May 262011
 

I wanted to call this post “Classic Steak House Grilling” or better yet “Vintage Steak House Grilling” but I went with the more pedestrian title in deference to the various search engines out there. I’m pretty sure that most people are going to be typing “how to grill perfect steaks” or “how do I grill perfect steaks” into the search box because they don’t realize that the old-school steakhouse method is the thing they really want to find.

And yes, this is definitely grilling. You can smoke a steak, you can roast a steak, but when you want to do it right a steak needs direct heat. Grillheads rejoice, this is one time when your way is the best way. Crack a beer and pat yourself on the back.

This method (or “The Method” if you want to be dramatic about it) was revealed to me when I was visiting the butcher one day. I got to talking to another customer who is was a line cook at one of the last 1970s-style steakhouses in my area. We talked about steaks and as the topic wandered from the best cuts to the best thickness he was nice enough to pass along the secrets of the Lost Art Of The Steakhouse Grill.

And now, like that old guy in the original Kung Fu series, I impart the sacred wisdom on to you. Keep reading, grasshopper.



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There isn’t really any extra work involved with The Method but it does involve some extra time. There are no fancy ingredients, no arcane techniques, just a couple of extra steps, a watch, and a really hot fire. Clear your mind, and let us begin.

You will need:

Rib-eye or strip loin steaks, 4-6cm thick (about 2 inches if that’s how you roll)
Oil with a really high smoke point – peanut or grapeseed is best
Coarse kosher or sea salt
Coarse-ground pepper
Mesquite charcoal or a nice big chunk of mesquite wood.

A Quick Note About Steaks: Any steakhouse guru will tell you that rib-eye is the best steak for grilling, period. Strip loins and new york strips are safe fall-backs if you are watching your pennies. However, almost any steak that has some decent marbling will work, and if you prefer a t-bone or porterhouse or even a sirloin then by all means follow your muse and use one. But you owe it to yourself to do this with a premium rib-eye at least once.
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A Quick Note About Mesquite: If you can’t find mesquite charcoal just use your regular hardwood lump and get a nice fist-sized chunk of mesquite wood, the kind they sell in bags at the barbeque store. Do not use chips, you want a chunk. If you are using real mesquite charcoal, be aware that (as noted in a previous post) it can be somewhat harsh for beginners, If you are unsure of yourself or your brand of charcoal mix it with a regular lump charcoal to mellow it out.

Start with your fire. Hot, hot, hot fire. I use my Big Green Egg because it is the easiest way to get a stupidly hot fire, but you can do this with any charcoal grill that holds enough fuel for the necessary heat. You want your coals to look and feel like a pool of magma.
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At the steakhouse they have part of the grill toasting away at about 1000 degrees celsius (that’s 2000 fahrenheit for you imperial types) and you want to get as close to this as you can. If you can get the thermometer in the dome or lid of your grill up to 450 C (850 F) then your temperature at the grill itself will be right in this range. I use a mix of mesquite charcoal and the Charcos cocoanut charcoal (which burns crazy hot) to get up to this temperature with a minimum of fuss.
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While your fire is building up to these apocalyptic levels, go prepare your steaks. This part is dead easy – rub them with a bit of the oil and then give them a nice heavy seasoning with the salt and pepper. Do this five minutes before you are going to put them in the grill. Don’t worry about over-seasoning here, the temperature during first sear makes that almost impossible. When the five minutes are up, slap these on the stupidly hot grill for ninety seconds per side. There will be flames and smoke and general mayhem here and if this is your first time you will be tempted to panic. Be sure to heed the immortal words of Douglas Adams at this point.

DON’T PANIC.

The thickness of the steaks is what is protecting them here, and the reason that steakhouse steaks are always crazy thick. If for some reason you had to go with thinner steaks, cut this time down to one minute per side. Either way, once they have had this crazy sear on each side take them right off the fire and put them somewhere safe for 15 to 20 minutes. This is the extra time I was talking about, and it is crucial to the final product.

