How To Grill Great Steakhouse Steaks
"When you first start off trying to solve a problem, the first solutions you come up with are very complex, and most people stop there. But if you keep going, and live with the problem and peel more layers of the onion off, you can oftentimes arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions." Steve Jobs, 1955-2011
Ever wonder what makes those pricey steakhouse steaks so special? How do they get them perfect every time, with a sizzling dark flavorful crust, perfectly cooked edge to edge on the inside, tender and juicy with big bold beefy flavor?
There are some basic concepts and techniques that can raise your game to steakhouse level. When you master them, you will have your guests reeling in deliria whether you serve grocery store cuts, prime cuts from a restaurant supplier, or rare Wagyu beef.
The prime steakhouses, like my fave, David Burke's Primehouse in Chicago, serve in the best cuts, most of which which come from the rib and loin area, along the back of the cow, the most tender, most flavorful steaks on the steer. They are also the most expensive: Ribeyes, porterhouses, T-bones, strip steaks, and cuts from the tenderloin. You can make darn tasty meals from the sirloin, round, flank, and chuck, but they are not as tender.
Most serious steak students agree that the ribeye is the best cut for flavor and tenderness combined. A lot of folks like meat from the tenderloin like chateaubriand and filet mignon because they are the more tender, but, because they are also leaner than ribeyes, filets don't have the flavor fat brings to the party. Click this to learn more about the Zen of Beef Cuts.
The grades of beef and aging beef
Notice I refer to the best steakhouses as prime steakhouses. Prime is the grade of meat served in the best steakhouses and you won't find it in discount steakhouses in mall parking lots or in your grocery. Prime beef is selected because it has a lot of marbling, thin hairline grains of fat that weave weblike through the fibers of protein. You can see it. Most of it goes to restaurants.
Some steakhouses also serve aged meat, another commodity that is not readily available to we peons. For info that a good backyard cook needs to know about the grades of beef and aging, read my article on the Zen of Beef Grades & Labels.
If you can't get prime, the next grade down is choice, and choice is common in grocery stores. But not all choice is the same. Don't just grab any old steak from the meat counter. Ask you butcher for help. Many supermarkets have a butcher in the back. Go in early on a weekday, and ask for the head butcher. Get to know him or her (many of them are women nowadays). Explain you have a special dinner and you want the best looking cuts they can find. They will often be pleased to look in the back room for a particularly nice piece of meat and custom cut exactly what you want. If you can give them a week advanced warning they have more meat to choose from. Tell them you want "bone-in ribeyes, from the center of the roast, with the most marbling they can find, 1.5" thick, and please try to make all steaks about the same thickness." This is the ideal thickness for this method. You'll be pleased with what you get, even if it is not prime. I've made some killer steaks from choice beef.
Plan on 3/4 pound per adult for bone-in steak and 1/2 pound per adult for boneless steak. If there are leftovers they can go home with guests or make an appearance on a sandwich or salad the next night.
Don't be swayed by the ads for Certified Angus Beef (CAB). I am not convinced it is worth the extra price. There is no doubt that Angus breeds produce superior meat, but the regulations of the CAB association allow the Angus breed to be so genetically diluted beef that it is meaningless in my mind. To me, this label is mostly a marketing ploy and not a brand of quality.
Do, however, be swayed by the words Kobe and wagyu. Wagyu is a special breed of beef that produces highly marbled and flavorful beef. The world's best Wagyu comes from Kobe in Japan, where the animals get special food and handling. When grown in Australia or the US it is simply called Wagyu. Wagyu is more expensive than prime, and Kobe more expensive still. For more about cattle breeds, read my article the Zen of Beef Grades & Labels.
You can buy prime beef, aged beef, or Wagyu beef, but only specialty butchers have it. If you can't find it in stores, order it online. I'm a fan of the prime steaks sold by AllenBrothers.com in Chicago. For aged beef, I order from PastaCheese.com in NYC. For Wagyu beef, I get Strube Ranch in TX from BigPoppaSmokers.com in CA. Wagyu beef costs as much as a small car, but for special occasions, it is worth it.
The cuts they sell at prime steakhouses are usually 1" to 2" thick, but most grocery stores don't sell steaks that thick. You have to get them custom cut, which is easily done. Just ask. But that's also a lot of meat. When I get 1.5" ribeyes, I split one with my wife.
Thickness is important when it comes to cooking steaks. Skinny steaks are a problem. They tend to be well done inside by the time the exterior is browned properly. But there are ways to get thin steaks cooked properly.
Trim off excess hunks of fat down to 1/8" thick max. Too much fat can melt and cause flareups. Those flames can deposit soot on the meat and char the surface. Research has indicated that charred black carbonized meat can be a carcinogen. Besides, it tastes bad.
