There are some things in life that are meant to go together like peanut butter and jelly, weddings and the chicken dance, and steaks and the grill.
While steaks can certainly be prepared indoors in a skillet, grill pan, or the oven, these methods pale in comparison to the depth of flavor that is achieved by cooking with smoke and fire. To help get you started on the road to creating a restaurant quality grilled steak at home, we’ve created the following tutorial.
When selecting the perfect steak for your cookout, the first thing to look for is its USDA grade.
At the top of the grading scale is Prime, which, in its simplest form, has a larger amount of intramuscular fat running throughout the meat (i.e. marbling or small flecks of white that are found throughout the red meat) and therefore yields a moister, more flavorful end product.
One step down on the grading scale is Choice. While Choice beef contains less marbling than prime, what it loses in the richness of that fat is made up for in availability and cost as approximately 50 percent of all processed beef is graded Choice versus less than 3 percent for Prime.
Third in the grading scale of beef that is available to consumers is Select, a much leaner option that is more susceptible to drying out during the cooking process due to the lack of moisture created by internal fat.
Equally worth noting is the Certified Angus Beef (“CAB”) label on some beef. Introduced in 1978 as a means of promoting the consistency and quality of beef from black Angus cattle, CAB is well marbled beef comparable to the Prime or Choice grades above. In order to receive that CAB stamp of approval, beef must meet 10 scientific criteria for marbling, size, and uniformity.
Finally, for those looking for something extra special for their next cookout, American Kobe (Wagyu) grades above Prime above the USDA scale with intense marbling and rich beef flavor. While not readily available at most grocers or butcher shops, Wagyu is available online from such sources as Snake River Farms.
DRY AGED VS. WET AGED
When shopping for steaks, you might find yourself faced with the terms “dry aged” and “wet aged”. When steaks are cut, the enzymes within the meat immediately begin to break down the connective tissue, making it more and more tender as time passes.
With dry aging, beef is placed in a climate-controlled area for an average of 21 to 28 days (though certain specialty purveyors such as Pat LaFrieda Meats will offer beef that has been dry age beef significantly longer), during which the moisture within the meat is drawn out and the flavor of the beefy flavor grows stronger as time passes. Given the time involved in the dry aging process, coupled with the decrease in weight due to moisture loss and the removal of external mold that has formed, the dry aged beef is priced at a premium.
An alternative to dry aging is the much more prevalent wet aging process. For wet aging, the beef is sealed in cryovac and aged within the plastic for a much shorter length of time (from a few days to a couple of weeks). Since the meat isn’t exposed to the air, the moisture level remains the same so there isn’t the same weight loss as with dry aging, though the consumer does give up that deep beefy flavor.
We’ve all seen, and have probably eaten, the ½-inch or thinner steaks offered in the meat cooler at most major grocery stores. While these do present an inexpensive steak option, they are often filled with hard, inedible fat (versus the soft fat that dots well marbled steaks) and large portions of bone. Equally, the thinness of these steaks means that they will grill extremely quickly, so much so that it is easy to dry them out.
When selecting steaks, the best option for grilling is one that is 1.5-2-inches thick, allowing you to form a nice flavorful crust on the outside while keeping the center moist and tender. Although it is not always possible to find steaks of this thickness pre-cut at a grocery store, most meat departments will custom cut steaks according to your specifications. Better yet, find a local butcher who can not only custom cut your steaks, he or she can help you discover different cuts to try during your next cookout.
POPULAR STEAKHOUSE CUTS
Next up in the steak selection process is the actual cut. While there are countless options available for hot-and-fast grilling, the most popular cuts among steak lovers are as follows:
- Bone-in or boneless ribeye (a personal favorite due to its fat content and flavor);
- Fillet (an extremely tender cut with virtually no fat);
- Strip steak (a popular steakhouse cut that lies between a ribeye and fillet in both tenderness and marbling);
- Porterhouse (a “best-of-both-worlds” cut as it contains both the tenderloin and the strip); and the
- T-bone (similar to the porterhouse but with a smaller portion of fillet).
Because of their popularity (due largely to the fact that they contain muscles that do little work and are therefore much more tender than those that do significant work), these steaks tend to be somewhat pricey but are a worthwhile investment when you’re looking for a true steakhouse experience at home.
