by Parke Ulrich
from Fine Cooking 129, pp.36-42
As executive chef of Epic Roasthouse, a steakhouse in San Francisco, I know a few things about steak. Here are my tips for great grilling, plus easy ways to add flavor with a fragrant marinade, a toasty spice rub, a tangy herb sauce, and a flavored butter bound to become your new favorite thing.
A – Advance planning
At least 1 hour before grilling, and preferably much longer than that, I rub my steaks with olive oil and then season them generously with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Salt is the key here, and it does two things: It draws out moisture, which concentrates flavor, and it begins to break down muscle tissue, making the meat more tender. If you plan to season your steaks more than 1 hour ahead, refrigerate them uncovered and let them come to room temperature before grilling.
Test Kitchen Tip: Why we love kosher salt
B – Butcher
Knowing where to buy steaks is just as important as knowing how to cook them, and developing a relationship with your butcher is invaluable. He or she can educate you on the wide variety of steak cuts and help you with special orders. While all of this can happen at a supermarket, a dedicated butcher shop will likely offer more variety, including prime beef (the highest grade) and aged steaks, so it’s worth seeking one out in your area.
Test Kitchen Tip: When you look for a good professional butcher, searching The Butcher’s Guild is a good place to start. Members take an oath to maintain integrity and support local, sustainable farms. Use this map to find a member of The Butcher’s Guild in your area.
C – Compound butters
A flavored (compound) butter is a really easy way to dress up a grilled steak. Gutsy and aromatic ingredients like fresh herbs, blue cheese, garlic, olives, roasted peppers, anchovies, capers, and chiles are all good candidates for mashing into softened butter along with salt and pepper. Then it’s simply a matter of topping the hot steak with some of the butter and letting it melt into delicious goodness.
|Grilled Strip Steaks with Miso-Truffle Butter||New York Strip Steaks with Blue Cheese Butter||Latin-Style Flank Steak with Chipotle Butter|
More great butters to try on any steak
|New York Steaks with Martini Butter||New York Strip Steaks with Sweet Pepper-Chorizo Butter||Sirloin Tip Steaks with Café de Paris Butter|
D – Dry-aged beef
Tender and full flavored, dry-aged beef is fantastic on the grill. It has less moisture, so it browns beautifully, and the smoke from the grill complements the funky-in-a-good-way flavor of the meat. Only the best grades of beef-ones with evenly distributed fat-are dry-aged, which adds to its allure. You won’t find dry-aged beef in most supermarkets, but you can get it at some butcher shops or by mail order.
Test Kitchen Tip: How to dry-age beef at home
E – Equipment
Here are my essentials:
chimney starter A chimney is a quick, inexpensive, and easy way to light a charcoal fire. Just stuff the bottom of the metal cylinder with newspaper, add charcoal to the top, and light the paper. Thermodynamics does the rest. When the coals are ready, simply dump them into the grill.
tongs A good pair of stainless steel tongs is essential for flipping steaks and moving them around on the grill. I’ve pretty much singed off all the hair on my forearms from years of cooking over live fire, but if you want to keep yours, look for tongs with a handle at least 12 inches long.
basting brush For brushing steaks with marinades, infused oils, and glazes. I’m a little old school and so prefer one with a long wooden handle and natural bristles, but silicone bristles also make sense when working over flames.
grill brush A dirty grill makes food taste bad and can cause it to stick, so invest in a good quality grill brush to keep things clean. The best have stiff wire bristles and an offset handle so that you can apply an even amount of pressure while cleaning. To clean well, heat the grill first and then brush away that old carbon buildup.
|Chimney starter||Stainless steel tongs (right)||Grill brush|
F – Fat
Because fat equals flavor, you want steaks with even marbling; this intramuscular fat melts during grilling, naturally basting the meat so that it’s juicy. Notice the marbling in these cuts and click on the links to learn more about them.
|Porterhouse||Rib eye steak||Beef top sirloin|
G – Grill Gas or charcoal?
I prefer a charcoal grill for best flavor, but I appreciate the convenience of a gas grill. Your choice. Or, better yet, have both on hand, one for weeknight cooking and the other for weekends.
Test Kitchen Tip: How to add smoke to a gas grill
H – Hanger steak (and other value cuts)
Often referred as the “butcher’s steak” because butchers would keep it for themselves, hanger steak is prized for its flavor and tenderness. It grills quickly and is best served rare to medium rare. Other good value steaks include flank, skirt, and flat iron.
|Grilled Spice-Rubbed Hanger Steak||Argentine Spice-Rubbed Flank Steak with Salsa Criolla||Grilled Skirt Steak with Quick Romesco Sauce|
I – Indirect grilling
Cooking over the cooler part of the grill is usually reserved for larger or tougher cuts, but I like to grill steaks indirectly, too. After a quick sear over direct heat, I move the steaks away from the fire to finish cooking them low and slow; this keeps the meat from shrinking and produces a tender, juicy steak that’s the same beautiful hue all the way through.
Test Kitchen Tip: How to prepare an indirect grill fire
J – Juice
Though the goal of resting a steak (more on that in a bit), is to allow the juice inside to be redistributed, there’s usually some left behind on the platter or cutting board. Don’t let this savory liquid go to waste! Add it to a sauce or vinaigrette or drizzle it over the steaks, the vegetable side, or grilled bread.
Recipe: Adam Perry Lang finishes his Clinched Strip Steaks with a simple “board dressing” made from the steak’s juices.
