Friday, September 5, 2014

Grilling Steaks. Too Hard? Let's Make it Easy!

Grilling the perfect steak is deceptively difficult.  While every man on the earth will tell you that he has the instincts of the most culinary gifted Neanderthals passed down to him, I'd bet you a case of donuts and Bourbon that he's super nervous inside, when it's time for the meat to hit the fire.  Why?  The facts are:
  1. Steaks aren't cheap, and you want to maximize your investment
  2. Distractions (kids, dogs, other grilling duties, in-laws, beer) take your focus away from what needs to be done.
  3. There are a zillion variables to complicate this equation, like
    1. Thickness of the steak
    2. Temperature of the charcoal/wood
    3. Temperature of the grilling surface
    4. Temperature of the space above the grill
    5. Temperature outside
    6. Surface area of the grill

I'm here to make this super easy (you're welcome).  Men, you don't have to tell anyone that you read this, you can continue to grill steaks and take the credit, just wink at me when you see me at the airport... I'll know.  Ladies, you can use this knowledge to out-grill your man someday, but only if he really deserves it (or if you're tired of wasting good money on bad steak).

You will need:
  • Kosher Salt
  • 2 Excellent Steaks, each at least 1 1/4" thick
  • A Grill (Fire)
  • A very accurate thermometer
Before we begin, I want to express that most "Grilled Steak" recipes are quite frustrating.  The exact same recipe can be followed by two different chefs, and one will have success while the other fails. Why?  The variables.  Every steak is different.  Every fire is even more different.  Grills are different, internal and external starting points are different, SO... grab a good instant-read thermometer and read this.  It will help!

I'm starting with a couple of Porterhouse steaks.  Note the smaller tenderloin (Filet) on one side of the bone, and the larger strip ("New York") sirloin on the other side.  I chose them because they're well-marbled.  "Well Marbled" doesn't mean there's a thick ribbon of fat running through the muscle, rather, it means the lean muscle is loaded with tiny white flecks of fat, throughout.  This marbling is the primary factor used by the U.S.D.A. to grade meat.  The grades are (from worst to best): Select, Choice, and Prime.  "Prime" beef is graded based on its high level of marbling.  More fat meats more flavor, more juice, and typically, more tenderness.  "Choice" means less, and "Select" (or "Cow") is the leanest. 

NOTE!  These grades are assigned at packing houses, where buyers (who are very skilled at this) set the mark for "Prime" etc, based on that day's selection.  Therefore, whatever is "Prime" today, might be "Choice" tomorrow, depending on the overall quality of the beef that comes in.  In other words, DON'T RELY ON THE GOVERNMENT STICKER TO TELL YOU HOW GOOD A STEAK IS!  Take a good look for yourself and pick a steak that has good color, is nice and "tight" (no obvious separation between muscle and fat), and is peppered with flecks of bright white fat!

On the day you want steak for dinner, take them out of the fridge and set them on a nice cutting board, around noon (yes, "noon").  Sprinkle both sides liberally with Kosher salt.  I like Kosher salt because the larger flecks give your fingers more control of how much you "dispense" over your steak.  Don't worry about fancy steak seasonings, rubs, or marinades, we're aiming at the amazing flavor and texture of the steak, not what's in a bottle! Also, don't worry too much about "over-salting."  It's a big steak, it can handle it!  Note how much I used in the picture.  That's perfect.  Don't forget to do both sides...

Now, leave the steak(s) on the board, and leave the board on the counter for 5 or 6 hours (YES, 5 or 6 hours!).  Any surface bacteria that might want to take hold of the steak will have the salt to contend with, so don't worry.  Also, the salt will melt down and the meat will take hold of it.  You want these steaks to be room temperature when they hit the grill, so trust me!  The muscle will darken slightly, this is just exactly what we want!  Some water will evaporate, too.  This is a good thing, it will help concentrate the texture and flavor of the steak.  So... salt it and leave it alone!

When it's time to grill, go ahead and build your fire.  Here's the trick, only build the fire on HALF of your grill.  If you're using propane, only light half of the burners.  Walk away and let your fire/coals/wood burn down to a nice hot bed of coals and let it heat up the grill.  We're going to put a nice sear on the surface of these steaks!  In this picture, you can see that my coals are almost ready, they're white with ash and a fire is rumbling around in the bottom.  The surface of the grill is around 575 or 600 degrees.  Time to get the meat!

Lay your steaks onto the hottest part of the grill and listen to them sizzle!  Close the lid and leave them over this super hot fire for 90 seconds.  Flip them over, and put them right back over the hot side for 2 minutes.  Why longer on that side?  Because the meat absorbed some of the heat from the first sear, so the surface is cooler.  90 seconds on side one, two minutes on side two.  If anyone tells you, "Dude, you're gonna burn them!" Just tell them that you'll be happy to eat theirs and hand them a bowl of cut tofu and broccoli.

When you've seared both sides, it's time to move them off of the hot side, and to take their temperature.  They are not done at this stage!  They sure are pretty though, aren't they?  The plan is to leave them on the "cooler" side of the grill (so they won't burn), with the lid closed, until they're done.  Take their temperature every two minutes! 

When are they done?  Well, let's talk about that...

If you were to look up ten different "Degree of Doneness" charts (go ahead, use your googler), you'll find that they wildly disagree on doneness levels and their temperatures.  I was raised in TX where "Rare" means it's still room temperature in the center. The truth is, your steaks were "safe" to eat as soon as you flipped them over to the cool side, but since most people like a "hot" (or certainly "warm") steak, you've still got some cooking to do.  135 is a safe temperature to shoot for.  Personally, I like them right at 125!  That's the "Rare side of Medium Rare."  To take all of the pink out, you'll need to take it all the way to about 155 or 160.  Caution, cooking a steak up to this temperature will render out all of the fat, dry it out, and reduce the juice to the point where the flavor is lost!  This is why people reach for Ketchup or Steak Sauce.  It is also why I don't have Ketchup or Steak Sauce available at my house!

Here, you can see that I pulled my steak at 125 degrees.  Then, I covered both of them with foil and let them rest for about 7 minutes.  The 7 minutes is just the right amount of time to announce to folks that it's time to get a plate and to put a hearty baked potato on it, with some butter, etc.  By the time they make it to your cutting board with a plate in their hand, 7 minutes will have gone by and you can serve them the best steak ever.

The picture below is of a 1 1/4" Porterhouse at 125 degrees.  It was seared for 90 seconds, then flipped and seared for 2 minutes.  It was moved off the direct heat and cooked over indirect heat for 6 additional minutes.  I enjoyed it immensely, with only a bit of cracked pepper for additional seasoning.  If you like yours a bit more "done," then simply cook it for 8 minutes over indirect heat and pull it at 135 degrees.

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