With warm weather comes the impulse to spend as much time outside as possible, and grilling is certainly one particularly enjoyable way to do that. You can cook all sorts of delicious things on a grill, beer in hand, enjoying the freedom that alfresco cooking inherently provides. From grilled chicken and barbecue classics to burgers and corn on the cob, there’s no end to the number of fabulous things one can grill. One thing reigns supreme however, in the realm of grilled foods, that thing, is, of course, steak — the star of the summer cookout.
But steak can sometimes intimidate and confound both the seasoned and amateur griller alike. What cut should you choose? What seasoning? Should it be tempered? In short, how does one ensure perfection when grilling steak? From essential tools and arranging coals to tempering, seasoning, and cooking technique, these helpful tips will ensure you stay in control when grilling and make certain you know how to grill the perfect steak.
Grill. Obviously, if you are grilling a steak, you need a grill, either gas or charcoal, to get the job done!
Chimney starter. This will make lighting your grill (if you aren’t using gas) a breeze.
Grill brush. It is important to keep your grill clean. Use a stiff wire grill brush to help scrape away any charred build-up from your grill. Make sure you clean your grill while it’s still hot — it will be a lot easier to do and, though it may feel hot, will result in a cleaner grill overall.
Strong pair of tongs. You don’t want to handle your steak over hot coals (or gas) with a flimsy pair of tongs. You could end up dropping the steak if you don’t have a good, strong grasp on things.
Meat thermometer. Even professionals use meat thermometers to check the internal temperature of their meat.
Sharp knife. Why cook a perfect steak and then ruin everything by slicing it with a dull knife? No way. Make sure your knife is sharp, so you can enjoy delicious, even slices — cut against the grain, of course.
Seasonings. Whether you are going simple, with just salt and pepper, or using a more complex marinade or rub, make sure you have everything ready to go before you begin cooking.
The four most expensive cuts of steak are rib-eye, New York strip, tenderloin, and porterhouse. These are the steaks you find most often on restaurant menus and certainly in steakhouses across the country. That’s not to say you cannot grill a more inexpensive cut to perfection.
The important thing to consider when selecting a steak is how you want to cook it, to what temperature, and how you’re going to serve it. A bone-in rib-eye is a star cut and easily stands alone, needing only simple seasoning; other cuts lend themselves particularly well to hearty marinades, and others make for fabulous tacos. No matter which cut you choose, even if it is a cheaper one, you should still cook it with care and understanding.
There’s no definitive answer to this question. It really is up to you, but knowing the differences between the two can certainly help you come to the right conclusion when deciding how you want to add flavor to your steak.
A rub is most commonly a mixture of dry spices and seasonings, like salt and pepper, that one rubs onto the surface of the meat to impart flavor. One great advantage of rubs is their ability to help create a particularly delicious crust on your steak, which helps seal in flavor and succulence.
Marinades, usually a loose and wet mixture of oils, acid, aromatics, herbs, and spices, are great to turn to when cooking thinner cuts of meat, because the marinade has more of a chance to penetrate and add maximum flavor. For marinades to be most effective, they really need a minimum of half an hour to marinate.
If you have plenty of time, the choice is totally up to you — whether you go with a marinade or rub, either will be delicious, and that’s why this is your opportunity to try out a new flavor-packed ingredient. If you are pressed for time, a rub is your best bet, since it will impart flavor and doesn’t need any time to sit.
Of course, with a really flavor-packed cut of meat, like a rib-eye, sometimes a little bit of salt and pepper is all you really need!
Charcoal can get hotter than gas, is fun to work with and does give steaks a subtle smokiness that many charcoal advocates swear by (that is , if you don’t use an abundance of chemical firestarters to get those flames going).
Gas, however, also has its pros: It is far easier to get going (making it ideal for an impromptu grilling session) and, for those who are not confident fire-tamers, it’s easier and safer to control. One of the biggest cons, when considering using a gas grill, is temperature—many gas grills (namely the cheap and more affordable models) simply do not reach the same high temperature as charcoal grills. This can result in a less than perfect crust, or a steak that has the crust, but is more medium-well than medium-rare.
If you have your heart set on a gas grill, and can afford a good one, then go for it. If not, a really cheap charcoal grill, when the heat and flame are properly managed, can certainly get the job done in a most satisfactorily delicious way.
When selecting your charcoal, the most common options are briquettes and hard wood charcoal. Briquettes tend to burn for a longer time but don’t reach the same heat as hard wood charcoal, which burns hotter, but will need to be replenished more regularly.
Use a chimney starter to light your charcoal easily and effectively. Once your grill is lit (paper at the bottom helps in getting that done), wait until the coals begin to look ashy before placing the coals around your grill.
When your coals are hot and grey, set up your grill with two distinct areas by arranging the coals on one side of your grill only. One side (the side where all of your coals are) will be for direct heat and once side will be for cooler, indirect heat.
Once your coals are all set up, make sure you let the grill preheat; you don’t want to start cooking right away. If you do, you run the risk of food sticking to the grill.
One of the biggest differences between home cooking and restaurant food is the amount of salt used. Don’t be afraid of making it rain! You want to season liberally enough to season the entire steak — the salt sits on the outside, but you want the whole thing to be delicious, right? Kosher salt is the best salt to turn to when seasoning; it’s the most commonly used all-purpose salt in almost all kitchens. The larger, coarser grains make it easier to season evenly, which is important to do when seasoning a larger surface area such as a steak.
Oil your steak before seasoning with salt and pepper — this will help the seasonings stick to the surface.
Contrary to popular belief, countless culinary experiments and side-by-side comparisons seem to indicate that it is not essential to temper your steak — i.e., bring it to room temperature — before cooking. It’s not a bad idea, though, and many cooks still swear by it.
More essential than a room-temperature steak is a dry one. If the surface of your steak is not dry before it hits the pan, you aren’t going to get that desirable crust, so make sure you pat off any excess moisture with a paper towel!
Place your steak on the hot side of the grill and leave it to develop a nice crust before flipping. Back in the day everyone was constantly told to only flip a steak once during the cooking process. Like tempering, this is now widely considered to be wrong.
Cooking times vary hugely depending on the size and cut of steak. Unless you are a pro at cooking steak, the most reliable way to gauge doneness is with a meat thermometer. There’s absolutely no shame in using a meat thermometer to help you reach the right internal temp. Just make sure you don’t repeatedly stab at your steak. A few temp checks is fine, but try not to turn your steak into a pincushion.
Remove your steak before it reaches the final temperature you are aiming for — it will keep cooking a bit once it’s off the heat. Remove your steak when it reaches the desired internal temp:
Rare: 120 F
Medium rare: 130 F
Medium: 140 F
Well done: 160 F
Once you remove your meat from the grill, it is time to rest. Place your steak on a plate and lightly cover it with some aluminum foil and leave it for (ideally) half of its cooking time, or at least 5 minutes if you really cannot wait. This gives the juices inside the meat a chance to settle back into the steak and evenly redistribute — cut into your steak too soon and they will all run out, leaving you with a disappointingly dry steak.
The last step before eating is the slicing. Carefully slice against the grain to ensure maximum tenderness. Doing so results in shorter muscle fibers which will ensure that each mouthful is buttery and delicious.
So there you have it. Cooking steak need not be daunting of difficult. As long as you are armed with the right knowledge and you cook thoughtfully and with care, a perfectly cooked steak is totally within your grasp. Learn how to choose the very best steak using The Ultimate Steak Guide.
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