Summer's here and I've got a brand-new backyard to grill in, so now seems like as good a time as any to reexamine some of the things we know (or think we know) about grilling beef.
Sure, we can all agree on what our 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 have 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.
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.
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 counterintuitive: 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 needs.
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 that's much better than what you'll find at any steakhouse.
Ready to dive in? Let's go!
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The Food Lab's Definitive Guide to Grilled Steak
The Short Version
This is a long one, so if you want quick payoff, here are the 12 tips we're going to discuss. All of them play into this recipe for perfect grilled ribeye steaks and these slow-smoked porterhouse steaks.
- Start with the right cut (I prefer ribeye).
- Check for marbling (you want plenty of intramuscular fat).
- Buy a thick steak (at least one and a half to two 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 do it a minimum of 40 minutes ahead of time.)
- For better searing, rest your steak uncovered on a wire rack in the fridge at least overnight and up to four days.
- Use hardwood coal if you've got it (but briquettes will work just fine), and arrange the coals in a two-zone pattern with all the heat under one half of the grill.
- 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 don't have one, go ahead and poke or cut-and-peek; it won't harm the steak.
- Let your meat rest. (Your meat should rest for about a third of the time it took to cook in order to prevent excess moisture loss.)
Want more detail? Good, you're my kind of people. Let's dive deeper.
Selecting the Right Cut
First, a definition. Steaks are basically any piece of meat that falls under the category of "fast-cooking" cuts—cuts that are low enough in connective tissue that they don't require the long cooking times that "slow-cooking" cuts require. The difference between a steak and roast essentially comes down to size. Any good roast can be cut into individual steaks (although, unfortunately, it's not possible to put together several steaks into a large roast without the aid of transglutaminase, or at the very least, a reliable time machine).
The Four High-End Steaks You Should Know
The kings of the steakhouse are still those cuts that come from the Longissimus dorsi and the Psoas major. The Longissimus dorsi are a pair of long, tender muscles that run down either side of the spine of the steer, outside the ribs, all the way from the neck to the hip. The tenderness of a steak is inversely related to the amount of work that a muscle does during the steer's lifetime. The Longissimus dorsi (commonly referred to as the loin or the backstrap) are relatively unused muscles, so they're extremely tender, making them an ideal candidate for steak (and also quite expensive).
The Psoas major are a pair of shorter muscles that start about two-thirds of the way down the steer's spine and run on the inside of the ribs. Commonly referred to as the filet mignon or tenderloin, they're by far the tenderest piece of meat on the steer. That, coupled with their small size make them most expensive cut at the butcher (that whole supply-and-demand thing, you know?)
Out of these two muscles come a number of cuts. Here's what you'll find at the typical butcher.
Also Sold As: Beauty Steak, Market Stek, Delmonico Steak, Spencer Steak, Scotch Filet, Entrecôte.
What It Tastes Like: Highly marbled with a large swath of fat separating the Longissiumus from the Spinalis. Fat is where a lot of the distinctive flavor of beef comes from, making ribeye one of the richest, beefiest cut available. The central eye of meat tends to be smooth textured with a finer grain than a strip steak, while the Spinalis section will have a looser grain and more fat. Many people (myself included) consider the Spinalis to be the absolute tastiest quick-cooking cut on the cow.
Also Sold As: New York Strip, Kansas City Strip, Top Sirloin (which has nothing to do with the Sirloin primal of the steer, or the Sirloin Steak, which is an entirely different cut), Top Loin, Shell Steak (when sold bone-in), Contre-filet
What It Tastes Like: Tight texture with a definite grain means strip steaks are moderately tender, but still have a bit of chew. Good marbling and a strong beefy flavor. Not as robust as ribeye, but much easier to trim with no large pockets of fat, making it an easy-to-cook, easy-to-eat cut. A favorite of steakhouses.
Also Sold As: Filet, Filet mignon, Fillet, Châteaubriand (when cut as a large, center-cut roast feeding two or more), Tournedo (when cut from the smaller tapered section of the tenderloin closest to the Rib primal).
What It Tastes Like: Extremely tender with an almost buttery texture. Very low in fat, and correspondingly low in flavor. To be honest, unless you are looking for a low-fat cut or prize tenderness above all-else, you're better off with one of the other, less expensive cuts.
