A quintessential part of summer grilling, a perfectly cooked steak with that charred, slightly smoky exterior and juicy, tender meat makes any meal complete. The best part is they’re easy to cook and are incredibly satisfying. Plus, they can be prepared simply with salt and pepper, topped with salsas, or marinated in a chimichurri sauce or a variety of flavors. Using a good quality piece of meat is a large factor in the outcome of the dish, but even if you have the most beautiful cut of meat, you can completely destroy it by overcooking it. And then all those lovely marinades, salsas, and side dishes will have nothing to pair with.
What should the perfect steak look like? According to Smith, it should taste like beef, have a good texture that’s not too firm but not too soft either. Generally a thick cut works well with lots of marbling (marbling is the fat that’s dispersed throughout the meat); this provides it with the juiciness, so look for evenly distributed fat instead of just clumps. Smith provides some basic tips on grilling from the seasoning to the feel of the meat, so you never have to fear for your steak again.
At home, Smith veers toward skirt steak because it provides good marbling inside the meat and not just fat, plus it’s usually a good price. But rib eyes are also a great option. (Photo courtesy of Istock/stu99)
For good-quality steaks that don’t need to be marinated (like rib eyes), Smith recommends seasoning them heavily with salt and pepper immediately before grilling. If you do it for longer, it will draw out the moisture. How much salt? Smith says that his steaks are white when they go on the grill because most of the salt falls off anyway. However, for cuts like strip steak that benefit from some marinating time, he usually uses a chimichurri (minus the vinegar/acid for the marinade, but then adding it to the half of the sauce that he uses to top the steaks). A lot of times he mops on a sweet BBQ sauce when the steak is almost done cooking, so the sugars caramelize instead of burn (which happens if you put it on the grill for too long). Or he adds a dollop of sriracha for extra heat.
While a wood-burning grill is best, it can be difficult to regulate the heat on them. He recommends that home cooks use a gas grill so that they can keep it at a steady medium-high heat — this will also give the steaks a good brown crust.
Every grill is different, so make sure that you are familiar with the intensity and heat of your grill. Test it out by holding your hands over the grates to see how hot it is and make sure to remember where the cool spots are. Smith recommends cooking over medium-high heat.
Check Out: 8 Grilling Slip-Ups and How to Fix Them