What are the secrets to grilling world-class steaks.
We've talked to plenty of the nation's top chefs and steakhouses over the years, including our pal Chris Schlesinger.
He's the former owner of the landmark East Coast Grill in Cambridge, Mass., a tailgate expert and the author of some of the most acclaimed grilling books ever, including "How to Cook Meat" and "The Thrill of the Grill."
We asked them to help us help you, the devoted tailgating public, to grill a better steak. Here are eight tips you can put into use at your next tailgate or backyard barbecue.
Choose wood over gas. Every steakhouse worth its salt and pepper uses hardwood or hardwood charcoal.
It lacks the convenience of gas grilling, but the results are simply far more satisfying. When tasted side by side, there is a radical difference in the flavor of meat cooked with wood and meat cooked with gas.
Hardwood gives the most flavor to meat – too much for some people. Gas offers absolutely nothing in terms of added flavor. Hardwood charcoal is a happy medium. It still gives the meat natural wood flavor, but not nearly as intense as straight hardwood.
You can adjust temperature simply by raising or lowering the grate of your grill. Also, build your fire on one side of the grill. That way you have a hot side for cooking and a cool side for foods that don't need a good, hot sear.
There is a way to get the convenience of gas and the flavor of wood. Weber sells something called The Performer. It's uses hardwood or hardwood charcoal to cook, but the fuel is easily lit with propane. It's a great piece of equipment that the CHFF Tailgate Team uses quite a bit.
Remember that fat is flavor. Purchase cuts of steak with plenty of marbled fat. Steaks that are too lean will turn out tough. We prefer a nice, thick ribeye, a cut with plenty of marbled fat throughout it that grills up perfectly (shaved ribeye is what they use for authentic Philly cheesesteaks, by the way).
The photo above, by the way, is a perfectly seared ribeye from one of our tailgates last season.
Many steakhouses have a fatty little secret to add flavor to their steaks: They brush it with a little melted steak fat, or melted butter, right before serving. Trim some excess fat off your steak before cooking it and render it on your grill in a small cast-iron skillet, with a little butter if you choose. Then brush it over the steak just before serving.
Turn up the heat. The biggest mistake people make when grilling – especially when grilling steaks – is that they don't have the heat up high enough.
Make sure your cooking surface is extremely hot before placing a steak on it. High heat will sear the surface of the meat and seal in flavor and juices. Meat will stick to surfaces that are not hot enough.
If you go to turn a piece of meat and it's sticking to the grill, it means the grill is not hot enough or the meat has yet to sear properly. Wait until the meat no longer sticks before flipping.
When using charcoal, don't cook until the flame has died down and the coals are covered in white-gray ash. That's when the charcoal is at its hottest.
Study timing and touch. Most people cut slits into a steak to see if it's done. That saps precious and flavorful juices from your meat.
The experts use timing and touch. Cook a 1-inch steak about 3 to 4 minutes per side for rare; 5 to 6 minutes for medium, and 7-8 minutes for well done.
Press the center of the steak with your finger. A rare steak will be soft, like the base of your thumb. A well-done steak will be firm, like the base of your small finger. Turn just once and never squeeze meat with your cooking utensils.
Keep your seasonings simple. There are plenty of steak seasonings out there. Use whatever floats your happy little sailboat. But the experts say that nothing is better than good old salt and pepper. Rub your steak with a thin coating of oil and then coat it generously with an even mixture of kosher salt and coarsely ground black pepper.
Marinade building blocks. The CHFF Tailgate Team offers plenty of different marinades, but feel free to experiment and create you own. But just remember, there are three basic building blocks to every marinade:
- an acid (lemon juice, vinegar, etc.)
- an oil (e.g., olive, sesame)
- seasoning (salt, pepper, paprika, onion, rosemary, cayenne, etc.).
The acid tenderizes meat. The oil adds moisture and texture. Seasoning means flavor.
Vegetables should marinate for an hour. Fish can also marinate quickly. Meat can marinate overnight in the refrigerator, but a marinade that's too acidic will "burn" the meat and make it tough.
So experiment a bit with different methods. Of course, a good steak often requires little more than a generous dry rub of kosher salt and cracked pepper.
Grill everything. Grilling should not be limited to hamburgers, hot dogs, steaks, sausage and chicken. For tasty vegetables, slice, cover in a thin coat of olive oil and add a little salt and pepper. Try grilling pizza or do you very own tailgate clambake on your grill.
Buy steaks the pros use Steakhouses often dry age meat. Dry-aging breaks down tissue and creates an extremely tender steak.
However, it requires a carefully controlled environment and is tough to do at home. However, a number of high-end retailers and steakhouses sell dry-aged steaks.
Call around and see if they can help you out. They cost more, but devoted steak aficionados often find the price worth it.
Get help. There are plenty of great resources out there to help you cook better. Pick up "The Thrill of the Grill" or "How to Cook Meat" by Chris Schlesinger, the owner of the aforementioned East Coast Grill, and John Willoughby, editor of Gourmet magazine.
Weber, meanwhile, released in 2005 a very informative book called "Weber's Real Grilling" by Jamie Purviance. It features loads of recipes and useful grilling tips.