The. Perfect. Steak.
Sunday is Father’s Day, and while I hate to be a cliché (especially when it comes to fueling the gendered expectation that dads are/should be grillers and carnivores), today does seem as good a day as any to talk about the perfect steak.
So, let’s talk about it. My idea of what constitutes a “perfect” steak hasn’t changed much over the years: really crusty, really juicy, and I don’t think that puts me in the minority. And the technique for making that happen, though I’ve futzed with it here and there, is also pretty enduring: a thick steak, a hot fire, a watchful eye, and the patience to let the meat rest.
There are two recipes below: one is for what I’d consider “the perfect steak,” and is about as simple as it gets. The other is a bit more adventurous (but so damn fun), and entails cooking the steaks directly on blazing hot hardwood charcoal embers. Sounds nuts, but trust me. Now, a few (okay, more than a few) words on buying and grilling steaks:
The cut, how much you like it done, and the best way to cook it are all related. The supermarket meat counter—I mean a good one with an in-store butcher—offers many different steaks. Understanding where they come from on the cow goes a long way to choosing the right one for different occasions. Those cut from muscles on the back and backbone (like the ribeye, strip, tenderloin, and porterhouse) get less of a workout and are the most tender and mild tasting. Those from active abdomen and hind sections (like flank, skirt, and sirloin) have more chew and can be more flavorful.
Most steak lovers want marbling—that interior lacework of fat that melts during cooking to deliver the rich, silky, beefy experience you expect from steak. Strip and ribeye—from the same section of the cow as prime rib, only cut between the ribs and sold with or without the bones—are both tender and well marbled. Tenderloin has next to no marbling but its texture is super-soft (some say too much so) and puts up little resistance when you take a bite. Not surprisingly, these are the most expensive steaks.
Other cuts offer more value and excellent eating, so I urge you to venture out of your comfort zone. Try less familiar cuts like hanger steak (the classic cut for making steak frites), flat iron steak (with its unique geometric shape), tri-tip (cut from one of the sirloin roasts popular for regional California barbecue) and cap steak (a somewhat hard to find byproduct of cutting boneless ribeyes). You can even have success with oddball arm and blade steaks as long as you cut around the inconvenient strips of gristle. But some cuts—like chuck and round steaks—are deceiving and won’t be tender after quick grilling. Instead they require lots of cooking time or pounding (or both); or they can work cut in small pieces and skewered.
For some grillers, a perfect steak is “black-and-blue”: charred on the outside and raw enough on the inside to slightly blue-tinged and still cold from the refrigerator. For others, it’s medium-well done—not a trace of pink inside but ideally still fairly moist. I won’t acknowledge well done steaks as desirable; if you think that’s what you like, try pulling them from the fire just a couple minutes earlier and see if they aren’t better. And everyone else falls somewhere within that spectrum from red to pinkish gray. (See the steak temperature chart below to find your range. You may very well want an instant-read thermometer to check for doneness; if so, we all really like the Thermapen.)
If you’re grilling black-and-blue steaks, they should be at least an inch thick, and go from fridge to fire interrupted only by a sprinkle of salt and pepper. (Better yet, put them in the freezer for 30 minutes or so right before grilling.) That initial chill provides a bit of protection against overcooking. Other than that, the temperature of steak when it hits the grill doesn’t make a ton of difference: Inch-thick pieces of meat cook quickly no matter what, and thicker pieces require both direct and indirect fire.
About that fire: Get it as hot as your equipment can manage—500°F or above if possible. For 1-inch thick black-and-blue, rare, or medium-rare steaks, make a direct fire. For thicker cuts or cooking beyond that doneness, you’ll need both direct and indirect zones.
A true black-and-blue steak is a challenge met only with a screaming hot fire. When cooking with charcoal, if you can, shorten the distance between the grates and the coals. With gas, let the grill fully heat. When the grill hits peak temperature, take the steaks out of the fridge, blot them with paper towels, season on both sides with salt and pepper, and get them over the hottest spot of the fire. With gas, put the lid down since the heat will dissipate and the inside won’t cook too fast; for charcoal, keep the lid off for the opposite reason. To keep the inside from cooking, sear the steaks for no more than 2 minutes per side, then get them off the grill and check; they should be eaten before carryover heat (respect it!) cooks the meat too much further.
For rare and medium-rare steaks, start a direct fire—anything over 450°F will do the trick. The idea is to develop a crusty exterior on the steaks, without burning, in the time it takes the interior to cook the way you want it.
Steaks taken beyond medium-rare require searing over direct fire, then finishing over indirect heat. This gives you more control of both the internal temperature and the exterior charring so that the meat is still moist even when there’s little or no pink at the center. You can and should be prepared to move the steaks around and check frequently. For 1-inch-thick cuts, start with 3 minutes searing per side before moving the steaks to the indirect portion of the grill; thicker pieces will require more time.
Okay, that’s all probably more than you want/need to know, so I’ll leave it here. I have no idea if I’ll be eating or cooking steak this Father's Day or not, but I guess it doesn’t really matter. I have two incredible daughters, and everything beyond that is gravy.
I like to grill large steaks, then serve them sliced. The presentation is dramatic, and it’s fun for everyone to feed from the same communal platter. If your idea of the perfect steak is a juicy slab all to yourself, no problem; just cut the steaks into portions before grilling.
I’m serious: You’re going to put meat directly on the coals. And instead of getting burnt bricks, the results are a sublime balance of charred crust and juicy interior. The best cuts for this are porterhouse, rib-eye, and strip; bone-in or boneless—it’s your choice.
Talk To Me, Goose!
Questions, comments, brilliant suggestions? Just want to share the recipe for your grandma's potato salad, or your mom's meatloaf, or your uncle Drew's three-day 100-percent rye loaf (yes, please)? Don't hesitate to reach out anytime.