Some prime steakhouses have a secret mix of herbs and spices they season the meat with, the most famous being Lawry's Seasoned Salt. But most primehouses use only salt and pepper, and some use only salt. Few of them marinate their meat. Why? Seasonings sit on the surface and the scorching heat they cook with incinerates expensive seasonings, even pepper. The remnants can have more bitterness than flavor. Marinades mask the steak's natural flavors, they don't penetrate very far, they don't tenderize much, and if the meat's surface is wet they form steam and prevents crust formation. Click here to read more about how marinades do, and don't work.
At home, salt the steaks liberally on both sides an hour or two before cooking and put them back in the fridge. Salt will pull liquid to the surface. That will dissolve the salt and then the steak will pull it back in. This is a sort of brining. I call it dry brining. See the pictures elsewhere on this page. The salt denatures the protein, tenderizes, and helps keep in moisture as well as enhance flavor.
The problem: Two distinct sectors of meat
When approaching steaks the most important concept to understand is that you are faced with two distinct problems. The interior and the exterior. To produce the perfect steak, you need to attack each sector with different strategies.
Sector 1: The Interior. Everyone has a preference for color of the center of their steaks. Science has shown that beef is at its juiciest and tenderest and most flavorful when in the 130 to 135°F range, medium rare, when it is a nice red between bright red and pink. More on that below, under the heading "Doneness".
The problem is getting both to the optimal color/temp/flavor/texture on the interior from edge to edge. Most grilled steaks, if you slice them in half, progress from dark on the surface, to brown just below the surface, to tan, to pink, and possibly on to red. If you want your steak medium rare, the sad fact is that it is usually only properly cooked in a small band of the interior by the time you get the exterior to the right color brown. That means that as much as 1/2 of the interior is overcooked. The challenge is to get the interior the same color bumper to bumper.
Sector 2: The Exterior. The surface tastes best when high heat instigates several important chemical reactions. The Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction between amino acids and sugars created by heat. It is responsible for the brown crust on breads, for dark beer, for transforming boring beans into coffee and chocolate, and for turning the surface of a steak into something rich and complex. The chemical reaction really starts to kick in at about 300°F.
Caramelization is the browning of sugar by oxidation under heat and there are small amounts of sugars in meat. It gives it a rich, complex, caramel or butterscotch flavor. Caramelization begins at about 310°F.
There are also fats on the surface, and they contribute a lot to the flavor of the meat. When heat melts the fat and chemically alters it, the flavor is drastically altered. Fat reaches its most rich and succulent zenith when golden brown, just before it blackens. Blackening or charring is carbonization, and the taste is not much better than eating charcoal, so you want to stop the process just short of blackening. That's why I never eat at places named "Char House". They tell you on the marquee they plan to ruin my steak!
It is important to note that searing is the treatment of the surface. It has nothing to do with sealing the meat and preventing moisture loss. This is a common misunderstanding. Searing does not weld shut the muscle fibers or do anything to keep in moisture.
Now a word about grill marks. Grill marks are caused by the metal grill grates darkening the meat where they contact the surface. The metal heats rapidly and conducts heat to the surface more rapidly than the rest of the surface which cooks by radiant heat (see my article on the thermodynamics of cooking). Grill marks are flavorful and crunchy, and they look great (grate?). But the goal is to get the entire surface as dark as the grill marks. If the grill marks taste wonderful, why not give the same treatment to the whole surface?
So the goal is to give everything an even deep mahogany brown hue, as dark as possible without charring. For more, read my article on meat science.
The solution: Two distinct cooking temperatures and sear in the rear
Restaurants have broilers that produce 800 to 1200°F to the meat, just a few inches above the surface, and sometimes they are cooked on top and bottom simultaneously. The energy hits the surface of those steaks and is handed of from molecule to molecule to cook the interiors, usually to about 130°F, or medium rare. But we can't do that at home. Most home gas grills cannot get above 400°F, and sear burners might get you up to 500 or 600°F. Charcoal grills might get up to 700°F if the coals are deep and just below the cooking grate.
The solution is to use two cooking temps, one for the interior and one for the exterior. We will begin by slow and low roasting the meat at about 225°F and bring the meat up to about 115°F gently so the meat remains uniform in heat and color throughout. Then we will move it over high heat and darken the exterior quickly so it doesn't overcook the interior. This method is called the "reverse sear" or "Sear in the rear".
This method has some real advantages. There are enzymes in meat that tenderize it, but they are only activated as the flesh warms up. Reverse sear gives them more time to do their thing as the meat slowly rises to temp. It can also deliver a crispier surface because the meat is served after coming off the high heat. But this method is a little tricky because you absolutely must have a precise thermometer and you really need to practice to get the timing right. Click here to read more about the concept and watch a fun video of Chef Jamie Purviance and Meathead cook dueling steaks seared both ways.
