The Food Lab: Slow-Smoked, 40-Ounce, Dry-Aged Porterhouse Steaks
I've eaten plenty of grilled steaks in my day, but the first time I ever tasted a smoked steak was just over a decade ago, at my cousin's wedding in Tennessee. They'd hired a local pit master with a mobile smoker to spend the night slow-smoking two whole hogs for the feast the next day. I spent a good chunk of the night sitting up chatting with them about the process. It wasn't until the next morning that they threw in a few trays of thick-cut steaks, to smoke slowly in the remains of the fire.
That whole hog was great, but the steaks were awesome, with a sweet smoky crust surrounding a juicy, medium-rare center. Who knew that you could cook a steak for hours and still end up with something medium rare? I've been on a quest to recreate them (or, dare I say it, improve on them?) ever since.
The problem lies with the fact that it contains two distinct cuts of meat. On one side of the T-shaped bone is a large chunk of strip loin. Well-marbled and coarsely textured, it's an easy and reliable cut to cook—all that fat means that it cooks slowly and stays moist even if you mess it up a little. On the other side, you'll find the more petite tenderloin. It's got less fat and a finer, more-tender texture with a milder flavor. More importantly, with less fat, it tends to cook more quickly and suffers more from overcooking.
The trick with cooking a porterhouse is to get that strip and tenderloin to finish cooking at the same time.
Fortunately, our man Josh Bousel has already nailed a foolproof technique. By employing a technique I developed back in my Cook's Illustrated days called the reverse-sear and positioning the steak so that the tenderloin lies further away from direct heat, you end up with a perfectly even, rosy color from edge to center in both the strip and the tenderloin. You finish off the steak by searing it hard and fast over the hot side of the grill. Because its surface is already warm and relatively dry, it sears really fast. You end up with a wonderful contrast between crisp, darkly charred meat on the exterior and moist, red meat inside.
It's a method that really brings out the flavor of the meat, which should be your goal if you're shelling out big bucks for the good stuff.
But every once in a while, I just feel like getting a bag Reese's Pieces at the movies instead of buttered popcorn. Ain't nothing wrong with that. Similarly, there are times when I want to forgo that simple grilled steak for the smokier, sweeter flavor of slow-smoked meat. It's especially tasty with dry-aged meat, the sweetness of the smoke playing nicely with the nutty, rich flavor of the aged meat underneath.
As I mentioned, smoking is generally a method reserved for long-cooking, tough cuts like pork shoulder, ribs, or beef brisket, intended to deeply flavor and tenderize the meat over the course of a half day of cooking. But with a bit of finesse and a couple hours of free time, it's perfectly possible to get that same smoky flavor into a thick-cut steak and still have it come out perfectly medium-rare, so long as you play your cards right.
Here's how I do it.
Step 0: Get yourself some steaks
First things first: You'll want some excellent steaks for this. I don't eat steaks often, so when I do, I want them to be truly great. Look for steaks that are either Prime or Choice grade, with plenty of the intramuscular fat known as marbling, which will ensure a moist, juicy texture and rich flavor. Dry-aging can also add another dimension of flavor and tenderness (not to mention another dimension of cost).
"T-bone" is the generic term for all steaks cut from the steer with both the strip and the tenderloin attached to a single T-shaped bone. Porterhouse is the title they earn when that tenderloin section is at least an inch and a half across. You'll want true porterhouses here—if the tenderloin is too small, it will overcook. You'll also want a thick-cut steak to allow maximum time for smoking. At least an inch and a half and preferably two inches is about right. Once you have the steaks, just pat them dry with paper towels. No need to let them temper at room temperature (in fact this accomplishes pretty much nothing).
For this technique, you'll also need at least two steaks (and you'll see why soon). Two steaks this size will easily feed four hungry diners, so invite those friends!
Check out our Guide to the High End Steaks You Should Know for more tips on shopping for steak.
Now let's start grilling.
Step 1: Salt them well
Salt your steak very well. This is a thick piece of meat and you won't be seasoning the interior, so a nice, salty crust is essential for good flavor. I like to sprinkle kosher salt on from a distance until the steak surface looks like a parking lot dusted with a flurry of snow. You can put pepper on now as well.
With many cooking methods, I'll salt the steaks at least 45 minutes in advance to allow the salt time to draw out liquid, and for that liquid to be re-absorbed. (Read up more about the science of salting steak here.) In this case, however, the steaks are going to be slow-cooking for a couple of hours, which is plenty of time for the salt to penetrate.
As for pepper, some folks claim that pepper turns bitter if you apply it before cooking. I've never, ever noticed this to be the case—actually, I find pepper turns sweeter and fuller in flavor if you let it cook with the steak. I grind it onto my meat at the beginning.
Step 2: Get the sides!
Those sides are gonna crisp up and need some loving too!
Step 3: Stack and skewer
The big problem with smoking porterhouse is those pesky tenderloins, which very rapidly overcook. You can fiddle with the steaks by positioning them with the tenderloin facing away from the hot side of a fire and flipping them frequently, but here's a much easier technique.
