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Ask any chef what he likes to eat on his night off, and I predict that you’ll hear the same response: a steak. Surprised? You shouldn’t be. After working with food all week long, restaurant chefs like myself crave an easy, delicious dinner that we don’t have to deconstruct to enjoy. In the summertime especially, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as a beautiful steak grilled over a hardwood fire. The ritual of building the fire, the aroma of smoke, and the mouthwatering flavor of grilled beef all contribute to the uncomplicated pleasure of this summer tradition.
If you’ve ever grilled a steak over a live fire, you know what I’m talking about. And if you haven’t, read on. I’ll give you a few simple guidelines—from choosing the right cut to setting up the fire—that will give you the perfect results you’re looking for.
Rich marbling means succulent steaks
If you begin with good-quality beef and the right cut, your grilled steaks will shine without any elaborate flavorings or tenderizers. The USDA’s grading system gives you a good way to assess quality: beef that’s labeled “prime” is superior; “choice” is runner-up. “Select” is third —I don’t recommend it for a steak. The grading designations are largely determined by the amount of visible fat that’s streaked throughout the muscle tissue, called marbling. Beef that’s richly marbled gets a higher grade; it’s more tender, juicy, and flavorful because the intramuscular fat melts and bastes the flesh during cooking. Also, since fat insulates, marbling provides some insurance against overcooking. Look for small, evenly distributed specks of fat rather than larger and sparser ones.
For this article, I’ve picked three steaks that I love to grill: rib-eye, porterhouse, and flank (which is flavorful and quite lean, so you won’t see rich marbling). See the chart below for specific grilling information about each cut.
A guide to grilling steaks
Serve steaks plain, or dress them up
Each of these three cuts of beef is delicious grilled and served as is, along with a salad and something like baked potatoes or garlic bread. If you’d like to enhance the meal, try pairing the steaks with the recipe I suggest for each cut: Roquefort butter for the grilled rib-eye, peppery Ancho chile harissa for the grilled porterhouse, or an Asian five-spice rub and sesame-soy sauce for the grilled flank steak.
Building the fire: forget the pyramid
After years of professional and backyard grilling, I’m still fascinated by the details that go into building a successful fire, and I still have to pay attention.
For flexibility, build a fire that offers a range of temperatures at all times (see Building the fire). You need to be able to move the food around if there are flare-ups, and you need to account for thicker and thinner parts of the steaks. At my restaurant’s long, galley-like grill, we always have one section of coals that are just revving up while another section is peaking and yet another is fading. You can create the same effect on your backyard grill by lighting the fire on one side of the grill and letting it “walk” across the coals. When the coals on the side that were lit first are dying, those on the opposite side—which started burning last—will be hottest. This gives you a longer window for grilling and more control over the heat. For gas grilling, set one burner to high and the other to medium, and add some wood chips for smoky flavor.
I use a combination of hardwood logs and lump hardwood charcoal (not charcoal briquettes). The charcoal provides fast, high heat, and the smoking wood burns more slowly and adds aroma and flavor. Look for natural lump charcoal in hardware and gourmet stores. You can order lump hardwood charcoal and hardwood chunks by mail from Nature’s Own Chunk Charwood (www.char-wood.com) in Rhode Island.
Arrange the wood and coals in an even layer, and don’t touch them once they’re lit. Every time you mess with the fire, you alter its integrity, disrupting the flow of oxygen and knocking calories out of the system. For this reason, I don’t recommend the traditional method of stacking the coals, igniting them, and then spreading them out. This pyramid method also hinders you from getting a range of temperatures.
The coals should cover an area that’s at least a few inches larger than all the steaks you’ll cook at one time. The grill grate should sit three to four inches above the coals.
To judge when the fire is ready, look at the coals and use the hand test. When the flames subside and the charcoal glows red with some ash starting to appear, the fire is hot enough for rib-eye and flank steak. At that point, you should be able to hold your hand a few inches above the grate for one second. Shortly thereafter, the embers will be completely covered in ash, a sign that they’re losing heat. That’s medium high—perfect for a thick porterhouse.
It’s fine to season the meat with herbs or spices up to an hour before grilling, but don’t salt them until the last minute. Salt draws out moisture and will dry out the steaks if added too soon. Before putting the steaks on the fire, bring them to room temperature and rub oil on the grill grate.
Flip once and avoid flare-ups
Once the steaks are on, you don’t need to hover over them like an overprotective mother, but you do need to be ready to juggle the position of the steaks when necessary. Thinner parts of each cut, such as the tenderloin side of a porterhouse or the tapered end on flank steak, need to stay over a less intense part of the fire so they don’t overcook. Also, if there are flare-ups (caused by fat dripping onto hot coals), move the steak to another part of the grill until the flames die. Besides being dangerous, flare-ups can burn the surface and cause unhealthy compounds to form on the steak. Try not to flip the steaks more than once (flank is the exception) because that would disrupt the caramelization and the formation of a crust. And when you do the flipping, use tongs or another implement that won’t puncture the meat and let the juices escape.
Over a hot grill, the steaks will cook quickly, going from very soft (very rare) to somewhat soft with a bit of a spring (medium) to quite firm (well done). Get in the habit of touching the steaks often and cutting into them when you think they’re done, erring on the side of undercooking since you can always cook the steaks longer, if necessary. The steaks will continue to cook a few more degrees once they’re off the heat. And after grilling a few steaks, you’ll know what medium rare feels like without having to double-check by cutting into the meat. One more hint: when drops of red juices appear on the surface of a rib-eye or porterhouse steak (but not flank steak), the meat is medium. So if you see those juices and you wanted medium rare or rare, you’ve missed your chance.