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Really Good Steak, Over Fire

Almost everyone sucks at making steak. Misinformation abounds. Fiascos are the norm. The worst thing is that most people are too polite/kind/naive to do anything but praise whatever horror show lands on their plate. The good news is that making great steak is only a little more difficult than making bad steak, and you won’t have to spend a cent more.

Finished Steak

Cut Steak

YES, PLEASE

So. What makes a good steak?

  1. Good starting material. Good quality, good cut, well butchered (duh)
  2. A dark brown, flavorful, crust
  3. Pink (rare, or medium-rare are acceptable, no more!) from edge to edge, no ring of well-done yuck ringing the yummy pink center.

We will get into choosing a good piece of meat in a minute, but I want to illustrate how things go wrong. The most common is a failure to develop a good crust:

Bad Steak

I DIDN'T ASK FOR BOILED STEAK

The second failure is to cook the center to the desired doneness, but also get a hideous ring of well done steak all around the edge:

Overcooked Steak

GAH! I SEE RARE, MEDIUM AND WELL, ALL IN ONE STEAK

So. We need a good piece of meat, a good crust, and to be pink, from edge to edge. Let’s get started. Start with the meat. Any of the usuals will do, but some favorites of mine are ribeye, porterhouse, T-Bone, and NY Strip. No big surprises here. If you can afford it, buy something that doesn’t come from a hideous feed-lot, and has been dry-aged. Grass finished beef will cost you a pretty penny, and so will dry aged beef. Both grass finished and dry-aged costs a fortune. If you can afford it, good on you. If not, get the best quality you can afford, and dry age it at home.

Why do people get wan, gray, steaks that look like they have been boiled, with a hideous ring of well-done meat around the edges? Both are symptoms of the same problem. It is because people are inadvertently steaming their meat. Throw a steak onto a fire, (or a pan), and the surface moisture has to boil away before any crust starts to form. On top of that, the steam is 0ver-cooking the meat just below the surface. On top of that, the moisture cools the cooking grate or pan so that it isn’t hot enough to form a good crust. Even with a really hot fire/pan, by the time a crust forms, your steak is over-cooked.

The solution? Warm your steak gradually, and keep the surface as dry as possible! Then take a two temperature cooking approach, very-low, then super-hot.

Hey, what is this crust stuff anyway? Short answer: it is yum. Another short answer: The product of Maillard reactions and caramelization. Longer answer: sugars and amino acids react with each other at temperatures above 330º, and break down into many intermediate molecules. These intermediate molecules recombine in hundreds of different ways, creating hundreds of compounds with slightly different flavors. Many of these flavors are those we would describe as savory, meaty, chocolatey, fruity, buttery, nutty, etc. All those flavors together taste complex and deep, and…. yummy. So that brown crust is crucial to great flavor.

Not only does cooking it slow help your crust form, and keep the meat pink from edge to edge, but the slow cooking makes the meat more tender. The same enzymes (calpains and cathepsins) that are responsible for tenderizing meat during dry aging, become hyper active as you warm the steak above room temperature, making your steak even more tender. Those enzymes are rapidly killed if you use a high heat technique, so your steak won’t be as tender.

Really Good Steak On Coals

If you can’t get it together and find a way to cook over a live fire, go here for an indoor version of this recipe. Unless you are starting with dry aged, take it out of the package, pat it dry, and then let it sit uncovered on a rack in the fridge for hours, or even a day before cooking. If you are starting with dry-aged steak, the surface should be pretty dry already.

Trimmed Steaks

HELLO, BEAUTIFUL

Take it out of the fridge a good hour before cooking, to let it warm a bit. Start your fire. Don’t use pressed “briquets”, whatever they are. They are almost always packed with fillers and release agents like clay and borax. Use a lump charcoal, or even dry wood cooked down to coals. You want a very low fire. If you have a grill thermometer, you want around 200-250 degrees. Very low. You are basically using your grill as an oven on “low” right now.   Right before you are ready to cook it, pat it dry again, rub it with a very light coating of olive oil, then liberally sprinkle course ground sea salt and pepper over it. You probably want more than you think. Put the steak on the grill, away from direct heat, and close the lid. Depending on the thickness of the steak, heat of the fire, etc, cooking time could vary between 8-20 minutes (remember, the temperature is very low).