ADDITIONAL READILY AVAILABLE STEAK CUTS
For something a bit different, there are countless other steak options available, each with its own pros and cons. Included among the more popular (and readily available at most major grocery stores) are:
- Flank steak (a multipurpose long and flat steak with a prominent natural grain);
- Skirt steak (a long, flat, and thin steak with a prominent grain just like the flank steak);
- Tri-tip (a triangular, full flavored cut made popular in Santa Maria, CA but increasingly available across the country);
- Chuck steak (a rectangular steak that usually contains part of the shoulder bone);
- Flat iron or top blade steak (a well marbled cut that is normally cut in to two flat steaks with the tough connective tissue between them removed);
- Hanger steak (known as the butcher’s cut as it is extremely flavorful and is hard to find due to the fact there is only one per cow);
- Top sirloin (a large, relatively inexpensive steak with moderate tenderness); and
- Top round steak (an extremely lean, inexpensive cut); among various others.
(Note: For even more ideas for beef cuts and where they come from, we've included an informative chart at the bottom of this article!)
"BUTCHER CUTS" (i.e. Get to know your butcher)
While it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a traditional butcher shop, once you do you may never go back to the plastic wrapped meat found at your local grocer.
For me, that local butcher shop is Porchellino’s Craft Butcher in Memphis, TN at which Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman exemplify the old school art of butchery. For a true butcher such as Aaron, selling meat is only part of the story as he engages each customer in an educational discussion on what their needs are and what options exist. Not only this mean the grading system and traditional steak cuts above, but some up-and-coming options and/or hidden gems as well including:
- Cap of ribeye/Spinalis steak (an intensely flavorful steak taken from just above the thick layer of fat that runs above the center/eye of a ribeye steak);
- Bavette/Chuck flap/Flap steak (a less expensive, more flavorful option to flank steak that is often confused with the hanger steak);
- Teres major/shoulder tender (an extremely tender tenderloin shaped cut);
- Spider steak (a small “butchers cut” with good marbling for tenderness);
- Mock tender/Shoulder petite/Chuck tender (an economical but lean cut that lends itself to marinades); and the
- Chuck eye (a less expensive substitute for the ribeye); among others.
TRIMMING AND SEASONING
Once you have selected the perfect steaks, it’s time to prepare them for the grill. For steaks with thick, hard fat on the outside edges, trim the fat to 1/8-1/4 inches as the fat is inedible and will only promote flare-ups on the grill.
Now that the steaks are trimmed, it’s time to season the steaks. If possible, it is best to seasoning the steaks with Kosher salt well in advance of them hitting the grill (45+ minutes). As the salt is absorbed by the meat, it will first pull moisture out of the steak, then eventually the moisture will be reabsorbed making it more tender and flavorful than one that has been seasoned just prior to grilling.
Simply season both siders of the steak with a healthy dose of salt (bearing in mind that seasoning will only be on the outside so you want enough flavor for the entire bite), then store it in the fridge overnight to until approximately 20 minutes before grilling so that the steak can come to room temperature. (Note: For maximum flavor, you can refrigerate the seasoned steak overnight to help draw out some of the moisture and intensify the beef flavor. Read more about the dry brining process here at AmazingRibs.com)
When the grill has come to temperature, you can add a second layer of seasoning, either a simple coating of ground or cracked black pepper or a basic blend of pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, and smoked paprika.
If time doesn’t allow for pre-salting, simply season the steak liberally with Kosher salt, black pepper and/or other dry rub ingredients. Many chefs also prefer to brush the steaks with a high smoke point oil such as canola just prior to seasoning as a means of ensuring that the steak doesn’t stick to the grates and to promote even browning but this is entirely optional.
While many people prefer grilling their steaks entirely over an extremely hot fire, consider creating a two-zone fire by placing all of the ashed over briquets and 2-3 chunks of your favorite smoking wood to one side of the grill.
By creating a hot and a cool zone, you can gently bring the interior of thicker (1.5-2 inches) steaks up while also adding a deep smoky flavor before finishing it over direct flame to create the perfect crust. Place the seasoned steak on the cool side of the grill, add the cover, and allow the steak to reach an internal temperature of approximately 110-115 degrees (it is worth investing in a good thermometer so that you can get the temperatures just right and avoid over cooking) then move to the hot side and grill for 2-3 minutes per side until a nice brown crust has formed and the internal temperature has reached 130 degrees for medium-rare.
Once the steak is done grilling, it is important to let the steak rest for 5-10 minutes depending on thickness as this will help the internal juices reabsorb in the meat versus pouring out on the cutting board if cut in to straight off the grill. If you want to add an additional layer of flavor, drizzle the steak with a fine extra virgin olive oil, unsalted butter, or a garlic and herb compound butter.
– Article by Clint Cantwell and courtesy of Kingsford.com