Tips for Grilling Steaks
I have a few rules of thumb with regard to steaks that I cook on the grill. If you’re an experienced griller, you probably follow most of them already. If you’re not, listen up and maybe you’ll learn something to improve your burgeoning skills.
Use only USDA Choice or USDA Prime cuts of steak. Any lower grade is a waste of money. I prefer Choice because Prime cuts are more expensive. One of the criteria for grading meat is marbling. Marbling is the amount of little fat flecks and strands in the meat. It’s called this because it resembles the patterns of marble stone. The more marbling, the higher the USDA grading and, hence, the juicier and more flavorful and tender the steak. Look at Choice and Prime steaks in your store and compare them…there is only a slight difference. Then, compare the Choice and Prime grades to the grade below them, USDA Select. There’s a big difference.
Here is an ugly secret: Cooks and people who write cookbooks cannot accurately determine how long your steak has to cook to reach its desired temperature of doneness, particularly on a charcoal grill. It’s up to you to do this.
Sometimes cookbook writers recommend you poke a pocket thermometer into your steak, as it is flaming away, while you simultaneously reference a Meat Temperature Chart provided in their best-selling cookbook. This is bullshit. For one thing, you’re poking a hole into the meat that, on a small scale, will cause it to “bleed out” which means a loss of juiciness and flavor. Secondly, you’re putting a thermometer into something that is over open flames. What kind of accurate reading do you think that you’ll get from this unless, of course, you’ve taken it off of the grill? “Bleeding Out” on a larger scale occurs when you cut into your steak to check doneness. Don’t do this! Other variables effecting the cooking time of steaks include meat density and thickness, fat and bone content of the steak, weather conditions, heat source level relative to the meat, evenness of that heat…and on and on. As daunting as this sounds, testing the doneness of your meat is not rocket science.
Sight and touch are the keys. Sight, because everyone can see if a steak is either undercooked or burned to cinders (but your eyes can fool you—a steak can appeared burned on the outside and be bloody red in the middle…this is actually called “Pittsburgh Style” or “Black & Blue”…if you like it this way, go for it!). Touch, because that is the method all professionals use to determine the degree of doneness in a piece of meat. It’s simple, but it takes practice: Using two fingers, press down firmly and quickly on the thickest part of the steak after the second side has cooked for a few minutes…Rare feels rubbery, Medium-rare feels a little firmer, Medium feels more firm than rubbery…after that, you’re on your own because, in my opinion, anything beyond a medium-cooked steak is a waste. Sorry, I’m a snob.
When you believe that your steak is done, take it off of the grill and let it “rest” for at least five minutes. Simply, don’t serve it or cut into it for this amount of time or longer. It has been over a high heat and is still very hot and, strangely enough, it is holding enough heat to still be cooking. Moreover, allowing it to cool allows the juices, fat and marbling to “set”, yielding a more perfect looking and better-tasting steak. Sometimes, I undercook steaks with a higher fat content to a doneness temperature just below the desired doneness. Fattier steaks seem to cook to a greater degree of doneness while resting than leaner cuts.
You can use a spray bottle of water to keep the flames down if that’s what you like doing. Using it too much will steam or smoke the meat, though. When the coals in my grill are too hot, I just wait for them to die down. Just find something else to do for ten or fifteen minutes.
Pre-seasoning your steaks before grilling is a matter of preference. I hardly ever pre-season a steak with anything other than kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Sometimes, I’ll go completely nuts and use a little Worcestershire sauce or soy sauce as a replacement for the salt, usually on leaner cuts of meat. I like to taste the meat, preferring to make a sauce—such as Bordelaise—to accompany the steak as an option, or to brush the steak with a little bit of a smoky BBQ sauce towards the end of grilling the meat, usually on steaks with a little more fat.
If you like dry spice rubs, you can either make your own or buy any one of hundreds to choose from currently on the market. I find that they tend to burn too much on the grill and are better suited to coating steaks that you pan-sear indoors…the only drawback to this is that rubs tend to put off a lot of smoke no matter where you cook with them and, indoors in the wintertime, this isn’t a pretty thing.
I seldom use marinades as pre-seasoning for steaks. Marinades are usually used to break down the toughness and tendons in cheaper cuts and grades of meat. When I use Worcestershire or soy—a simple marinade—on good cuts, I use it sparingly and only apply it ten to twenty minutes before I begin grilling the meat. Marinating steaks any longer than twenty minutes will overwhelm the flavor of the beef.
My recipe for garlic/peppercorn marinade is great on steaks if used sparingly and if applied to the steak for no longer than twenty minutes before it hits the grill. The garlic sauce that I make perfectly accompanies the steak also, whether you use the peppercorn marinade or not. Like I said, it’s all a matter of preference.
I always let my steaks sit outside of the fridge for an hour or so before cooking them. Cooking a room-temperature steak seems to yield a better result in attaining the right degree of doneness in the steak…whether I’m grilling it or cooking it indoors. If you have a large, agile dog like my dog, Louie, you’ll want to put it someplace out of reach. I’d like to say that Louie knows a good steak when he sniffs it, but we’re talking about a beast that has eaten socks, underwear, cans of sardines (can and all), moth balls and, as a pup, frozen cat turds. He is a wonder of nature. He’s never been sick. He’s like a Billy goat in a dog suit. He does love grilling day, though….as do I.