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
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
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.
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
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: 700ºF 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
- 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