On a charcoal grill set up your grill for 2-zone cooking. You want one side scorching hot and the other side at about 225F. This is tricky and you will have to experiment to get it set up right, so do a dry run or two until you get it down.
On my Weber Kettle, I get a chimney full of charcoal, about 100 briquets, fully hot and covered in white ash, and push them all to one side. Get them close to the cooking surface, as close as 1" below the meat. I have been known to put bricks in the bottom of the kettle and raise the lower grate to about 2 to 3" below the top grate. I sometimes use the Hovergrill that I got when I bought my Smokenator for my kettle to lift the coals to just below the cooking surface.
For the first phase, cooking indirect, I either place the lid on an angle so it doesn't get too hot under there. I want the meat to warms slowly. I sometimes leave the lid off and put an aluminum pan over just the meat. With the lid on tight, the steaks get too hot too quickly and they get tough.
On a gas grill use your sear burner (a.k.a. infrared burner) for the exterior if you have one. If not, you should consider buying GrillGrates. They replace your factory grates and amplify the heat just like the "infrared" or sear burners. Get your grill as hot as possible by preheating it longer than usual with all burners on high and the lid down. You might even be able to remove your grates and lower them to sit right on top of the flavor bars or deflectors that protect your burners. Remember, the closer you get to the heat source, the better. Gas grill owners may want to consider a cheap charcoal grill like a hibachi just for searing steaks.
On a pellet grill you should definitely buy a cheap hibachi or even a disposable charcoal grill. Your pellet burner just can't generate the heat needed for a uniform nutty brown sear. It might give you good grill marks, but that's not good enough. I can cook better steaks on a $30 hibachi than I do on my $2,500 pellet grill.
Clean the grates. Once the grill is as hot as it can get, scrub the carbon and grease from the grates. Dirty grates can give the meat a funny flavor, and clean grates will transmit more heat to the meat. Use a good wire brush or grate cleaner. In a pinch, a wad of crinkled aluminum foil will do a good job.
Sector 1: Cooking the interior over low heat. The first goal is to get the interior to the desired temp, and have it as even in color as possible from edge to edge. To do that, we cook low and slow with indirect convection heat, at about 225°F. If you haven't already done so, read my article on calibrating your system.
On a charcoal grill, move the meat to the cool side of the grill, the indirect side, where it should be about 225°F with the lid down. Depending on how thick the steak is, and what temp you want the meat, it could take 30 minutes to get it up to about about 115°F.
On a gas grill, turn all the burners off but one or two, close the lid, and adjust the remaining burner so the indirect side, the side with the burners off, stabilizes at about 225°F. Experiment with the settings without food to learn what settings work best.
If you wish, you can add just a little bit of wood to the fire when you put the meat on. Taste is a matter of taste, but too much smoke on beef can mask the natural flavor and I just don't like it. But a tiny hint in the background adds intrigue and complexity. How much is a little bit? Start with half a handful of dry chips or pellets.
After about 15 minutes start checking the interior temp with a very thin probe on a very fast thermocouple thermometer. Push it most of the way through and slowly back it out and note the lowest temp. Check every 5 minutes in more than one location. Don't worry about poking the meat. Steak is 70% liquid, so if you poke a hole in a 16 ouncer and it loses 1/4 ounce of juice, you'll still have 9.35 ounces of fluid left. And that juice is not blood, by the way. It is a protein laden liquid called myoglobin. Blood is dark, almost black, thick, and it clots. The blood was drained in the slaughterhouse.
Why should you keep the probe away from the bone? Muscle and bone are very different composition. Muscle is mostly water. Bone has a hard, dense, outer shell, and the center, can be gelatinous or a honeycomb of mostly air. When you begin to cook meat with bone, the muscle and bone heat at different rates. At first the bone does not heat up as rapidly as the meat, but then, when the bone gets hot, it can get hotter than the muscle. So if you take the temp close to the bone or touching the bone at the beginning of a cook, the temp will be lower than the center of the muscle mass because the bone is acting like an insulator. If you take the temp near or touching the bone, the reading will be higher.
Flip the meat occasionally so it heats evenly on both sides. At this low temp, the exterior color should not go much beyond tan. When the temp in the deepest part of the meat hits 110 to 115°F, open the lid and leave it open. Paint the meat with beef love (rendered beef fat, clarified butter, or vegetable oil), and move it to the hot side of the grill, as hot as possible, as close to the heat source as possible. The oil helps conduct heat to the meat and assists with browning. It also adds flavor.
Sector 2: Cooking the exterior over high heat. You now want to cook the exterior with the hottest heat possible with the lid open so all the heat is concentrated on one surface. If you need to take the meat off for a few minutes while you get a really high heat zone. On a charcoal grill bunch the coals all together if necessary or add new hot coals. On a gas grill, crank up the burners. You can take the meat off the grill and add more coals and wait for them to get hot if necessary, and you can take the meat off a gas grill while you wait for it to heat up.
