Extreme Steak: Wild And Crazy Ways To Get A Killer Sear
In my article on how to make great steakhouse steaks I discuss the importance of getting a good sear on the exterior. Here are four highly unconventional methods that work amazingly well: The Afterburner Method, the Vigneron Method, the Caveman Method, and the Stripsteak Method.
The afterburner method
So I was doing some 3/4" ribeyes the other night. I started some charcoal in a chimney to toss on my trusty Weber Kettle because I wanted max heat for that great dark whiskey colored exterior.
When I looked at the chimney and noticed it looked like the afterburner of a fighter jet. Big blue and red flames, hardly visible. So I put a cast iron frying pan on top and read the temp in the pan with an infrared laser thermometer. Almost 800°F! So I took the pan off, put a wire rack right on top of the chimney, and tossed the meat on.
Perfect dead on sear, deep mahogany brown, in less than three minutes per side and cooked perfectly to medium rare in the center!
Now keep in mind that cooking at Warp 10 is not right for all steaks. It works best only on steaks 1/2 to 3/4" thick. It is ideal for skirt steaks for fajitas. The secret is that it puts massive amounts of heat on one surface at a time and cooks it so quickly that the interior doesn't get too hot. At lower temps the heat progresses through the surface to the interior, and by the time you have a good dark sear on the outside, the inside is overcooked. That's the problem with fajitas. You have such a tasty piece of meat in the skirt steak, but the center is almost always grey. Nevermore.
A few tricks: Make sure to salt the meat but don't pepper it. The heat will carbonize the pepper and make it bitter. Make sure you pat the meat dry first otherwise it will steam the surface. In fact, if you want to paint the surface with a little oil, that will help crisp it even more. When the meat is on, move it around a bit because the wire grate can brand the meat with some serious black grill marks, too black. Just make sure you have all the side dishes cooked before you put on the meat because it cooks in about 2 to 3 minutes per side. For slightly thicker steaks, you can cover them with a metal bowl so the meat will cook from the top by convection.
Postscript: I'm a huge fan of the Food Network's Alton Brown, and readers have pointed out that in a 2010 episode titled "Porterhouse Rules" he attempted to duplicate the extreme heat that steakhouses use to broil steaks with heat from above. He took a chimney, fired it up, lifted it, dusted off the grate, placed the steak on the grate, placed the chimney above the steak, cooked for 1 minute, flipped the steak and repeated. Well I tried this and, as AB warned, the steak got a light dusting of ash and a coal fell onto it. Sorry, AB, my method is better. I can flip the steaks often on top, and there is no ash.
The vingneron method
When visiting wineries in Bordeaux, the French region that makes wine perfectly designed for steaks under 1" thick, I saw a cooking method that blew me away.
Every winter vineyard owners prune most of the new branches, called canes, off the vines. They then have huge piles of grapevine wood, rarely thicker than a pencil.
During the fall harvest season vignerons will take a big stack of dried canes, and set them on fire. They quickly burn down to a glowing mound, and the workers will grill meats over the embers. The flavor is exquisite. The French call this method sarment (pronounced sar-mahn), and the Spanish call it sarmiento.
Here in Illinois grapevines abound wild in the woods and grow on fences along the roadside. I even planted a few Himrod table grapes (the best I have ever tasted) and I save the prunings. Each year I get enough wood for one cook per every two vines.
I crumple two sheets of newspaper and put it in the bottom of my Weber Kettle. Then I stuff as many dried vine prunings as I can fit on top of the paper, all the way to the top of the kettle. On goes the top grate. I light the paper from below, and the whole thing goes poof in a few minutes with 5' flames. VERY impressive. Came close to melting the television cable running overhead.
Within a few minutes I have glowing white hot embers. I wait until I can no longer see yellow flame. For some reason this makes the meat slightly bitter. Then I clean the top grate, on goes the meat, usually about 3/4" thick, lid is off, turn in 3 to 4 minutes, and it's done in another 3 to 4 minutes. The burning fruitwood creates temps in the 800 to 1000°F range and gives it a fine flavor. That's Warp 10, Mr. Spock. I've also done this successfully with tree twigs from my neighbor's cherry tree.
As with the Afterburner method above, this technique applies scorching heat to the surface and cooks it in a hurry, so it is best for steaks under 1". I love it for flank steaks. As above, salt only, pepper just scorches, pat the meat dry so it doesn't steam, and if you wish, oil the surface for even better browning.
The caveman method
There is another method that can get the surface cooked dark and fast. It has a lot of appeal among men for its machismo, but it is best for steaks 1" thick or less.
You get your charcoal scorching hot, pat the meat really dry, and lay the meat right on the coals. You heard me. Right on the coals.
Surprisingly, there will be little ash stuck to the meat when you turn it and when you remove it, and it produces a very dark sear in a hurry. But the operative words are very little ash. Every time I've tried it, small amounts of ash and even whole coals have stuck to the surface. They are easily brushed off, but I still can't recommend this method.
It is much better to place a wire rack on top of the coals or very close to them. Then you can check the meat, and there is less scorching and no ash. Be a caveman if you wish, but know there are better ways.
The Stripsteak method
In the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas, Chef Michael Mina's Stripsteak has a unique technique for reaching perfection on thick steaks.
Stripsteak begins by immersing the meat in baths of clarified butter at about 120°F. Clarified butter is unsalted butter that has had the water and milk solids removed. It is also called ghee. Click the link for info on how to make it.
After about an hour the meat is an even 120°F throughout, and when an order comes in he lifts it gently from the butter, shakes a bit off, turns around, and lays it it on a screaming hot topless Santa Maria style grill burning mesquite logs.
After a few minutes and several turns, the meat comes off the grill a deep dark almost black, but never burned, and the center, as you can see, is perfect medium rare, about 130°F, with almost no color variation.
Interestingly, the butter does not penetrate much so the butter flavor is minimal. It does contribute to a deep brown nutty crust, however. The steaks are among the finest I've ever tasted. But be careful if you attempt this at home. At 120°F bacteria flourish, just not in an airless environment. To attempt this you must have really fresh and clean meat. I do not recommend this method for home use.
This page was revised 6/29/2011
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