Also Sold As: Porterhouse (when tenderloin section is 1 1/2-inches or wider)
The T-bone is a two-for-one cut—it's comprised of a piece of tenderloin, and a piece of strip separated by a T-shaped bone. The regular T-bone is cut from the front end of the Short loin primal, just after the tenderloin starts, giving it a smallish piece of tenderloin (between 1/2- and 1 1/2-inches wide). A Porterhouse steak, on the other hand, is cut from further back and has a section of tenderloin at least 1 1/2-inches wide.
See how the two steaks fit together?
What It Tastes Like: The strip section tastes like strip, and the tenderloin tastes like, well, tenderloin.
The Six Inexpensive Steaks You Should Know
These are the steaks that butchers and chefs love to use because not only are they more inexpensive, but they've got character. Many of them are whole muscles that must be trimmed by the butcher just-so if you want them to be tender and large enough to cook as steaks. There are also not many of them on a steer. For every 20 pounds of ribeyes and T-bones you can get off a steer, you get two hanger steaks. That ain't much.
These butcher's cuts tend to be more packed with flavor because of the work they do, yet because they're not as marketable to the general public and require a bit more skill to cook and serve correctly, they remain much cheaper than their mainstream counterparts. This is good news for you if you want to maximize your flavor and your dollar.
Also Sold As: Butcher's steak, hangar (this is an incorrect spelling but appears frequently), arrachera (Mexico), fajitas arracheras (South Texas), bistro steak, onglet (France).
Where It's Cut From: From the plate section of the cow (the front of the belly), it "hangs" off of the cow's diaphragm, hence the name. U.S. meat-cutting classification of NAMP 140.
What It Tastes Like: Strongly beefy with a distinct minerality, it can occasionally come off as tasting livery to those with palates that are sensitive to that flavor. For my money, it's one of the tastiest cuts on the cow. Because of its loose texture, it takes well to marinating. I generally rub mine in a mixture of olive oil with garlic, fresh herbs, and peppercorns for a day or so before wiping it dry and grilling. When butchered into individual steaks, it has a triangular cross-section that can make it a bit difficult to cook evenly. It takes well to high heat, and should be cooked no less than medium-rare (otherwise it stays fleshy and wet), and no more than medium (or it gets tough and dry).
Also Sold As: Fajita meat, Roumanian Strip (New York).
Where It's Cut From: The outside skirt is the diaphragm muscle of the cow, cut from the plate. It is the traditional cut for fajitas, and is generally sold to restaurants. Inside skirt is part of the flank, and is the more widely available form of skirt.
What It Tastes Like: Extremely rich and buttery with lots of fat and a loose, strongly grained texture. It practically bastes itself as it cooks. Skirt steak is thin, so it must be cooked over very intense heat so that it can char on the outside before it overcooks in the center. Unless it is cut correctly, it can be inedibly tough and chewy. It must be cut into sections, then sliced thinly against the grain, as it is for classic fajitas. Skirt can also be braised into dishes like Cuban ropa vieja, where it pulls apart into long, stringy strands.
The Short Rib
This is the most underrated grilling steak on the steer! Most people only know it in its braised form. Grilled and sliced thin, it is one of the most juicy and flavorful cuts you've ever tasted.
Also Sold As: Kalbi (Korean), Jacob's Ladder (U.K., when cut across the bones), asado de tira (Argentina)
Where It's Cut From: The ribs. Short ribs can be cut numerous ways, but come from the area of the ribs a bit further down towards the belly than rib steaks or strip steaks (which come from closer up towards the back). When cut into long slabs with bone sections about 6 to 8-inches in length, they are referred to as "English cut." When sliced across the bones so that each slice receives four to five short sections of bone, they are known as "flanken style." Korean restaurants will often butterfly the meat while still attached to the bone, allowing it to unfurl into long, thin pieces that pick up marinade well and get far more tender than whole ribs.