Blot dry the surface with paper towels so it can brown faster. When the meat is on the hot side, stand by your grill! Do not wander off and chat up your guests or check your email. Things will move quickly because the meat is already hot on the surface, not cold from the fridge, perhaps close to 200°F, and you need to be ready to react. If you have charcoal about 1" below the meat, each side can be ready in as little as 3 minutes!
You want the surface to get scorching hot so it will brown quickly. By cooking hot and fast, the heat works mostly on the surface and doesn't have time to migrate deep into the meat. If you cooked cooler, the surface will brown eventually, but the water in the meat will transmit the heat by conduction towards the center, in a sort of bucket brigade, and that is what causes the bands of color on the interior.
Keeping the lid open when searing the exterior is essential. This prevents heat buildup from cooking the center of the meat. With the lid closed, the air all around the steak warms and it starts to cook from all sides. In this step we are working only on one surface at a time, nothing else. Check the color of that surface every minute or so and make sure you put the meat back down so the grates touch different parts of the surface. We do not want grill marks. We want everything evenly dark. If a little of the edge fat blackens, that's OK, but don't blacken the muscle fibers.
Wait about 3 minutes. The meat may stick at first, but it will release as it browns. Do not flip the steak until the color is perfect, a dark brown, as dark as possible without going black. Then flip. Tongs are best, but don't worry about poking holes in the meat with a fork.
Try to place the meat on a virgin section of the grate that has not been cooled by contact with steak. After you flip, hit the top side with beef love and freshly ground black pepper. There's enough heat there to extract flavor.
The procedure is identical for the second side. Wait til the color is perfect, flip, beef love, black pepper and then move it to a warm plate and serve immediately. There is no need to rest the meat. It has been proven that this does nothing to improve juiciness.
When you have both exteriors perfect, the interior should be in the medium rare range, 125 to 135°F. Check with a thermometer if you wish. But don't try to gauge doneness by cutting into the meat. The color can get significantly redder after a minute or so as oxygen hits the myoglobin. And don't try to test doneness by poking the meat with a finger and comparing it to the flesh of your hand or nose as so many books tell you to do. This is just absurd. Everyone's hands and noses are different. A professional chef at a steakhouse may be able to gauge doneness by feel, but they cook scores of steaks a night.
Prime steakhouses know that beef is most tender, flavorful, and juicy when cooked to rare or medium rare, from red to pink, from 125 to 135°F. Click here for a chart of steak doneness. Any lower and it is almost raw. It is chewy, stringy, the fats and collagens haven't melted yet, and the flavors haven't begun to develop. Any warmer and the proteins begin to knot up, the juices are squeezed out and evaporate, and things get tough and stringy.
A prime steakhouse will serve you a well-done steak if you order it, but they'll think you're a rube. One chef I know in NY confessed to me that when people order well-done meat, they get the choice cuts, not prime. Illegal, he knew, but justified, he believed. He considered it a bigger crime to cook aged prime beef to well done.
Err on the side of undercooking, you can always put a steak back on the grill, but if it is overcooked, you cannot bring it back to life.
Prime steakhouses like to let the meat speak for itself. You don't see prime steakhouses putting A1 on the table, and if you ask for it, listen for cursing in the kitchen.
Some steakhouses like to place a daub of butter on the surface to add unctuousness, sometimes it is even an herbed butter or butter with shallots or mushrooms.
If you absolutely have to dress up your steaks, try to keep it simple. My favorite is a Board Dressing. Rich red wine sauce is a classic, as is horseradish cream sauce, or chimichurri, but I prefer to save them for leaner cuts like flank steak or sirloin. I have a Japanese friend who once presented me with a great steak with tangy green wasabi paste, the horseradish-like root. I liked it a lot, but it seriously masked the natural goodness of the meat. In Argentina, herbaceous chimichurri sauce is everywhere. Caramelized onions, grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, grilled red peppers, are also popular garnishes.
Some prime steakhouses, like my NY fave, Peter Luger in Brooklyn, cuts the meat off the porterhouse, slices the strip thin across the grain, and then reassembles the whole thing on the platter. This is also a nice approach if you have huge steaks and one person cannot eat a whole steak.
As you eat the first steak you cook with this method, you might discover that it is a little over or under cooked for your taste. Don't be discouraged. Adjust the procedure to accommodate your tastes.
Let the steak be the center of the show. Meat and potatoes are an unbeatable combo, although rice is nice and couscous is cool. Try my really simple Warm French Potato Salad. Keep the veggies simple, like my Crunchy French Green Beans, or, since the grill is primed and ready, go for Grilled Asparagus.
Two things I insist on with my steaks: A big red wine and good friends.
This page was revised 12/14/2010
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