S e a r c h


A perfectly grilled steak

August 25, 2001
By JOE O'CONNELL, cbbqa Past President 

Few gastronomic pleasures compare with the enjoyment of a perfectly grilled steak.  Here, of course, we are talking about beef steak.  The technique is simplicity itself, but there are pitfalls, and many cooks make mistakes.

The best guide for grilling a steak is the book by C. Clark "Smoky" Hale, The Great American Barbecue & Grilling Manual.

Select the best steak possible

Each fine steak should be cut either thick (from 1 1/2" to 1 3/4") or very thick (from 2" to 3").  Do not purchase a steak which is only 1" thick or even less.  The reason is that a thick steak can be grilled in such a way that the caramelized surface contrasts in appearance, taste and tenderness with the rare or medium rare interior.

The sirloin steak should be the highest USDA Grade that is affordable.  Prime is best, but Choice is very good too.  Be careful with the purchase of USDA Select Grade sirloin (and other steak):  they are often injected with 10% or more of salted water to make them tender, and the consume is paying a very high price per pound for all that injected water.

The steak should be well marbled.  This means that there are very thin flecks and lines of fat distributed evenly in the steak, but there are no thick, heavy streaks of fat.  Heavy marbling cannot properly cook (render or melt) during the short period of grilling, so the fat streaks will give the steak a tough and fatty taste.  Hale at 77

Before grilling

About two hours before grilling, remove the steaks from the refrigerator to bring them completely to room temperature.  

Trim the steaks of all noticeable fat.  This is very important but often ignored.  On a grill, any pieces of fat on a steak will cause flare-ups and flames.  Flare-ups are caused by the untrimmed fat, which melts, drips into the coals, and flares back up.  Flare-ups blacken the steak and give it an unpleasant off-taste.  In addition, medical researchers have evidence that flare-ups are carcinogenic.

About 45 minutes before grilling, start the fire.  This refers to real grills, which use the coals of wood, lump or even briquettes.  Even for gas grills, however, it is important to pre-heat them.  No matter what the heat source, the temperature should be as high as reasonably possible:  700F or more at the grill level.  (Use the hand test to measure the temperature:  if you can put your hand close to the grill and count to 1, then it is not quite hot enough.  Id.

Immediately before grilling, when the fire is ready and the grill is very hot, wipe the steaks with paper towels to dry the surface completely.  Do not put any salt on them.  Purists will also not put any other seasoning on the steak, because they prefer the pure meat flavor of fine steak.

Grill the steaks

Put the steaks over the coals.  There will be no flare-ups if the steaks were trimmed properly.  

The steak will "grab" the grill when it is first put on -- as the caramelization begins, the cooking juices will stick to the grill -- but when the grill "releases" the steak (after a minute or two -- but use the "release" test, not the clock), then flip it.  Continue to flip the steak after the grill releases it for a number of times, depending on the thickness of the steak and how rare they should be.  When done, the steak will have a deep brown, caramelized color, with darker brown stripes from the grill, but it will not be charred or blackened.  Hale at 79.  

Test for doneness by touch.  Use the back of the tongs (use tongs not a fork for turning, so that the interior juices are not released) to press the steak and learn to feel how steak bounced when it is very rare, rare, etc.  Never overcook a steak!  It is much safer to take the steak off early.  A over-cooked steak is a total loss, but an undercooked one can always be put back on for a minute or two.  Until they have perfected the touch test, novices should use a small knife to cut into the thickest part, to see if it is done.  However, novices must remember that the steak will continue to cook for two or three minutes (depending on thickness) after being removed from the grill, so when using the knife test for doneness, remove the steak before it looks completely done.  It will finish cooking while it rests.

Serve the steaks

Remove the steak to a pre-warmed (but not hot) plate, and allow it to rest for a few minutes.  

If the steaks are not in individual portions, cut the steak across the grain.  The rule of thumb for the thickness of each slice is:  the tastier the steak, then the thinner the slice, and the more tender the steak, then the thicker the slice.


Common mistakes in grilling

As explained above, many cooks make mistakes in grilling steaks, so their results often disappoint.  Here are a few classic mistakes to avoid:

  • Do not use Select Grade steak -- they may be fine for stews but will disappoint on the grill.  Instead, buy the best grade that you can afford.
  • Do not salt the steaks before grilling.  Pre-salting will inhibit the surface browning.
  • Remember to trim all visible fat before grilling -- otherwise, the fat will drip and cause flare-ups, which blacken the steak and gives it an off-taste.
  • Remember to let the grill come to a very high temperature before putting on the steak.  This usually take 30 to 40 minutes, so plan ahead.
  • Let the steak come completely to room temperature before putting it on the grill.  This will allow the steak's interior to cook more quickly, and this is important for a perfectly grilled steak that is rare on the inside and dark brown but not over-cooked on the outside.
  • Dry the steak thoroughly with paper towels just before putting it on the grill.  Otherwise, the surface will boil and braise, not broil.
  • For the pure taste of great steak, do not marinade or season the steak with anything prior to grilling.  When serving the steak, let each guest seasons his/her own steak, because many prefer the flavor with little or no salt, pepper or other seasonings.






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