When Americans are polled about their favorite foods for grilling, steak always heads the list. A slab of beef is the perfect food for the grill: Its broad surface area soaks up charcoal and smoke flavors, and its relative thinness allows for quick cooking.
The most common mistake made in grilling steak is overcooking it the second most common is undercooking. Here’s how to do it just right.
1. Pick the right kind of steak. Tender cuts like sirloin, tenderloin, porterhouse, New York strip, and shell steak are the best. Fibrous steaks, like skirt and flank, also taste great grilled-especially when thinly sliced on the diagonal. Save tough cuts like chuck and blade steak for long, slow, moist cooking methods like braising.
2. Some people let the steak come to room temperature before grilling. Most professionals, including myself, don’t bother. If you do cook a room temperature steak, reduce the cooking time slightly.
3. Preheat the grill to high. If cooking a very thick steak (say a strip steak 2 inches thick), build a two-tiered fire. On a gas grill, preheat one side to high, one side to medium-high.
4. Season the steaks generously with salt and pepper. Use a coarse-grained salt, like kosher or sea salt. Coarse grain salt crystals dissolve more slowly than fine table salt, so they hold up better during cooking, and steak pros all over the world use this. I always use freshly ground or freshly cracked black pepper and I apply it generously both before and after grilling.
Some people don’t add the salt until after cooking. The salt, they argue, draws out the juices. Believe me, you won’t get much juice loss in the short time it takes to cook a medium-rare steak. And besides, you can’t beat the flavor of salt mixed with caramelized meat juices.
5. Oil the grill grate. The easiest way to do this for steak is to use a piece of steak fat held in tongs or at the end of a carving fork. Rub it over the bars of the grate. An oiled rag or folded up paper towels work fine, too.
6. Place the steaks on the oiled grate, all lined up in the same direction. After 2 minutes, rotate each steak. Normally I rotate 45 degrees. This creates an attractive diamond crosshatch of grill marks on the steak. Sometimes I rotate 90 degrees this produces a square crosshatch. Cook the steak until beads of blood appear on the surface, 1 to 2 minutes for a steak 1/2 inch thick, 3 to 5 minutes for one 1 inch thick, 6 to 9 minutes for a thickness of 1 1/2 to 2 inches. Turn the steak with tongs or a spatula never use a fork. The holes made by a fork allow the juices to escape.
7. Continue cooking the steaks on the other side, rotating them after 2 minutes. You’ll need slightly less time on the second side. The best test for doneness is feel: Press the top with your index finger. A rare steak will be softly yielding a medium steak will be firmly yielding a well-done steak will be firm. Never cut into a steak to test for doneness. This, too, drains the juices.
8. Transfer the steaks to plates or a platter and season again with salt and pepper. At this stage, I like to brush my steaks with extra-virgin olive oil (à la Tuscany) or with melted butter (à la Peter Luger, the Brooklyn steak house). This is optional, but it sure rounds out the flavor.
9. This last step is usually overlooked, but it’s the most important. Let the steaks rest for 2 to 3 minutes before you serve them. This allows the juices to flow back from the center of the meat to the exterior, giving you a moister, juicier steak.
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