What It Tastes Like: Extraordinarily rich, beefy, and juicy, it's one of the most well-marbled cuts on the animal. The flavor is very similar to the spinalis dorsi—the ribeye cap, which is the tastiest part of the ribeye steak. Some people may find it to be almost too rich, but I personally love the flavor when served in reasonably-sized portions. Unless sliced very thinly against the grain, short ribs can be quite tough—most people are familiar with them as a slow-cooking cut used primarily for braising. For my money, short ribs are are the greatest steak value available. All the flavor of the best ribeye steak, at perhaps a quarter of the cost.
The Flap (Sirloin Tip)
Also Sold As: Faux hanger, bavette (France), sirloin tip (New England).
Where It's Cut From: The bottom sirloin butt—the same general region where the tri-tip comes from.
What It Tastes Like: Extremely loose in texture with a sweet, beefy minerality, it can also come across as livery sometimes, particularly when it's stored in a vacuum-sealed bag. The flap is coarse-grained and soft to the point of mushiness when raw or rare, so it should be cooked to at least medium-rare. Like skirt and hanger, it must be cut closely against the grain to minimize toughness.
The Flank Steak
Also Sold As: London broil, sobrebarriga (Colombia).
Where It's Cut From: The flank is located on the far back end of the belly of the steer, where the belly meets the rear legs.
What It Tastes Like: Relatively mild flavor for a butcher's cut with a tight, dense, and very strong grain. You should be able to identify if quite easily. Because it comes in a single square piece with a nice 1-inch thickness and clean edges for slicing, flank has become increasingly popular over the years and is often as expensive as one of the pricier loin cuts. Like most butcher's cuts, it must be sliced thinly against the grain for tenderness.
Flank steaks are particularly good candidates for stuffing and rolling, which adds both flavor and texture.
Also Sold As: Santa Maria Steak, Newport Steak (when cut into individual steaks), aguillote baronne (France), punta de anca, punta de Solomo, or colita de cuadril (Latin America), maminha (Brazil).
Where It's Cut From: The bottom sirloin, from the muscle group that controls the steers back legs (it applies its force to the steer's kneecap).
What It Tastes Like: Very lean with a mild flavor somewhat reminiscent of eye round, though with a more pronounced juiciness and beef flavor. Because of its severely tapering shape, it can be difficult to cook to the right doneness the whole way through. The smaller end inevitably overcooks to a degree. Tri-tip extremely popular in Santa Maria where it is cooked over red oak wood. It takes well to smoke and spice rubs and should not be cooked past medium rare, unless being used in a braised dish such as chili.
How to Buy a Good Steak
Q: Prime, Choice, or Select. What do they mean? [top]
Cattle are graded after slaughter according to the degree of marbling, as well as the cow's age.
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 has plenty of marbling.
Q: How does marbling affect flavor and cooking? [top]
I held a blind beef tasting pitting Choice grade beef against Prime, cooking both in the exact same manner and to the same temperature (oh the horrors I put up with in the name of science!). Of the eight tasters present, there was an overwhelming and unanimous preference for the Prime-graded beef, though the Choice was still quite tasty.
Prime generally costs about 25% more per pound then Choice, which is a hefty chunk of change, but to my mind it's worth it. I'd rather have a little less great meat than more not-as-great meat.
Because beef fat is solid at room temperature and can have an unpleasant, waxy texture, I generally recommend that the more well-marbled the beef, the more you cook it. A well-marbled Prime steak I'd take to at least medium-rare, or even to medium territory. A super-lean grass-fed Select or Choice steak, on the other hand, I might recommend on the cooler side of medium-rare. This may explain why the French, whose beef is extremely lean, prefer to eat their steak bleu, or pretty much raw in the center.
Q: Do I want grass-fed or grain-fed? [top]
From a health perspective, many studies indicate that grass-fed beef is healthier. But if we're eating steaks for dinner, who're we kidding anyway? It's certainly healthier for cows, a ruminant animal whose digestive system has evolved to break down grass. According to NYU professor Marion Nestle, grass-fed cows tend to have lower levels of E. coli, require fewer antibiotics, and have lower levels of dangerous bacteria in their feces, making them all-in-all safer to consume. They also tend to have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids (that's the healthy stuff), as well as a higher level of trans conjugated linoleic acids (CLA's).
