How To Grill The Perfect Steak
Along with burgers (and, if you’re from Wisconsin, brats), steaks are just about the most classic pieces of meat we slap on grills. They’re also a classic test of a grill boss’ actual chops (so to speak). A steak doesn’t need much time over the fire, and when it comes to a high-quality cut you want to let the beef do the talking, not a bunch of fussy marinades or sauces. That makes it hard to cover up the fact that you overcooked that expensive ribeye or Porterhouse, sacrificing an awful lot of the flavor and texture that make them worth savoring.
Grilling steak is a science and an art; it’s also a complicated subject with a lot of contradictory partisan passion and—as with any matter of the taste buds—plenty of subjectivity to muddy the waters. The “best” steak is the one you like eating the most, and that honestly might be a charred, gristly, smoking, carbon-black hunk. You may favor a bloody, half-raw steak that would terrify not only vegetarians but more than a few fellow meat-eaters; you might, conversely, prefer an incredibly well-done piece of beef that would offend self-proclaimed purists. To each his or her own.
Anyhow, acknowledging all of that, we thought we’d iron down some of the basics of grilling a good steak. Treat the actual steps laid out here as a fundamental framework; you can feel free to modify or completely disregard them depending on your own empirical experimentation (which is half the fun of grilling, right?). Hopefully, some really simple Steak 101 science will give you a bit of perspective on the task at hand, if nothing else.
What Kind of Steak?
Obviously, you can successfully grill any number of steak cuts—that is, the more tender ones. Sirloin, tenderloin, T-bone (which consists of the former two), ribeye, strip: these are ideal for grilling. Flank and skirt steak can also be “perfection” on the grill, but only if you’re quick about things. Brisket, round, and other tougher beef cuts are, generally speaking, better reserved for slower cooking methods and a higher finishing temperature.
The completely sturdy rule of thumb? Buy the best steak your pocketbook will allow. Look for marbling: the intramuscular fat that manifests as white blotches and streaks. Typically, grain-fed or finished beef will show more marbling than grass-fed beef (which is still awesome to grill, just a different flavor profile).
A steak, say, 1 to 2 inches thick is best-suited for the grill, as it gives you the best setup for a seared, flame-licked crust and a juicy interior. As we said, however, thinner cuts are also highly grillable, just easier to overcook.
As this interesting, technically focused Live Science article notes, it’s best to go with steak that hasn’t been needle-tenderized or blade-tenderized, a process that can work pathogen-prone outside meat into the steak’s interior. Steak that hasn’t been prepared this way is inherently safer than ground meat because surface microbes can’t easily infiltrate the steak’s inner tissue, and it can be confidently cooked to a lower temperature—aka cooked rawer. If you’re not sure whether your cut’s been subjected to needle- or blade-tenderizing, the USDA recommends a minimum internal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s on the more “done” side of things for a lot of steak connoisseurs, hence the value in asking your butcher about the processing.
What Kind of Grill?
On the whole, you’re going to want to go the charcoal route for steak. Now, it’s true that certain modern gas grills—the Bull Grills we sell here at Summer Breeze included—have infrared burners that can get to searing temperature and do fine cooking steaks. But unless you have a Bull, gas grills just don’t achieve the scorching temperature that charcoal emits, and a scorching temperature is what you want when it comes to steaks.
So either go for a charcoal grill or charcoal head—hardwood or lump charcoal is the ideal fuel for your fire—or a gas grill with sear-ready infrared burners. Did we say Bull Grills??
What You’re After When Grilling Steak
The trick with a grilled steak is giving its exterior a crispy brown sear while keeping the inside meat soft, tender, and juicy. That translates to exposing the outside of the cut to high heat while cooking the inside at a lower temperature. Achieving that tightrope is, essentially, the boiled-down challenge of grilling steak.
A steak on a grill experiences some fundamental chemical reactions and processes that turn it from a hunk of bright-red, raw meat into something indescribably delicious. That intramuscular fat, the marbling, melts into the meat.
Exposed to high temperatures, the proteins in the muscle tissue change shape—denature, if you want to get scientific about it—which transforms the meat’s appearance, texture, and flavor.
The chemical reaction you may have heard about, if you’ve done a lot of grilling, is the Maillard: a reaction between amino acids and sugars that contributes to the browning of meat (and other foods) and that sought-after caramelization. The Maillard reaction commences when a steak’s outside temperature hits about 350 degrees F—one of the main reasons you want a hot fire to work with when grilling these cuts. It’s a downright magical process from the culinary perspective: Maillard magic generates several thousand flavor compounds.
We already mentioned that the secret to cooking steak is managing a high outside cooking temperature and a lower inside one. Then, of course, there’s the finer-scale work of stopping the cooking process at the desired level of doneness.
Because steak will continue to cook a bit once it’s off the coal fire (the high temperature of the outer meat will transfer heat inward for a few more minutes), you don’t want to aim for the final state of doneness on the grill itself.
Rather, you want to remove the meat when it’s a bit undercooked (in relation to the desired doneness). This takes some practice, but generally speaking, try to get a steak off the grate when it’s about 5 to 10 degrees below the target temperature.
Erring on the undercooked side gives you critical wiggle room. You allow for that additional, wind-down cooking while reducing the likelihood that it’ll take your steak into overdone territory.
If you erred too far in the undercooked direction, you’re fine: you can put the steak back on the grill. An overcooked steak, though—well, there’s no going back there.
Obviously, the trick is being able to gauge a steak’s internal temperature with reasonable accuracy. Though many grill aficionados pride themselves on using only a prodding finger to reckon doneness, an instant-read meat thermometer is really the way to go: you take away the guesswork and significantly up your chances of producing the perfect steak.
