Cooking a high quality steak at home can seem like a daunting task but thanks to this guide you’ll soon be able to create one that is perfectly cooked on the inside, features a dark and flavorful crust, and is juicy with a big bold beefy flavor. The keys to success are: Selecting the proper cuts, grades, thickness, and technique. Here’s how to can raise your game to steakhouse level and have your guests reeling in deliria.
1) Buy the best grade of steak. You want something that has filigrees of fat woven through the meat called marbling. The top grade in most groceries is USDA Choice or Certified Angus which is USDA Choice or above. If you can special order it, and if you can afford it, get USDA Prime or Wagyu beef.
2) Select the proper thickness. 1.5″ thick bone-in grade ribeye is my favorite.
3) Dry brine. About two hours in advance, liberally salt both sides and put back in the fridge. Let the salt melt and be pulled into the meat. Salt tenderizes and amps up the flavor. No pepper yet.
4) Preheat. Setup a grill for 2-zone cooking with one side scorching hot and the other about 225°F, no water pans. If you are not familiar with the concept of 2-zone cooking, now is the time to learn this crucial technique.
5) Cook the interior. Place the meat on the indirect side, lid down. Add wood to the charcoal. This allows the meat’s interior to slowly warm up evenly and prevents the banding of colors with dark outer layers. This makes it more tender as it slowly cooks and adds smoke flavor. When you cook hot and fast there is no time for smoke to do its magic.
6) Flip. Stand by your grill and check the meat temp every 5 minutes or so with very thin probe very fast thermocouple thermometer. Flip it when it get to about 95°F. You don’t have to be precise on this. DO NOT rely on touch until you are very experienced.
7) Prepare to sear. When it hits 115°F interior, get the hot side as hot as you can. Take the meat off and add more lit coals if you need to. Or raise the coals closer to the cooking grate. Or fire up the sear burners. Now pat the exterior dry with paper towels. Don’t worry that you are wasting juice. A few drops lost will not hurt anything. We need the surface dry for the next step otherwise we will be steaming the surface, not searing it. Now paint the meat with rendered beef fat, clarified butter (whole butter has too much water), or vegetable oil. This prevents it from sticking to the grate, fries the surface, and enhances flavor.
8) Sear. Now move it to the hottest part of the grill and leave the lid open. We want the lid off so heat is concentrated on the exterior of one side at a time. We are working on the outside now, not the inside. Sear the exterior on one side for 3 to 5 minutes checking frequently and moving it a bit to prevent grill marks from burning the meat. This should get you a dark flavorful exterior. When you have the right color, paint the top with oil and flip the meat. Hit the dark side with oil and a few grinds of black pepper. We pepper it late in the game so the pepper doesn’t burn, but hot oils will extract its flavor.
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 preferences are the ribeye and strop. They are the best cuts for flavor and tenderness combined. They both come mainly from the same muscle, the longissimus dorsi, so arguing which is better is like debating which side of Sergeant Pepper’s 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 beef such as Kobe which is almost too fatty and costs as much as a small car. If you can’t find Prime 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. Wagyu is easily available online.
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.”
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.
Unless your doctor forbids you from using salt, use it. It really brings out the flavors. Salt is an amplifier. It is also an annihilator. Adding the right amount will amplify meat’s flavor. Add too much and it will make it inedible. It also holds in the moisture and denatures the proteins making the meat more tender and juicy.
Brining is a method of adding moisture and salt by soaking meat in salty water. But too much water can bloat a steak and dilute its beefiness. So here’s a technique popularized by Chef Judy Rodgers of San Francisco’s famous Zuni Cafe. It is illustrated in the photos of a boneless ribeye, above. Click here to read more about dry brining.
1) An hour or two before cooking pat the meat thoroughly dry with a paper towel. Sprinkle salt on on both sides of the meat. Put it back in the fridge. If you have a small wire grate that can hold the meat above a plate so air circulates, all the better. If not flip the meat after 30 to 60 minutes.
2) The salt draws out moisture which dissolves the salt. See how the meat has become shiny with moisture in the middle picture?
3) The meat reabsorbs the moisture (and much of the juices that have leaked out) bringing the salt in with it. Notice how the color of the fat at right has changed where the salt has soaked in.