K – Kimchi
At Epic, we love serving kimchi, the beloved Korean condiment, with grilled steak. The fermented vegetables, which are a little spicy and a little sour, accentuate the richness of a great grilled steak. We either put a little kimchi right on top of the steak, or mix some finely diced kimchi into aïoli for a more refined accompaniment.
L – Lighter fluid
Avoid it unless you like food that tastes like petroleum. Use a chimney starter instead.
M – Marinades
A great way to add bold flavor, marinades are quick and easy to make. I especially like to use them on cheaper cuts, such as flank steak, which benefit from the additional moisture. The best marinades contain some kind of fat to keep the meat moist, aromatic seasonings, and an acid to help deliver flavor.
|Champagne-Lavender Marinated Grilled Rib-Eye||Bourbon & Brown Sugar Marinated Steak||Marinated Strip Steak with Grilled Scallions|
N – Naked
Though I love a good marinade or spice rub on cheaper cuts, I tend to cook my best quality steaks naked. (Not me-the steak!) Well, practically naked; as mentioned earlier, I always season steak with salt and pepper.
O – Oil
To keep your steak from sticking (and help promote grill marks), oil the grill grates with a paper towel dipped in oil once they’re hot.
P – Porterhouse (and other luxury cuts)
Porterhouse, one of the most popular and priciest cuts of beef, contains two of the most tender cuts, the tenderloin and the short loin (aka New York strip), divided by a T-shaped bone. It’s a honkin’ big and thick piece of meat, so invite a few friends over and let the porterhouse be the talk of the dinner. Other indulgent cuts include ribeye, sirloin, and tenderloin.
|Grilled Porterhouse Steak with Chimichurri Sauce||Grilled Top Sirloin||Rib-Eye Steaks Rubbed with Coffee and Cocoa|
Q – Quadrillage
A fancy way to say “those crosshatched grill marks you get on a steak when you lift it off the grate and turn it 90 degrees halfway through searing.” I don’t usually do this for my steaks, but you can. See the New York Strip Steaks with Blue Cheese Butter for a beautiful example.
R – Rest
One of the most important steps to grilling a great steak is rest. Before serving, let the steak sit somewhere warm for 5 to 10 minutes so that its juice, which has been driven to the center by heat, has a chance to redistribute and the muscle relaxes. If you skip this step, your steak will not be as tender and juicy as it should be.
Test Kitchen Tip: For juicier meat, give it a rest
S – Spice rubs
Rubbing steaks with spices creates a savory crust. You don’t need a thick coating (just use whatever sticks to the meat), but the longer you leave it on before grilling, the deeper the flavor will be.
|Five-Spice Rub||Spice-Rubbed Grilled Steaks||Tex-Mex Rub for Steak (or Chicken)|
T – Touch
When I suggest you get a feel for grilling steak, I mean it literally. Take the steak’s temperature, give it a poke with your finger, and see how it feels to you at the different temperatures, the most important one being just how you like it cooked.
Grill Master Video Tip: Poke steaks with your finger to tell when they’re done
U – Umami
Umami is a basic taste just like sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. Not sure you know it? Just take a bite of a well-seasoned, well-seared steak. That meaty, savory flavor is umami. You’ll recognize umami flavor in wine, eggs, spinach, ripe tomatoes, mushrooms, soy, and aged cheeses. When you eat those foods along with steak, you’re heightening the experience. Check out these umami-pack recipes:
|Hanger Steak with Spicy Miso Glaze||Grilled Steak and Peppered Spaetzle with Black Trumpet Mushrooms||Porterhouse with Garlic-Soy Sauce Marinade|
V – Vigilance
It’s easy to get distracted when you’re outside grilling, but don’t wander off too far or you may miss a flare-up and burn your steak. Grab a beer and stay close.
W – Wood
There’s nothing like cooking a steak over a wood fire, but it’s not a practical choice for most people. To get a similar smoky flavor, use some soaked wood chips. The chips will smolder and smoke, transferring that elemental flavor to your steak.
Grill Master Tip: How to make a homemade smoker pouch with soaked wood chips and heavy-duty foil.
X – X-ray vision
Determining doneness would be a breeze with X-ray vision, but until there’s an app for that, an instant-read thermometer can let you “see” how the steak is cooked. The temps that follow reflect when you should take the steak off the grill:
For rare: 125°F
For medium rare: 130°F
For medium: 135°F
For medium well (not that I recommend it): 140°F
For well done: Well, don’t.
Y – Yummy sauces
The buttery béarnaise and the Madeira sauce we serve at Epic both complement the richness of steak. Our horseradish and chimichurri sauces, on the other hand, offer contrast. In summer, I like a bright, tangy, chimichurri sauce.
Slideshow: 13 Ways to Sauce Your Steak. These warm and cool sauces were developed to accompany beef tenderloin, but any and all would be just as delicious with grilled steak.
Z – Zante grapes
Grapes and steak? You bet! Zante grapes (also called Champagne grapes, because the small, seedless grapes look like tiny bubbles) are a delicious, dramatic accompaniment for grilled steak. Char clusters of grapes on the grill (their thick skins can handle the heat) and serve alongside the steak; they’re like red wine sauce on a vine, as the sweet tartness of the fruit marries perfectly with the salty, charred crust of grilled steak.
|Ingredient: Learn more about sweet champagne grapes|