Grilling the perfect steak

In Tips and Hints on July 1, 2011 at 1:53 pm

The most humble equipment can turn out a great steak.

This article ran just after Memorial Day.  That way, if home chefs were not entirely ecstatic about their grilling efforts for Memorial Day, Phyne Dyning could offer up some suggestions for improvement long before Independence Day (“The Fourth of July”).  So, here it is again!  Good luck with your grilling.  Oh yes, don’t forget to remember that the holiday celebrates our seccessi0n from the British Empire and that it is not an orgasmic celebration of the American military.

It is the day after Memorial Day.  The coals in the grill are cold or the fats from yesterday’s fire-roasted meat-fest have congealed nicely on the heat diffusers on the gas grill.  We enjoyed the final belch of our meal just before bedtime.  We vaguely remember grilling steaks yesterday and the stack of beer bottles around the grill bears witness to the possibility that our memorable steak dinner was viewed through beer goggles.

Independence Day is just around the corner.  Here are a few well-known and some little-known secrets to grilling the perfect steak.  The list is not complete, so feel free to add your own pearls to what I have provided.

Rule One:  Vow to grill while you are still sober.  Contrary to what many empty beer cans will say, we cannot do anything better when we are drunk than when we are sober.  You cannot grill well if you are toasted.  It is a tough rule and one that I do not always follow.  If I do not, I refer to “Rule Thirteen” below.

Rule Two:  Check your grilling equipment the day before.  This includes giving your grill a careful “day before” cleaning.  If you are using a gas grill, light it and ensure that all of the burners fully ignite.  It is my personal prejudice that every grill should have a way for the cook to vary the distance between the flame/coals and the grate.  If your grill has this feature, make sure the mechanism moves every time and that it locks in place where you want it.  Make sure you empty the grease sumps, if any.  Carefully scrape away the grease and debris from your last cookout.  Why keep stuff around that is 1) rancid or 2) will contribute to flare-ups.  Making sure you have adequate fuel is a no-brainer.  NEVER put your charcoal grill away with ashes left in the firebox.  Empty the ashes into a covered metal bucket as soon as you can do so safely.  Do not roll a hot grill back into the garage or patio room unless you want to invite the firemen over.

Rule Three:  Have everything at hand when you begin.  Fire is unforgiving.  If you have to run inside to get the tongs you forgot, you risk a sub-prime grilling result.  I tend to grill things while fully clothed.  My guests appreciate my thoughtfulness, and I avoid dancing around to avoid grease spatters.  Keep protective clothing handy, such as mitts and a chef’s coat (if you are grilling for guests).  The chef’s coat is a nice touch as it prevents the addition of things like chest hair and belly-button lint to the grilled meat.  If’ I am grilling my own food, coats are optional.  Watch those apron-strings if you “tie in front”.  Have one of those spray bottles handy to cool down an excessively hot grill area…unless you are using glazed grates.

Rule Four:  Always re-clean and oil the grate just prior to grilling.  Be sure to wipe down the grate carefully after brushing to remove any metal bristles that may have come loose from your grill brush.  It sucks to eat those.  Then, thoroughly oil the grate.  Spraying oil is effective, but messy and can lead to a flare-up.  I use half of an onion that I soaked in vegetable oil overnight.  It adds a bit of flavor too.  A clean cast-iron grill grate is a happy grate, but never wash it in soap and water.  Like a cast-iron skillet, a cast iron grate becomes seasoned with use.  After you have finished grilling re-brush the grate and re-oil it.  I am not a fan of glazed grates.  They can crack or shed pieces of glaze into your grilled foods.  Double check everything before putting anything on the fire.

Rule Five:  Do not apply rubs or seasonings containing salt before grilling.  Not everyone agrees.  But there is a bit of science in this advice.  Salt will draw juices out of the meat and is the basis for kashering meat.  Salt on the outside creates an osmotic gradient that fluids will follow.  You want your steaks to be juicy, so leave the juices inside.  A fair number of carnivorous chefs will not add salt to a grilled meat until just before they plop it in their mouths.  If you want a marinated, grilled steak…omit as much salt from the marinade as possible.  A marinade that has a low osmotic gradient will be more readily absorbed into the meat.  A marinade with a high osmotic gradient will draw juices out.  Salt is not the only element that will create an osmotic gradient…so will spices or sugar.

Rule Six:  Grilled meats should be at room temperature before grilling.  Cold meat grills unevenly and the fats remain congealed unless they are warmed to room temperature first.  If the internal fats are congealed, they cannot move into the meat fibers already undergoing cooking.  These fibers will be tough.  Consequently, you will get a grilled steak that has tough edges.

