices" is utter and complete nonsense. You can prove this quite easily by cooking two identical roasts, one seared first then finished at a low temperature, the other started at a low temperature and seared at the end. If searing really locked in anything, you'd expect the one seared first to retain more moisture. In fact, you find that the exact opposite is the case.
In reality, the amount of juices a steak loses is directly proportional to the temperature you cook it to (note: not the temperature you cook it at). So why does a slow-start, sear-at-end roast lose less moisture? It has to do with the length of time it takes to build up a good, crusty sear. Throw a raw steak on the grill (or in a pan), and the cold, moist meat takes a long time to heat up to the point where it can begin browning and crisping properly. By the time it's well-seared, the outermost layers are already overcooked and you've lost the battle before you've even begun to cook the steak through to the center.
Start a steak out on the cold side of the grill with the cover on (other than when flipping, of course) on the other hand, and by the time it's reached within a few degrees of the proper final temperature (more on that in a moment), its exterior has already gotten a good head start on the browning and crisping phase. All it takes is a moment on the hot side of the grill to crisp up.
You end up with meat that is as crusty as you could hope for, and perfectly evenly cooked from edge to edge.
Tip #9: Flip As Often As You'd Like, And Go Ahead—Use A Fork
If there's one piece of steak-grilling advice that people seem to get more persnickety about than anything, it's that your steak should only be flipped once.
False. This is another hang-on gleaned from steakhouses in which it's simply impractical for a cook to flip more than once given the number of steaks they have cooking on a grill at the same time. At home, you're probably only cooking a few steaks at a time, and it's ok—indeed, it's better—to flip your steaks more often.
You don't have to take my word for it either. Famed food scientist and author Harold McGee has been advocating this method for years (and has the data to prove its efficacy). Dave Arnold over at Cooking Issues has replicated his tests, as have I (with hamburgers). You can quite easily do the test for yourself.
By flipping a steak multiple times—as often as once every 15 seconds or so—you not only end up with meat that's more evenly cooked, you also cut down on your cook time by as much as a third, and develop a great crust on top of that. This is because with multiple flips, neither side is exposed to intense heat for too long, nor does it lose much heat to the relatively cool air above. It's the equivalent of cooking it from both directions simultaneously.
That said, the difference in the end result is not too pronounced, so if you want to leave the steak alone and enjoy your beer, or if you feel the need to placate that annoying uncle who gets visibly angered by mutli-flippers, go ahead and use the one-flip method—it won't destroy your steak.
Similarly, using a fork to lift and flip will absolutely not destroy it. To hear people balk at the fork-flippers, you'd think that a steak is something like a water balloon, ready to shed all its moisture from a single puncture. This is not how a steak behaves. Rather than a balloon filled with liquid, a steak is actually a series of many many thousands of long, skinny balloons filled with liquid. Puncturing a single one will have no effect on its neighbor, and the amount of juice contained in a fork-poke-ful of punctures is small enough not to be noticed.
Tip #10: Use a Thermometer!
I can't possibly emphasize this one enough. Use a thermometer! Use a thermometer! USE A THERMOMETER!.
Yes, you may look a bit less macho when you whip out a nifty Thermapen Splash-Proof Instant Read Thermometer from your back pocket, swing out the slender probe and insert it gently into the very center of your steak to register a reading, but believe me: perfectly cooked meat will earn you more praise and appreciation than macho posturing any day of the week.
I like my meat at around 130°F—the medium-rare point. Many folks like their meat rare, but to me, that's a waste of a good, well-marbled cut of beef. You want your fat to be warm enough that it starts melting a bit, lubricating your meat and adding flavor and juice to every bite. With meat that's too rare, your fat remains solid. You end up with all the calories and not nearly as much flavor.
On the opposite end of the spectrum with medium-well to well-done meat, not only have your juices been squeezed dry like water from a sponge, but your liquefied fat has already bought itself a one way ticket to the bottom of your grill.
Remember: Thick steaks will continue to rise in temperature after you pull them off of the grill. Heat from the exterior layers will travel in as your steak rests. Make sure to pull it off the grill a good five degrees before you reach your final target.
But what if I don't have a thermometer?
I get it. Thermapens are pretty expensive. With the amount of use mine gets (pretty much every time I cook), it's worth the price, and you can always get a slightly slower inexpensive model like the CDN ProAccurate Quick Read, but what if you're stuck in the woods with no thermometer in hand? Is there anything you can do?
Yes: just go ahead and cut the sucker open to take a peek.
I know that everyone tells you you shouldn't poke the meat lest you "risk losing valuable juices," but honestly, the loss is not much. Certainly not enough for you to notice once the steak is done. And given the alternative (overcooked meat that will have lost a noticeable amount of juice), it's the best alternative out there. (More on that subject here.)
Tip #11: Let It Rest!
Since I last wrote about resting your meat, there have been some questions called as to the validity of the science behind it. Here is the prevalent theory as to why resting your steak is important (pulled from an older article of mine):
As the steak cooks, the muscle fibers on its exterior tighten, squeezing juices out of its surface. This creates an imbalance of juice in its interior, with most of the liquid being concentrated at the center of the meat. If you cut the steak open as soon as it comes off the grill, the juice has only one place to go—onto your plate. On the other hand, allow the steak to rest until its temperature has normalized, and the juices will distribute themselves more evenly throughout its interior. Cut the steak open, and the juice stays put exactly where it's supposed to be: in the meat.
However, Nathan Myhrvold of the James Beard Best Cookbook Modernist Cuisine (see here for some behind-the-scenes shot of their lab) says otherwise. His claim is that it's not so much about redistribution of moisture, but that it's about the relative viscosity of hot vs. cool liquids. The juices stay in place because they've managed to thicken up a bit as they cool.
In either case, the fact remains: resting your meat work. I recommend resting your steak for about a third of its total cooking time for best results.
And More Tips?
I know I can't possibly have covered every question out there about grilling steaks. Indeed, I can already think of a few. Does letting it come to room temp first matter, or can I slap it on the grill straight from the fridge? Does pepper taste better if I add it to the steak at the end? What if I want to maximize pretty grill marks?
So many questions, so much meat, so little summer!
Please feel free to fire along any other steak-related questions you might have. I've still got a fridge full of beef, a hunger for knowledge, and plenty of friends, moms, and doormen who won't turn down a good steak. I'll try to get to answering as many of'em as possible this summer.
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.