If you want to add some extra seasoning, apply it to your steaks five minutes into this rest period. If you are a traditionalist you can use Montreal steak spice, or if you want to keep things subtle you can do what I do on occasion and use granulated garlic. Whatever you decide to use, it’s rest five, add your seasoning, rest fifteen more.

While the steaks rest (in the steakhouse they call this “dwelling”, if you were wondering) you need to bank your fire and get it down to a less-insane temperature. You want to claw it back to 200 C or 400 F on your built-in thermometer. If you aren’t using mesquite charcoal, this is where you add your chunk of wood — dry, never soaked — to the coals.
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You will know when the wood is ready because you will be getting white smoke. White smoke = flavour. Not white smoke = nasty creosote doom.
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When the temperature is right and – if you added wood – the smoke is white, put your steaks back on. If you are using the recommended thickness, follow this handy time guide to get to the result you want:

Rare – three minutes per side
Medium Rare – five minutes per side
Medium – six minutes per side
Medium Well – seven and a half minutes per side
Well Done – watch your mouth, punk.

If you are unsure, use a meat thermometer. That’s what they were invented for. Pull your steaks from the fire and let them rest for 5 minutes. And then dig in.

As always, you’re welcome.

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  6 Responses to “How To Grill Perfect Steaks”

  1. Wouldn’t this damage the egg? Also, I usually cook a steak for about 30 – 45 seconds per side at 500 for rare. It seems like the times above would cook the steak too much, no?

    • First things first: There is literally no way to build a fire in a Big Green Egg that is hot enough to damage it. The ceramic compound was specifically designed to manage intense heat … this material is from the same class of ceramics that were used in the heat-sheild tiles on the space shuttle.

      As far as times … they are based on the steak-house standard of an extra thick steak. As mentioned in the posting, this is exactly why traditional steak houses go for such spectacularly thick cuts. After the initial 90-second-per-side death sear, a standard 4cm thick ribeye cooks to a perfect rare at 3 minutes on the first side and 2 on the second. For reference, the times I have found that work best for the 400 degree second cook are:

      Rare: 3 minutes first side, 2 minutes second
      Medium Rare: 4 minutes first side, 4 minutes second
      Medium: 5 minutes first side, 4 minutes second

      Just a hunch here, but I’m going to guess you are using much thinner steaks. For a 4cm steak, 45 seconds a side isn’t even going to get within spitting distance of blue rare, let alone the standard. How the times would work for thinner steaks, I have no idea, sorry!

      Thanks for reading … and writing!

  2. How do you get the BGE up to this temperature, and then how do you get it down again? lid off, fully open to heat it up?? And then do you use a plate setter for the lower cook?

    • GETTING IT UP: To get the egg up to this temp, I generally use a pair of charcoal chimneys (sometimes I use only one, but two half-filled ones light faster than one full one). While the chimneys fire up, I rake all of the existing charcoal in the egg out to the edges of the firebox. When the chimney charcoal is red-orange hot, I dump both loads into the centre of the firebox and then rake enough of the old charcoal over the edges of the new pool to make an even layer. Then I close the lid, and with the cap off and the bottom vent fully open I apply the secret weapon: A hair dryer. Just blast it into the bottom vent and watch the temperature skyrocket. Start to finish the process takes about 15 minutes, depending on your charcoal.

      Twin Charcoal Chimney Action!

      GETTING IT DOWN: All I do to lower the temp is close the bottom vent completely and the set the daisy-wheel on the cap to a sliver of open. By the time your 20 minutes is up the temp will be down to 400 and you will have even had a couple of minutes to stabilize it there. Between the lid being open for the death sear and the 20 minutes of almost-complete air starvation, the temperature bleeds off pretty quickly.

      PLATE SETTER: Nope, this is a direct cook from start to finish. When your egg gets back down to 400, your coals are a sweet and even blanket of heat – I suppose you could use the platesetter and not flip the steak, but this is much easier than trying to get the platesetter in there and deal with the sudden heat sink that it provides.

      Thanks for the comment! I’m going to add some clarification info based on these comments to the original post … every little bit helps!

  3. Is the lid open or closed for the sear? How about for the lower temp grilling?

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