As for flavor, it really depends on who you ask. For the average American palate, the fatty, well-marbled texture of grain-fed beef is the standard which most steak houses and fancy hotels will hold in the highest regard. But there's certainly something to be said for the generally gamier flavor of 100% grass-fed beef. Check out our grass-fed vs. grain-fed burger taste test for some more insights.
Q: How thick should my steak be? [top]
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. Very 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.
Q: Should I buy pre-cut steaks or cut them myself? [top]
Buying a whole strip loin is not only a great way to save money on expensive steaks (at Costco, for instance, I can find Prime grade New York strip loins at less than half the cost of buying individual steaks from Whole Foods or another supermarket that carries Prime meat), it also gives you more control over your final product, allowing you to manage the thickness of each steak as well as the size of the fat cap.
A whole strip can run 10 to 15 pounds, and will yield anywhere between 10 and 20 steaks, depending on how thick you like them (I recommend going at least an inch and a half). Once you've cut your steaks, they can be vacuum sealed or placed into freezer bags and frozen for up to a couple months.
Q: Bone-in or boneless? [top]
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 of 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.
Q: What is dry-aging? [top]
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, two major things happen:
- Tenderizing occurs when enzymes naturally present in the meat act to break down some of the tougher muscle fibers.
- Flavor change. Due to numerous reasons including enzymatic and bacterial action, properly dry-aged meat will develop deep nutty, cheesy aromas. Fat will also oxidize, providing more depth of flavor.
Traditional wisdom says that dry-aged meat also loses moisture, concentrating its flavor. However, after extensive testing, I've found this not to be the case. It's true that a whole prime rib that's been dry-aged will be about 30% lighter than when it started, but that moisture loss is relegated almost solely to the exterior of the meat—the bits that get trimmed off before cooking. The parts that are actually cooked and consumed are no denser or dryer than any fresh steak.
Q: What's the difference between wet and dry-aging? [top]
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, but it will not show any changes in flavor (in fact, some folks find that wet-aged meat has a sort of "serum-y" flavor, which is not a good thing).
Q: Is dry-aging worth it? [top]
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. In blind taste tests I've performed, most folks prefer the slightly funky flavor and tenderness of steak aged between 28 to 45 days (any less than that and there is no discernible flavor difference). Some folks like to go even further. At 60 days, you can expect some major blue cheese funk, and it goes up from there.
Q: Can I dry-age steak myself? [top]
Yes you can! But you cannot age single steaks, no matter what any source has told you. Wrapping a steak in cheesecloth and putting it in the fridge for a week will help it brown and sear better, but it will not create new flavors or improve tenderness in any measurable way.
You can, on the other hand, dry-age whole cuts of beef on your own, provided you have a mini fridge, a fan, and some patience. Here's a complete guide to dry-aging at home.
Q: What tools will I need? [top]
Not too many, actually. All you need is a good grill (I prefer charcoal myself) like the classic Weber Kettle Grill, a charcoal chimney starter (do not use self-lighting coals or lighter fluid unless you want your steak to taste like gasoline), and a set of locking tongs. That's it.
Q: Hardwood, briquettes, or gas? [top]
In terms of flavor and searing ability, a coal-fired grill is superior to a gas grill, and that's that. Gas cannot reach the high temperatures that coal does, nor does it impart any of the singed, smoky flavors of truly excellent grilled meat. It does, however, offer convenience, so if you're a first-time grill shopper, keep those things in mind.
In the debate between types of coal, 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), cheaper, 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.
Q: How should I set my heat sources? [top]
I use what's called a two-zone fire—that's what you get when you pile all of the coals underneath one side of the grill. The idea is that you create two separate cooking zones, one hot for searing and the other cool for more gently cooking. This gives you optimal control over cooking the interior and exterior of your meat.
Q: When should I salt my steak? [top]
Should you salt your meat right before cooking, well before cooking, or 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.
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. You can read more about the differences between table salt and kosher salt here.
Q: How heavily should I season my steak? [top]
Quite heavily! A thick steak will be seasoned only on its exterior, so you need enough salt to carry that flavor through. I always have a hard time describing how much salt to use, but my best description is the way a light snow flurry looks on a dark asphalt parking lot. Not completely white, but enough salt that you can see it very, very clearly.