Here’s a rough guide to internal steak temperature levels and their associated states of doneness:
- Rare: 115 to 130 degrees F
- Medium-Rare: 130 to 135 degrees F
- Medium: 140 to 145 degrees F
- Medium-Well: 150 to 155 degrees F
- Well Done: 160+ degrees F
Now, again, the “right” level of doneness is the one you (and your guests) enjoy most. When in doubt, though, aim for medium-rare, which many agree achieves the optimum marriage of flavor and texture.
Basics of Grilling a Great Steak
Let’s drill down into the most basic step-by-step process of grilling a steak on a charcoal grill. We’ll then talk about a couple of other techniques and variations, including your strategy using a gas grill.
At least 40 minutes before you’re going to actually cook the steak—and ideally hours before—give that meat a good salting, aka a dry brine. Use sea salt or Kosher salt, and be liberal with it: Salt’s the most important seasoning for steak, and most people underuse it. A fair amount of this will burn or fall off in the grilling process anyhow. Salt flavors the meat, facilitates protein denaturing in the tissue, and—some believe—pulls away enough surface moisture to hasten the start of the Maillard reaction on the grill.
Grill maestro Meathead Goldwyn recommends (via this Epicurious article) a half-teaspoon of Kosher salt per pound of meat, if you want an actual measurement as your dry-brining starting point.
Experts disagree on when you should take your steak out of the fridge ahead of cooking it. We’d say aim for something like 20 to 40 minutes for thicker cuts. But sometimes, with thin steaks, it’s best to keep them in the refrigerator until you’re ready to slap them on your hot grill; their cold initial temperature applied to high heat can prevent the overcooking that’s all too easy with skirt and flank steaks.
Get that fire going! Fill a charcoal chimney with hardwood or lump charcoal and light with newspaper. When the coals are red-hot and ashy, build a two-zone fire: all or most of the coals (depending on the size of your grill) on one side and few or none on the other. You want a medium-hot fire on the direct-heat side, which means you shouldn’t be able to comfortably hold your hand over it for more than a couple seconds or so. The grate should be a few inches above the coalbed.
Pat your steak down ahead of putting them on the grill so they’re nice and dry; this’ll help you achieve a good crust. A wet steak will steam more than it sears—not what you want.
When the grill’s ready, stick the steak over the direct heat. Let it sit for, say, three to four minutes (depending on thickness), then turn it over and wait for another two or three minutes. Check the temperature: You’ll generally have a rare or medium-rare steak at this point. If that’s what you’re after, remove from the heat—again, 5 to 10 degrees below where you want it for serving.
If you want the steak more ‘done,’ move it over to the indirect heat and give it a minute or so on each side. Check for doneness and continue cooking if need be. It’s a good idea to finish your steak quickly over the high heat to achieve maximum sear.
After the steak’s off the grill, let it rest for, say, 6 or 7 minutes. Some authorities suggest the steak should sit off the grill for as long as it cooked over it. (Actually, this is another one of those semi-controversial subjects: some folks suggest allowing the steak to rest lets the juices inside to thicken a bit so you’ve got a moister and less-runny piece of meat when you cut into it, and that the resting process enhances flavor. Others contend the resting step is pointless and you’ll appreciate sinking your teeth into a hot-off-the-grill steak.)
In most cases, you don’t need anything more than some finishing salt and some crushed black pepper to season your grilled steak. The browning, searing, and caramelization process will have unlocked or produced some fantastic flavors inherent in the meat, adding to the deliciousness set forth by your pre-salting routine. (That said, feel free, of course, to apply whatever rubs or sauces you personally enjoy.)
Grilling Thinner & Thicker Cuts
A steak an inch or less thick—say, a flank or skirt steak—needs only a bit of time over direct heat to reach the perfect doneness, and you’ll want to turn it more often to maintain tight control and avoid overcooking. You can probably get a barroom brawl going (with the right crowd, anyway) arguing how much or how little you should be handling a steak on the grill. For an averagely thick steak, you’re probably best turning once or twice only, mostly just leaving it alone to sizzle and smoke. But flipping those thinner cuts frequently gives you a better chance at evenly cooking them.
For thick cuts of steak—1 1/2 to 2 inches—you can successfully cook them using the above method, just extending the amount of time. But there are other ways to grill them. Meathead Goldwyn, for example, advocates the “reverse-sear” method for thicker slabs. We won’t go into the nitty-gritty of the multiple ways you can do this—the Epicurious article we linked to above explains one approach, and Goldwyn’s own Amazing Ribs site has a ton of info on his method—but suffice it to say this involves doing most of the grilling with a long-ish exposure to indirect heat, then finishing things off with a pretty fast, fiercely hot searing session over direct heat.
Steaks on a Gas Grill
With a high-quality, multiburner, sear-capable gas grill, you can also turn out some delicious grilled steaks. Apply the above methods by establishing a two-zone setup with one side of the grill’s burners on and the other’s off; ratchet up the heat for the finishing-off sear either with all burners going and the lid closed or by taking advantage of certain models’ infrared burners.
The Charcoal Chimney Method
One cool way to get a wonderfully seared steak is to cook it directly atop a charcoal chimney. This works best for thinner cuts such as skirt steaks, as the exceptionally high heat being issued from the chimney starter will burn thicker steaks before their interior cooks. Fill the chimney about half-full of charcoal, and when it’s flaming well use a grill grate or skewers to sear your meat on the top of the chimney.
As you can see, there’s more than one path to a perfectly grilled steak. We recommend trying a few different cuts, exploring the world of dry-aged beef, a few different grilling methods, comparing gas vs. charcoal, grass-fed vs. grain-fed, and otherwise rolling up your sleeves and experimenting! A few overcooked or burned steaks, even more expensive ones, are worth it in the long haul for honing your methodology and your flame-grilled “feel.”