How To Grill Better-Than-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 often times arrive at some very elegant and simple solutions." Steve Jobs, 1955-2011
How do prime steakhouses get their steaks 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?
The keys to success are: the cuts, the grades, the thickness, and technique. Here's how to can raise your game to steakhouse level and have your guests reeling in deliria.
The prime steakhouses serve the best cuts, usually from the rib and loin area, along the spine of the steer. They are also the most expensive: ribeyes, porterhouses, T-bones, strip steaks, and cuts from the tenderloin such as chateaubriand and filet mignon. You can make darn tasty meals from the sirloin, round, flank, chuck, and other cuts, but these muscles are not as tender.
My preference is the ribeye. It is the best cut for flavor and tenderness combined. Some argue in favor of the strip steak, but that is the same muscle as the ribeye, the longissimus dorsi, so that argument is like debating which side of The White Album is better. A lot of folks prefer meat from the tenderloin because it is the more tender, but they are also leaner than ribeyes so they don't have the flavor fat brings to the party.
Click this to learn more about the Science of Beef Cuts.
I refer to the best steakhouses as prime steakhouses because USDA Prime is the grade of meat served in the best of them. You won't find Prime in discount steakhouses in mall parking lots or in most groceries. USDA 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 Prime goes to restaurants.
Wagyu is a special breed of beef that produces highly marbled and flavorful meat. It is even rarer than Prime, but gaining in distribution. Rarest of all is genuine Japanese Kobe which is almost too fatty and costs as much as a small car. If you can't find Prime, Wagyu, or Kobe in the store, and if you can afford it, ask your butchers. If you can give them a week advanced warning they can often order it.
The next grade down from Prime is USDA 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 your butchers for help. Explain that 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 or custom cut exactly what you want. I've made some killer steaks from Choice beef.
For this technique, cuts 1 1/2" to 2" thick are best, but most grocery stores don't sell steaks that thick. You have to get them custom cut. The method for cooking thick steaks is very different than the method for thin steaks. This is a crucial concept, and if you think about it, it makes sense. So I typically tell my butcher I want "boneless ribeyes, from the center of the roast, with the most marbling you can find, 1 1/2" thick, and please try to make all steaks about the same thickness."
But there are ways to get thin steaks cooked properly and I describe my favorite method in the column at right.
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.
Some prime steakhouses use a secret mix of herbs and spices, the most famous being Lawry's Seasoned Salt. But many prime steakhouses use only salt and pepper, and some use only salt. I've never seen one marinate the meat. Why? Seasonings sit on the surface and the scorching heat incinerates them. 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 the heat makes steam and prevents crust formation. Click here to read more about how marinades do, and don't work.
At home, dry brine by salting the steaks liberally on both sides at least an hour or two before cooking and put them back in the fridge. The salt helps the protein hold in moisture as well as enhance flavor. In the pictures here you can see the salt on the surface. Within 20 minutes you can see the moisture melt the salt, and before long, the salt has moved into the meat. See the pictures of steaks dry brining elsewhere on this page.
The solution is to use two cooking temps, one for the interior and one for the exterior. We will begin by low temp smoke roasting the meat with the lid down and bring it up to about 115°F gently so the meat remains uniform in heat and color throughout. Then we will move it over high heat with the lid up and darken the exterior quickly, flipping often, so it doesn't build up energy and overcook the interior. This method is called the "reverse sear" or "sear in the rear".
Reverse sear produces more tender meat since low heat doesn't bunch up the proteins. It also allows smoke to do its magic, and it allows enzymes to tenderize the meat. High temp cooking moves too quickly for smoke to flavor the meat. 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.
Remember, searing 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 grill marks.
For this level of control, you need to calibrating your grill.
Makes. 2 large steaks, enough for 2 to 4 people
Takes. 2 hours to dry brine, and about 45 minutes to cook
2 (1 1/2" thick) ribeyes, USDA Choice or better
1/3 cup "beef love"
fresh cracked black pepper
About the beef love. This is a term Chef Rick Gresh coined for rendered beef fat from aged steaks. You can use any rendered beef fat, duck fat, bacon fat, vegetable oil, or clarified butter, but not regular butter because it has water in it.
About the black pepper. You want a coarse grind so you get pops of pepper when you chew.
Optional. Large grain salt to sprinkle on just before serving.
1) About 2 to 4 hours before cooking, trim off most of the external fat. Fat can melt and cause flareups that can deposit soot on the meat and burn the surface. Then sprinkle salt all over the meat. About 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt per pound (half that amount if you use table salt).