I also like to keep a high-quality coarse sea salt like Maldon or fleur-de-sel at the table to serve with the steak, sprinkling it on the interior of individual slices as I eat.
Q: I've heard people tell me to pull my steaks out and let them come to room temperature before cooking them. Is there any merit in that? [top]
You want your meat to cook evenly from edge to center. Therefore, the closer it is to its final eating temperature, the more evenly it will cook. Letting it sit on the counter for 20 to 30 minutes will bring the steak up to room temperature. The warmer meat will brown better, the thinking goes, because you don't need to waste energy from the pan to take the chill off of its surface. This seems to make sense. Unfortunately, it doesn't hold up in testing.
I found that with a thick steak, even after two hours of sitting out at room temperature, the center of the steak had risen by a measly 19 degrees or so, not even 15% of the way to its final target temperature. Not only that, but when cooked side by side with a steak straight from the fridge, the end results were completely indistinguishable.
Here's the issue: Steak can't brown until most of the moisture has evaporated from the layers of meat closest to the surface, and it takes a hell of a lot of energy to evaporate moisture. To put it in perspective. It takes five times more energy to convert a single gram of water into steam than it does to raise the temperature of that water all the way from ice cold to boiling hot. So when searing a steak, the vast majority of energy that goes into it is used to evaporate moisture from its surface layers. Next to that energy requirement, a 20, 30, or even 40 degree difference in the temperature of the surface of the meat is a piddling affair.
The Takeaway: Don't bother letting your steaks rest at room temperature.
Q: Anything else I should do to prepare my steak for cooking? [top]
Yes! The single best thing you can do to improve your steak is to let it rest on a rack uncovered in the fridge at least overnight and up to a few nights. This process is not "dry-aging" as some folks will have you believe, but rather it accomplishes an entirely different goal: drying out the exterior. The vast majority of energy that goes into a steak in the early stages of cooking are spent converting surface moisture to steam. Without that surface moisture, your steak will brown much more efficiently, which means less overcooked meat underneath the surface.
Q: How should I cook my steak? [top]
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 the entire time (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. I call the method the "reverse sear," and it's gonna change the way you make your steaks forever.
Also note that for a gas grill, closing the lid will increase the temperature inside the grill, whereas for a coal grill, closing the lid will starve the coal of oxygen and thus decrease the temperature. Make sure to preheat gas grills with the lid closed before searing that steak!
Q: Should I stuff or marinate my steak? [top]
Q: How often should I flip my steak? [top]
People say you should only flip your steak once. People say many things, not all of them true.
The reality is that multiple flipping will not only get your steak to cook faster—up to 30% faster!—but will actually cause it to cook more evenly, as well. This is because—as food writer Harold McGee has explained—by flipping frequently, the meat on any given side will neither heat up nor cool down significantly with each turn. If you imagine that you can flip your steak infinitely fast,* then you can see that what ends up happening is that you approximate cooking the steak simultaneously from both sides, but at a gentler pace. Gentler cooking = more even cooking.
* ...and we, for a moment, forget that physical properties such as air resistance, friction, and, oh, the speed of light, exist.
While it's true that it takes a bit longer over the hot side of the grill to build up the same level of crust in a multi-flipper steak, the fact that it cooks more evenly means that you can cook over the hot side a bit longer, without the risk of burning the outside before the center cooks. You can also avoid creating a harsh temperature gradient inside the meat, as you would if you were to cook it entirely over the hot side without flipping.
What's more, as Russ Parson's noted in the LA Times, you'll also minimize the curling and cupping problems that can occur when fat and connective tissue shrinks faster than meat as it cooks.
There are two possible advantages to the single-flip method. The first is that if you like pretty grill marks, you won't get them with multi-flipping. The second is that multi-flipping can be a pain in the butt if you have a ton of meat on the grill.
You don't have to flip your steaks multiple times, but if someone tells you that you're ruining your steak by flipping it over and over, you can assure them that science is on your side.
Q: How do I know when my steak is done? [top]
Some people tell you to poke your meat. This is not a joke.
The theory is that a seasoned cook can tell how well-done a steak is by poking it with their finger. If it's rare, it should feel like the fleshy part of your hand at the base of your thumb when you touch your thumb to your index finger. Medium is if you touch it to your middle finger. Well-done is if you touch it to your ring finger. Capisce?