Steaks on low grill

LOW & SLOW TO START

When the internal temperature of the steak reaches 90 degrees, take it off the grill, and tent it with foil. Now. Get your fire kicking ass. Open all the vents, and if available, throw on some wood chunks (applewood is nice). Get the fire going hot,  and wait until all the coals are  glowing red hot, and if you used some wood, wait until it is just collapsing to very hot coals. Give your coals a quick stir to knock the ash off. Don’t worry if this all takes a while, your steak resting under the foil is doing lots of good things. It is getting more tender (due to enzyme activity), and the temperature is evening throughout, helping us get the edge-to-edge pinkness that we want.  Now here is the exciting part. Pat your steaks dry one more time, then throw your steak directly on the hot coals! Yes, it seems like madness, but it works! Cook it for about 60-90 seconds (depending on how hot your coals are), flip it, cook for another 60-90 seconds, then take it off! You are looking for a nice dark brown crust. A few black spots are OK, but not too much. Don’t chicken out and take it out before the crust forms! If you are too chicken to put your lovely steaks directly on the coals (or you only have access to briquettes), you can take a more conventional approach; just get the coals really hot, put the grate very close to the coals (less than an inch), and cook them like that. The key is that the steak cooks very briefly at very high temperatures.

Steaks on coals

DON'T BE SCARED

Take it off of the coals, and gently brush off any embers, and small bits of ash that have adhered to the steak. Don’t worry, the steak will be surprisingly clean, with only a little brushing. Now put it on a plate, tent it loosely with foil, and let it rest for at least 5 minutes, then serve!

8 Comments

  1. Aaron wrote:

    The photos make me drool. Yum! Can’t wait to try this at home!

    Tuesday, March 1, 2011 at 3:40 pm | Permalink
  2. cedar wrote:

    Just make sure you are not using briquets. They are full of fillers that you don’t want sticking to the outside of your steak.

    Tuesday, March 8, 2011 at 4:51 pm | Permalink
  3. Lasivian wrote:

    The other option is to use a very small grill.

    I cook steaks on a tiny Weber grill with a large load of charcoal, the steaks are only about 1″ above the coals, and I blow them to a raging inferno with an electric bellows as well. (I use an electric rubber raft pump)

    This has gotten the fire so hot that I have destroyed multiple grill thermometers by forgetting and leaving them in the meat when I put it on the grill.

    I also take my steaks out several hours beforehand and let them come up to room temperature inside. (Western thinking has done horrible things to what we consider food safety. Trust me it’ll be fine.)

    I use a probe thermometer when the fire dies down a bit and I have two good crusty sides, 110f for very rare (uncooked center) anything higher for whatever you want, but remember you can always cook it longer, but you can’t uncook it.

    Another tip (Since i like mine medium and my GF likes hers very rare) is to stick clean steel finishing nails through the steak you want to be more done. It will get far more heat permeating it, without needing more time on the grill.

    Tuesday, December 25, 2012 at 7:47 pm | Permalink
  4. cedar wrote:

    Lasivian, I think your webber technique is a great option if you are reluctant to put the steak right on the coals, or if you only have briquets. For just one or two steaks, I’ve also heard of lighting a chimny of charcoal, then not dumping it out, rather putting a grate right on top of the chimney putting the steaks on that. That would be super hot too. Thanks for chiming in!

    Tuesday, December 25, 2012 at 8:03 pm | Permalink
  5. Lasivian wrote:

    I can usually get 6 steaks out of a full chimney of briquets. 3 per batch and the coals last for 2 batches. They just have to be blown back into life several times.

    When it’s raining the next time I think I’ll try it directly on the coals. The wet and cold here in Seattle makes the fire much less intense even at such short distances.

    Wednesday, December 26, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Permalink
  6. Paul wrote:

    This is a great resource for steak perfectionists. However – can you post a picture of a medium well done steak that meets your expectations. I was curious if it uniformly pink or is there a ring around the edges.

    Tuesday, September 17, 2013 at 11:34 am | Permalink
  7. WestonC wrote:

    The edge to edge evenness in the 2nd pic is the result from reverse sear method. You executed it really well. Bravo!

    Thursday, May 15, 2014 at 11:50 am | Permalink
  8. cedar wrote:

    WestonC, thanks for the compliment!

    Sunday, July 13, 2014 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

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