Here is is again in time lapse video:
Most prime steakhouses broil their meat with open flames from above, not below, fueled by gas, not charcoal or wood, and they can hit temps from 800 to 1000°F. To the right, you’ll see the broiler at David Burke’s Primehouse in Chicago. They have a talented team of chefs, a purebred Angus bull in Kentucky who sires all their meat, and a impressive aging locker lined with what they say are 800 year old salt blocks from the Himalayas.
At prime steakhouses like Primehouse, meat sits on grates that allow cooks to raise and lower them if they want the meat closer or further from the flame. There are a few that use grills with flames from below, and still even fewer that use charcoal. Most don’t like fire from below because flareups from dripping fat that can burn the meat. Yes, the vaporization of the drippings can contribute to the flavor, but their impact is minor especially when you consider the short time it takes to cook most steaks.
I want all of you charcoal die hards who swear that you cannot grill with gas to note that almost all prime steakhouses broil from above at very high temps with gas, so clearly the secret of searing great steaks is the temp not the tool. The lesson is, if you can get a gas grill hot enough, you can sear steaks just as well with charcoal. Problem is, most gas grills cannot reach charcoal temperatures.
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 searing 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 calibrate your grill.
Chef Rick Gresh keeps a cup next to his grill with what he calls “beef love”, melted beef fat trimmed from his aged steaks. Gresh paints the steaks with it before they go into the dining room. I have taken his method one step farther. I paint the meat with beef love before it goes on the direct heat as well as before I serve. It enhances browning and brings great flavor to the party.
To make your own beef love, just ask your butcher for a pound of suet, the term they use for beef fat. Butchers trim pounds of it every day and throw it away. It won’t cost you anything. Take it home, chop it into cubes about 1/2″ and put them in a pot over medium heat to medium low. Put on the lid. After a few minutes you should see tallow (liquid suet) in the pot. If not, raise the heat slightly. After about 30 minutes most of the fat will have melted. There will be some fibrous matter that doesn’t melt, just throw it away. Pour the tallow into a heavy bottle, let it cool and solidify, and store it in the freezer. It will keep for months.
When it is time to cook your steaks, scoop off an ounce or two and melt it in a small pan. You can even melt it on the grill.
As an alternative, I have had great luck using rendered bacon fat, duck fat, and goose fat as beef love.
You can accomplish the same thing on a small single burner gas grill, on a portable charcoal grill, or on an indirect pellet grill. Start cooking the interior by cooking at a low temp with the lid down. Then heat the grill as hot as possible and cook the exterior with the lid up.
Feel free, but personally, I don’t care for the taste. You can do the first part of the reverse sear in a smoker, and then sear the crust, but for some reason that much smoke flavor doesn’t work for me. It just masks the beefiness.
I love these bamboo steak markers. They come in a pack of 500 and include five temperatures: rare, medium rare, medium, medium well, and well. They are 3.5″ long and you insert their sharp points in the side of the steak so the meat can be flipped easily. If they don’t char, you can wash them and reuse them.
The great chef and educator Bruce Aidells, author of a number of superb cookbooks including the The Great Meat Cookbook, has produced a polished detailed video series on steak covering everything from selecting the meat to cooking it. It is a beautifully produced set of seven videos starting with selecting and buying beef and chock full of tips. It is produed by the website craftsy.com and they have an excellent learning platform for watching educational videos where you can pause and come back the next day to the exact spot you left off at, a place to take notes, study materials, discussion, recipes, etc. Click here for a preview.
Not everyone likes their steaks on the red side. For those who like their meat cooked medium or more, use thinner steaks.
The reverse sear works only on thicker cuts. For steaks 1″ or less, and my “turntable” method works beautifully. It even works on on skirt steaks for fajitas. The goals are the same, a dark crisp, crust, and tender juicy, medium-rare center. But because the meat is thinner, the path is different.
1) Season. Salt and pepper the meat on both sides an hour or two in advance so the salt can penetrate.
2) Dry. Make sure you pat the meat dry with paper towels before you put it on. Moisture creates steam and prevents browning.
3) Oil. Coat the meat with a thin layer of fat. It can be rendered beef fat, clarified butter, or vegetable oil. Oiling the meat is better than oiling the grates. When you oil grates it vaporizes almost instantly and can create an acrid smell. When oiled meat hits the grill, the cool meat keeps it from burning and the oil will heat up quickly and transmit heat. It will slightly fry the surface and help create crust. Don’t use unclarified butter. It contains too much water.
