Steak is expensive, and it’s a real shame to ruin it on the grill. I’ve been treated to many a steak charred on the outside and bloody in the middle or reduced to shoe leather so tough it’s hard to cut with a steak knife. Though I appreciate anyone making an effort to serve up a good meal, I’m often tempted to offer lessons on how to grill. That seems a bit cheeky, so I smile and eat what’s served no matter how it looks or tastes. That’s a southern thing I think. In any case, I thought I’d toss out some tips here and hope that all the awful grillers of the world stop by and stop ruining their meat—especially when they’re serving up the pricier cuts like steak.
Start with a Good Cut of Meat
If you look over the steaks in the grocery, you’ll notice that some cuts are brighter red with less fat. These are cuts like round steak. They actually look more appealing than the steaks you’ll want to grill. These bargain steaks are not meant to be grilled. Even good outdoor cooks end up with tough, tasteless steaks on the grill when using the cheaper cuts of meat. If you have round steak or other cheaper cuts and want to cook those outside, then you’re better off using a Dutch Oven and cooking the meat slowly and with some sort of gravy.
The steaks that grill up best are the darker colored meats marbled with fat. That fat helps as far as the cooking and also adds flavor. My favorites are Rib Eye or Filet cuts. Other options include T-bone or Porterhouse. These do cost more, but if you’re going to take the time to grill out, then you want a good meal. Invest in good meat, or you’ll be disappointed.
Some die-hards do like unseasoned meat, but marinating tenderizes the meat as well as adding extra flavor. There are a lot of rubs, seasonings, and pre-made marinade sauces on the market. I’d suggest trying out a variety to see what you like.
My favorite way to marinate steak is to sprinkle it with lemon pepper seasoning, splash on a little Worcestershire sauce, and pour spicy Italian dressing (the oily—not creamy type) over the meat. Sometimes I add a little beer as well.
If I add salt, I do that right before I take the steak off the grill. Though there is some debate, many people say that salt dries out the meat. So, I avoid salt during the marinating stage. I also go with kosher or sea salt which is finer and more subtle. Table salt tends to overpower the taste of the meat.
It’s a good idea to marinate the steaks for a couple of hours or even overnight. That gives the sauce time to tenderize the meat a bit and time for the flavors to sink in.
Fire Up the Grill
You want a good hot fire before tossing on the steaks. With a gas grill that’s between medium and high. With charcoal, you want the coals to be ashy gray and no flames coming up.
If the fire is not hot enough the meat doesn’t cook fast enough and is tough. If it’s too hot, then the steak will be overcooked on the outside and undercooked on the inside.
It takes a little practice to get the right temperature and the timing on track, but after a couple of times, it’s pretty easy to tell when the heat is correct and when the meat is ready. This all varies from grill to grill, so practice on your family a few times before inviting company.
Tossing on the Steaks
Before putting the grate on, spray it with Pam. That helps prevent sticking. Steak isn’t bad about sticking, but some of the fats and drippings may be hard to clean off if you don’t pre-spray.
Use tongs to place the steaks on the grill. Do not use a fork. When you make holes in the meat, the juices run out. This makes the meat dryer and less tasty.
Some grillers like to sear the meat and turn only once. This technique is hard to master, and I don’t think it makes for a better tasting grilled steak. Some folks will argue that. That’s OK. I know what I like.
I turn the steak a couple of times and try to angle it so that the grill marks crisscross. This simply looks pretty and does not impact on taste particularly. In addition, I put the grill lid on when I have thicker cuts. If you like steak rare, you probably won’t want to cover with the lid. That cooks the steak more in the middle. For those liking steak in the medium range, the lid does help a lot. The vents can be used to regulate the heat.
When the coals (or heat setting) are correct, it takes about 20 minutes to cook a steak to medium. This varies from grill to grill, with the heat, and with the outside temperature. But, it’s a good ballpark figure. Keep an eye on the steaks though. There is a fine line between done and burned to a crisp.
Medium meat feels kind of like your thumb when you press it with your forefinger. You can use the tongs to lightly press to check. I usually lightly cut the center of one of the steaks to check the doneness. They are usually ready to come off when I do this. If not, I cook a bit longer. Try not to knife check too early, or the juices do leak out. Once you’ve cooked a few steaks, you’ll probably be able to eyeball them and tell when they are cooked to the desired level of doneness.
If you have a gas grill, don’t be tempted to put the steaks up on the top rack as you’re completing the meal. It’s too hot on the grill to let the steaks sit. Likewise, don’t move the steaks over to the cooler side of a charcoal grill. That perfectly cooked steak will continue to cook and then be dry and tough.
Put the steaks in a pan with a lid to keep them warm. Cast iron is a good storage container as it holds heat well without continuing to cook the meat to overdone. If it’s cold outside, you can heat cast iron in the oven a bit before taking the pan out to hold the steak.