2) Most home grilled steaks, if you slice into them, progress from dark on the surface, to brown just below the surface, to tan, to pink, and on to red. If you want your steak medium rare, the sad fact is that it is usually only medium rare 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. That color is usually bright red and the temperature around 130°F to 135°F, medium rare. At that temp steaks are the most tender and juicy. Rare meat, often on the purple side, can be stringy and the juices haven't busted out of the fibers that imprison them. Medium, into the pink range, has begun to dry out and get tougher. Click here for a chart of steak doneness.
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 confessed to me that when people order well-done meat, they get choice, not prime. Illegal, he knew, but justified, he believed. He considered it a bigger crime to cook aged prime beef to well done.
On a charcoal grill set up your grill for 2-zone cooking. You want one side scorching hot and the other side at about 225°F. 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.
Get a chimney full of charcoal 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 a Weber kettle and raise the lower grate to about 2 to 3" below the top grate. I then put dry wood on the coals. On a kamado, insert the deflector plate.
On a gas grill set up with 2-zones shooting for 225°F in the indirect zone. Start the meat on the indirect zone, put wood on the direct zone, and close the lid. On a pellet grill, set the temp for 225°F. Most of them are all indirect.
For the first phase, cooking indirect, you want the meat to warm slowly. I sometimes place the lid on an angle. With the lid on tight, the steaks get too hot too quickly and they get tough.
Sometimes I leave the lid off and put a pan over just the meat. Every grill is different and the weather is also a factor. Experiment.
After about 15 minutes start checking the interior temp with a very thin probe on a very fast thermocouple thermometer like the industry gold standard, the Thermapen. 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 75% liquid, so if you poke a hole in a 16 ouncer and it loses 1/4 ounce of juice, you'll still have 11.75 ounces of fluid left.
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 once or twice so it heats evenly on both sides. At this low temp, the exterior color should not go much beyond tan, if you added wood it might get a ruddy glow. When the temp in the deepest part of the meat hits 110 to 115°F, open the lid and leave it open. This could take 30 minutes.
3) 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. Caramelization is the browning of sugar by oxidation under heat and there are small amounts of sugars in meat. Combined they beget a rich, complex, caramel or butterscotch flavor.
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, and muscle is peak when it is nut brown. 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!
Remember, searing is the treatment of the surface. It has nothing to do with sealing in the juices. And remember, grill marks are flavorful and crunchy, and they look great , 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?
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.
Paint the meat with "beef love" and sprinkle on the black pepper. Gently press it into the surface so it doesn't all fall off, but a lot will. Now 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, assists with browning by frying the surface, and adds flavor. Beware of flareups. They can cause soot.
You want the lid open for this step so all the heat is concentrated on one surface. You don't want heat trapped under the hood cooking the top or sides. They're just about done. 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's surface is already 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 without transferring heat to the center. By cooking hot and fast, the heat works mostly on the surface and doesn't have time to migrate deep into the meat.
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.
Flip the meat frequently, every minute. Become a human rotisserie, This allows the energy buildup in the surface to bleed off into the air after you flip. When you flip, 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, paint on beef love, black pepper, flip, sear, 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.
On a kamado, remove the meat and put it on a platter. Lift out the deflector plate. Open the lower vent all the way and get the coals good and hot. Use a hair drier in the bottom vent if needed. Lower the cooking grate as close to the coals as possible. an put the steaks back on. Lid open.
On a gas grill, if you have a sear burner, use it. If not, remove the meat and set it aside on a plate for a few minutes while you get the grill ready to sear. Remove the grates, and set them down Close the lid and turn all burners on high. After it's max heat, open the lid, leave it open, pat one surface of the meat dry, and put it on the hottest part of the grill, dry side 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. You might consider buying GrillGrates. They replace your factory grates and amplify the heat just like the "infrared" or sear burners. You can even flip them upside down to use them like a perforated griddle for an amazing sear. You may want to consider buying a cheap charcoal grill like a hibachi just for searing steaks. 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.
Leave the lid up during searing and flip the meat every minute or two.
Another option is to preheat a cast iron pan or a griddle in the hot zone, and sear by conduction. It goes fast and covers the entire surface. Again, leave the lid up for the sear phase. Then again, you may want to consider buying a cheap charcoal grill like a hibachi just for searing steaks.
On a pellet grill you should definitely buy a cheap hibachi or use a superheated cast iron griddle or pan for the searing. Most pellet grills are not suited for superheated searing.
When you have both exteriors perfect, the interior should be in the medium rare range, 130 to 135°F. 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.
There is no need to rest the meat. It has been proven that this does nothing to improve juiciness. Don't let it cool off and lose its crust. Serve it hot. 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. Some chefs like to sprinkle large grain salt on the meat just before serving so you occasionally get big pops of salt. It's a nice sensation, unless you encounter a bolder sized grain that breaks a tooth, but because this meat has been dry brined, and the salt is evenly distributed throughout, you could easily oversalt if you use a finishing salt just before serving.
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 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. You know how to get to Carnegie Hall.
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.