But the reality is that there are so many uncontrolled variables in this assay that it boggles the mind that anyone would think it's at all accurate. First off, not all hands are created equal. My thumb is squishier than my wife's thumb. Should I gauge my steak's doneness based on hers or mine? Or perhaps some Harry Potter-esque universal constant will make her steak conform to the rheological properties of her hand, and mine conform to mine.*
*Can you imagine how fun that'd be at a cook-out? Hey Jeff, would you mind coming over here for a second so I can poke your thumb? Yeah, I'm just checking if your steak is done. Oh, and bring Molly over for a good thumb-poking while you're at it, I think I might have overcooked hers. Yeesh!
Then we get to the meat itself. Thick steaks don't compress the same way as thin steaks. Fatty steaks don't compress the same way as lean steaks. Tenderloins don't compress like ribeyes. You get the picture. More than once I've seen a macho grill cook take an unfamiliar cut of meat, apply the poke test, and come out completely off the mark when the steak is sliced.*
*This usually happens when they are dealing with, say, an ultra-expensive, highly marbled true kobe steak for the first time, which has completely different compression properties than its leaner counterparts. The result is ruined steaks and ruined egos.
Truth is, if you work in a restaurant where you are cooking very similar cuts of meat on a regular basis, then you will eventually develop the ability to tell their doneness by poking. Throw some irregularity into that mix, and that ability quickly disappears.
There's only one 100% reliable way that I know of to guarantee that your meat will be perfectly cooked every single time, and that's by using a thermometer.
An accurate instant-read thermometer like the Thermapen by Thermoworks. Get one. It's a little pricey, but you will quickly make back that money by never overcooking another piece of expensive meat again, no matter how big it is, how fatty it is, or how squishy your thumb is.
If you don't want to lay down the cash for a Thermapen, the Thermopop comes at a fraction of the price and performs many of the same duties nearly as well. I highly recommend it. Check out my comparative review of the two products.
Finally, if you find yourself in a bind with no thermometer (the horrors!), go ahead and cut into the steak with a knife to check on doneness. A steak is not a water balloon. A little incision won't seriously harm it. Just bear in mind that it will appear much more rare than it will actually be after it's rested and its juices have settled in, so pull it a little earlier than you think you should.
Q: What if I want more smoke flavor in my steak? [top]
You want that meat extra-smoky? You're going to have to use wood chunks and extend the cooking time by lowering the heat way, way down. I do this by starting with large cuts like porterhouses, then skewering them side by side, allowing them to stand upright so more smoke can circulate around them.
After a couple of hours at very low heat, they're cooked through. All you have to do is start a raging inferno of a fire and sear them just before serving.
Q: Do I need to let my steak rest? How long? [top]
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 2012 Cookbook of the Year 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 works. That said, if you are using the reverse-sear method, then resting is largely unnecessary: the steak cooked gently enough that there is not a large temperature gradient inside it anyway.
Q: Should I pre-carve my steak before serving? [top]
I like pre-carving large steaks because I normally cook steaks big enough to serve at least two people. Carving also gives a moment for that lovely rosy color to develop in the meat as it is exposed to oxygen. The downside, of course, is that the steak loses heat faster. If you do plan on carving your steak before serving, do it just before serving and place the meat on a warm serving platter or on a wooden cutting board (both will keep it hot longer than a cool ceramic plate).
Isn't that pretty?
Q: Do you have a favorite steak knife or serving tool? [top]
I do! I really love my Laguiole steak knives. They're well-balanced, stylish, long-lasting, and a real joy to use. Some steak aficionados will shun serrated knives. I, for one, don't mind them, especially the micro-serrated variety. They cut more easily without sharpening, and who really cares if the bite of steak you're about to put in your mouth has a mirror finish on its cut face or not?
Q: Any good side dishes to serve with grilled steak? [top]
When it comes to serving steak, I like to keep everything pretty primal and simple with side dishes that are easy to prepare in advance or at the last minute. Nothing fancy, just some spears of great grilled asparagus, a green salad with a simple (but properly constructed!) vinaigrette, and a potato salad are all it takes. That steak should remain front and center. You've put a lot of work into it.
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