4) The A side. You should still setup for 2-zone cooking so you have a safe zone for steaks that finish quickly. Get the direct side screaming hot. Raise the charcoal right beneath the cooking surface. Leave the lid off. Put the meat over the hottest part of the grill. Keep this one side down, but, like a vinyl record turning on a turntable, rotate it slightly every 30 seconds to prevent the grates from branding and burning the surface and to allow all parts of the surface to brown evenly. You want the entire surface a uniform dark brown without grill marks. Click here to read why grill marks are not desirable on steaks.
5) The B side. Now here’s where things get weird. By the time you have the perfect crust on one side, heat is penetrating and the center is pretty close to perfect. If you flip the meat and sear the other side dark, you will overcook and destroy the steak. So flip the meat and cook the second side for only 1 minute! That’s more than long enough to kill any contaminants on the surface. Like an old fashioned vinyl record, the B side may not be as good as the Side A, it will be tan not brown, but Side A and the center will be perfect.
6) Serve. Remove the meat and serve immediately. Do not let the meat rest. Resting meat is probably a myth that you can see challenged here.
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.
Ribeyes, strips, and T-bones/porterhouses (porterhomes?) are bigger than ever because of improved breeding and feeding. Once upon a time such a steak was a big meal for one, but nowadays, if it is cut thick, even after shrinkage, a whole steak is more than a normal person can or should be eating at a sitting, unless he has just returned from the space station.
For example, Allen Brothers is selling 26 ounce (2″ bone-in) and 22 ounce (1.5″ bone-in) ribeyes (they’re fabulous). Their 1.5″ boneless is 16 ounces. Their porterhouses (tail on) are 2″ and weigh 36-38 ounces!!!
Sooooo, if that is the case, one ribeye is a good portion for two people and a porterhouse, after boning could be enough for three people. So the question then is, how to divide it?
First of all, I must confess, I usually cook a whole steak for each adult, and if there are leftovers, I insist they take them home. Then when I need help moving, I can call on them to help.
I slice my cold leftovers and make a steak sandwich or more often put the slices on a salad.
If I am serving wagyu, which is sooooo rich, I carve the steaks.
Ribeyes and strips have two problems to be solved. The bone, and the rib cap.
I normally prefer boneless ribeyes because the bone adds zero flavor and if I cook it properly the meat next to the bone can often be undercooked a bit. If I am dividing it for two, the bone just gets in the way and then I have to arm wrestle my wife to see who gets to gnaw on it and I’m tired of losing.
Besides, I hate paying the same price for bone as for meat. Also, although I never cook steaks indoors, even in winter, if you cook in a pan the bone can prevent the meat from contacting the pan and browning properly.
This leaves the problem of the rib cap, or the spinalis, the crescent shaped muscle that wraps around about 1/3 of the longissimus, the eye of the ribeye. The rib cap is more marbled than the eye, and because it is on the outside it usually is overcooked. That’s a shame because I think it is the best muscle on the animal.
I solve both problems by buying bone-in rib roasts. I then remove the rib rack, and that’s a meal right there. I smoke the back ribs Texas style. Then I remove the spinalis, and that’s a separate meal. It looks a bit like a salmon filet, and It can be grilled as such, or rolled.
That leaves the long tube of longissimus, the eye of the ribeye, and I cut that in 1.5 to 2″ steaks. The muscle tapers a bit, so the thin end is a good portion for one. The fat end is a big portion, and after cooking, slicing it is no problem because the spinalis is gone. I just cut it into strips about 3/4″ thick. Guests can easily cut that thickness into bite-size chunks. I collect the juices in a gravyboat.
Here’s a 1″ ribeye with a Board Sauce which is simply chopped herbs and olive oil. To get the meat juices to mix with the board sauce, I carve it.
Porterhouses and T-bones. I do it the Peter Luger method (below). Run the knife along the bone, remove the strip and filet, slice them in 3/4″ slices, reassemble them and slide them back along the bone, and serve. I bring the board around the table and they can stab whatever they want. It is an impressive presentation.
Serve with: a big red wine.
Published On: 3/16/2012 Last Modified: 5/3/2021
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