Rule SevenDo not crowd the grill surface.  Give the steaks some breathing room.  Also, keep an area of your grill either turned off or free of coals.  This provides you with a great place to move steaks to that finish early or a place to put them while you deal with an out-of-control flare-up.  Also, crowding a grill leads to higher meat surface temperatures, since the heat cannot escape between the meat pieces.  This can lead to charring.

Rule Eight:  “Doneness Rules” are not carved in stone.  Every trained cook is given a teaching chef’s rules for determining meat doneness.  These usually involve pressing on parts of the hand or arm which relate well to how a piece of meat should “feel” at a certain level of doneness.  Instant-read thermometers are also recommended by many pros.  But, be sure to check any thermometer for accuracy before putting it into service.  Also, pay only a little attention to the doneness marks on any thermometer.  “Doneness” is how you want your steak, not the academic standards of professionals.  I find my preferred standard for “rare” is a good ten degrees cooler than what most thermometers read for rare and also from what the “industry standard” is for rare.  If using a meat thermometer, insert it as few times as possible to avoid draining meat juices through the resulting puncture.  When you get a steak that is perfect to your standards, commit its feel, appearance, smell, and texture to your memory…which is very hard to do if you are wasted from doing Jello shots with your guests.  Remember also, meat continues to cook after it has been removed from the heat.  This is particularly true of a medium to medium-well steak.  Take these steaks off just before your Spidey Senses tell you they are ready.  A well-done steak is already ruined (in my opinion), so if it continues to cook after removing it from the grill…no harm, no foul.

Rule Nine:  Handle with care.  Turn steaks with tongs (or two spatulas) rather than with a fork.  I really do not even like placing steaks on the grill with a fork.  Put them down carefully with your hands.  Keep a bowl of warm, soapy water nearby so you can wash up afterward.  It goes without saying to not handle cooked food with hands or equipment that has touched raw meats.  When using tongs, do not squeeze the meat too aggressively.  Refrain from repeatedly pressing on the meat during cooking to check for doneness.  Some people put a high value on obtaining “grill marks” of perfect geometry.  If this floats your boat, go for it.  Otherwise, concentrate on basics…like doneness…and then add the bells and whistles later.

Rule Ten:  Sear, then cook.  Searing seals the outside of the meat and helps to retain juices.  There is a bit of controversy about the old rule “Turn a steak only once” when cooking steaks to medium-well or well.  I was taught to sear both sides of a steak destined to become medium-well or well-done and then finish cooking it to the desired doneness.  Here is why:  If the steak is seared on one side and then partially cooked before turning, juices will escape through the unseared “top”.  Then, when you turn it, you end up tossing those juices under the grate.  Consequently, sear each side over the hottest (very hot) portion of your grill.  Then cook to doneness over a portion that is a bit “cooler”.  Rare steaks can be turned once.  If you really want a crisp outside to your steak, brush or spray them with olive oil.  Then return them to the searing portion of your grill for a minute.

Rule Eleven:  Do not forget to allow meats to rest after grilling.  It is almost iconic to cut into a sizzling steak right off of the grill.  Unfortunately, unless the meat is given about five minutes to rest, the meat juices have been forced out by the high internal temperature.  Let the meat stand in its juices before serving.

Rule TwelveUnless it’s burgers, keep your focus.  You cannot watch the kids, dogs, or fireworks display and simultaneously grill a truly great steak.  The pros can grill steaks and attend to other kitchen duties, but novices cannot.  Enlist help to finish side dishes or salads.  Or, prepare them ahead of time.  Also, unless you are a pro at multitasking, do not grill veggies or other stuff while you are grilling steaks.  I have seen many ruined steaks arrive on the heels of perfectly grilled asparagus.

Rule Thirteen:  Give yourself some “grace”.  A lot of men hold grilling ability on par with penis size.  They will look at a sub-prime grill result with the same view they have of a male organ in need of Viagra.  In both cases, if your meat fails to meet standards, do not obsess over it and vow to do better next time.  In the meantime, buy a red convertible.

Rule Fourteen:  Give others some “grace”.  You may be master of the grilling domain at home, but on other than home court, keep your advice to yourself…unless asked.  Even if the steak your host serves you has “inflate to 32psi” written on the side…tell him/her “This is spectacular!”  If you are fortunate to enjoy being the guest of a true master, watch and listen.  Ahhh…and remember that some people do not like being watched as they cook or grill.  If in doubt, keep your distance unless you are invited to grill-side.

There you have it, the Phyne Dyner’s “Dirty Baker’s Dozen, Plus One” tips for grilling great steaks.


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