Start by stacking the seasoned steaks on top of each other, then jab them with long metal skewers (wooden skewers won't work here!).
Step 4: Stand'em up and spread 'em
Stand those steaks up on their sides with the tenderloins pointing up and spread them out along the skewers. They should be able to stand on their own. This will allow you to smoke the steaks with the tenderloins lifted far away from the flames, ensuring that they don't overcook before the strips are done. It also makes for better smoke circulation, and precludes the need to do any flipping or turning during the smoking process. Neat, right?
Step 5: Light a small fire
Light up a very small coal fire (or if you're using a gas grill, set the burners on one side of the grill to low). I use no more than a half dozen briquettes or chunks of hardwood coal. The goal at this stage is to slowly smoke the meat without letting it get up above an internal temperature of 120°F or so.
Step 6: Add some wood chunks
Place a couple of hardwood chunks on top of the hot coals. I use hickory. Mesquite or applewood would work just as well.
Step 7: Position your steaks
Place the steaks on the opposite side of the grill, the tops of the bones facing the coals with the tenderloins positioned facing upwards.
By this stage, the wood chunks should be smoking pretty heavily. Remember: you want the fattest end of strip to be closest to the fire with the tenderloin and thinner areas of the steak further for even cooking.
Step 8: Align your vents, cover, and cook
Now that the steaks are in, the goal is to cook them as slowly and gently as possible, while making sure the fire doesn't go completely out. I aim for an internal grill temperature of around 175°F or so, which I accomplish by closing the bottom and top vents until they're only about a quarter open.
Make sure the vents on the top are positioned over the steak so that the smoke gets drawn over them as the wood chips smolder.
Step 9: Check and replenish regularly!
I crack the lid every 20 minutes or so (a cardinal sin with normal barbecue, I know!) in order to check on the progress of the steaks, making sure things aren't getting too hot or cold in there, and to replenish both coals and wood chunks as necessary. The goal here should be for the steaks to get to 115°F in around 2 hours, so adjust your temperature with extra coals as necessary by monitoring their internal temperature closely.
Once they hit around 115°F, they've gotten all the smoke they're going to get.
Step 10: Let 'em rest
Pull out the steaks and let them rest on a board. Note their gorgeous mahogany color. Resting is not strictly necessary at this stage (as it would be with a normal high-temperature steak), as they were cooked so gently that there isn't going to be any temperature gradient inside, but it gives you a good chance to take a few sips of your beer, admire the beef, and get ready for the next step.
It'll also help you make sure that they don't overcook when you subsequently throw them back on the grill.
Step 11: Build a BIG fire
While those steaks rest, build yourself a big fire. And I mean BIG. Those steaks have already cooked through to the core, so the goal is to add texture and flavor to the exterior without overcooking the center. The hotter the fire, the faster the exterior will cook and the less chance the inside will have to dry out.
I use a full chimney of lump hardwood charcoal (it burns faster and hotter than briquettes).
Step 12: Re-temp the steaks
Take the temperature of the steaks before they go back on the fire. I aim to have them at least a good 10°F below their peak high temperature to ensure that they don't overcook.
Step 13:Char 'em good, but stay under cover!
Put the steaks over the hot side of the grill, then immediately clamp down the lid. The fire is so hot and the steaks so fatty that they'll start to drip grease onto the fire as soon as they hit the grill. Covering tightly will prevent these drippings from catching fire and depositing any off-tasting soot on your steaks.
Step 14: Flip and finish
After about 45 seconds, working carefully and quickly, open the lid, flip the steaks with some long tongs, then clamp the lid right back down again for the second side to sear.
As soon as that second side is done, transfer the steaks to a cutting board.
Step 15: Admire the beauty
Ain't that just gorgeous?
Step 16: Start carving
You can serve the steaks as-is, but remember, these steaks weigh over two pounds apiece, which means that each one will serve at least two people. You should consider carving them before serving them at the table.
Start by inserting the tip of a very sharp knife into the space between the T-bone and the tenderloin, cutting through to separate it and leaving as little meat on the bone as possible.
Step 17: Remove the tenderloin
Continue working your way around the bone until the tenderloin is completely separated.
Step 18: Remove the strip
Repeat with the strip.
Step 19: Ready to Slice
You should now have two large steaks and a big-ass bone, ready to slice.
Step 20: Slice for serving
Slice the steaks across their length into bite-sized serving piece. I try not to go too thin because a nice steak like this will be plenty tender even with thicker slicing, and the thicker you slice it, the longer it'll stay warm when you serve it.
Step 21: Reassemble and serve
Reassemble the slices against the bone and place them all on a pre-heated serving platter.
Step 22: ???
Step 23: Profit
Would you take a look at that? Your steak should come out gorgeously rosy pink from the edge all the way to the center with a deep, mahogany crust and a hint of char. Because of its slow cooking, what's normally a tender steak on its own should come out almost buttery-smooth, with the sweet aroma of smoke deeply infused into its surface.
Trust me, with this guy, you don't even need a sauce (though a little compound butter never hurt, I suppose).
Where do you think you're going? There's still good meat on them there bones!