Friday, 2 August 2013

In search of the perfect Steak

I used to think grilling the perfect steak was easy, oh boy was I wrong. Grilling a steak is an art form and it is now after years and years of grilling and eating steaks that I feel comfortable to write down some of the knowledge that I have gathered. So let me take you through the process of grilling the perfect steak step-by-step:

Selection of the steak – This is the hard and most essential part of grilling the perfect steak. If this part isn’t done right you will never be able to get the result you need to grill the perfect steak in they eyes of your guest. The first question you will have to ask yourself is: Who is at my dinner table? Is it a Michelin star chef, a pit master, a steak lover, or just my next door neighbour (average Joe).  When you have answered this question you can make a selection of suppliers who are able to get you what you need. If you are grilling a steak for average Joe, a grocery store steak will do just fine. If you have a steak lover at your table you need to go and see your butcher …, but if you are getting a little nervous because you are grilling for the grand master of steaks, you will have to go and see a specialist. Who is this specialist? This specialist is a business, which is specialized in obtaining, processing  and supplying the best cuts of beef. A business which specializes in supplying the best restaurants in town, with prime cuts of beef. It will dry age the beef to your specification. Now you will have to determine what kind of steak your dinner guest would like. A pit master will prefer a steak with fat on it to supply him with rich flavours, a Michelin star chef wants a lean cut of beef with incredible marbling, average Joe won’t know what the difference is, so you will pick the kind you personally prefer. Here are the cuts that are generally available with a description of the meat.

  1. A - Strip Loin - Cut from the short loin the strip loin offers a tender, well marbled, and flavourful cut of beef perfect for grilling. Because it is cut from a single muscle, the strip loin cooks evenly and can be cut from ½" to 2" thick or more.
  2. B – Tenderloin - The tenderloin is a cut of meat that is exceptionally tender. On a cow the tenderloin is found in the middle of the back between the sirloin and the rib. The tenderloin is extremely tender because the muscles that make it up are rarely used. When the tenderloin is cut into pieces it is called fillet mignon.
  3. C - T-Bone - The T-bone is a bone-in steak from the short loin. This cut has a T-shaped bone that separates the tenderloin section from the larger portion of the top loin. These steaks are not as tender as the porterhouse steak but are still very tasty. T-bone video
  4. D – Porterhouse - The porterhouse is a large steak from the thick end of the short loin. The porterhouse contains a T-shaped bone and large piece of tenderloin. Porterhouse is one of the most popular types of steak.
  5. E - Rib-Eye - When cut into steaks, the rib eye is one of the most popular and juicy steaks on the market. Meat from the rib section is tender and fattier than other cuts of beef. This extra fat makes rib-eye steaks exceptionally tender and full of flavour. Rib eye video
  6. F – Flank - Flank steak is cut from the belly muscles of the cow. The flank steak is much tougher than the loin and rib steaks which is why many recipes for flank steak use marinades, braising or low and slow cooking.
  7. G – Sirloin - The sirloin is actually divided into several types of steak. The top sirloin is the most flavourful. The bottom sirloin is less tender, much larger, and is typically offered when one buys sirloin steaks.
Selection of technique – Now that the hard part is over we get to the part where we have to decide how we are going to grill the perfect steak.  What options do we have to choose from?

  1. Traditional searing -  This is where we place a steak over direct heat and grill it for a few minutes, flip it over and leave it on the grill again for a few minutes until the desired core temperature is reached. Finally we let it rest for the same amount of time as the total grilling time.
  2. Traditional searing a thick steak – When you get a steak that is over two fingers thick you will want to cook the steak some more after you have grilled it. Otherwise the steak will be black on the outside and raw on the inside. So you need to place it over to the indirect side of the barbecue or get more distance between the coals and your steak. There you will let it cook until you reached the desired core temperature and then let it rest a few minutes.
  3. Cave man steak – This is the same technique as the traditional searing, but instead of placing the steak on your grate you place the steak directly on charcoal. After grilling the steak and before resting you brush off the ashes. The same here goes for thick steaks, as it does for the traditional searing.
  4. Reversed sear – Is when you cook your steak on indirect heat until you reach the desired core temperature, which is a few degrees lower than the end temperature of the steak. After you reached this temperature you will sear the steak over direct heat. Searing at the end has the sole purpose of flavour. The sear will caramelize the meat, give a nice flavour profile and crunchy texture. Reversed sear video (Maillard reaction)
  5. Smoke and sear – First you smoke your steak, you would probably want to use heavy flavour profile smoke wood for your steak. Otherwise the sear will overpower the smoked flavour. You could consider oak, hickory, or any other heavy flavour that will complement your side dish and drink. There is also the option to plank smoke your steaks. You will smoke until you reach the desired core temperature (which again is lower than the final temperature). Then you give the steak an end sear. Smoke and sear video
  6. Salt plank steak – A salt plank is a plank cut out of salt rock. Its that simple. It looks like a flat brick, most of the time it has a pink colour. The most common kind is Himalayan salt plank.  What happens when you use a salt plank, is that it acts like a griddle which adds a salty flavour to your steak.  There are two ways to grill a steak on a salt plank. The first option is to place the salt plank over direct heat. You wait until the salt plank is nice and hot and then you place the steak on the plank. Sear it on both sides, if it’s a thick steak you will pace it over indirect heat until you get the desired temperature. Second option heat the salt plank indirect, sear the steak over direct heat and let the steak cook indirect on an oiled salt plank. This will give you a nice crispy crust. (Second option only works on thick steaks) Salt plank steak video
  7. Sear and fry – This only works on thick steaks. Sear the steak over direct heat and let it cook in a pan with olive oil and herbs. The oil should be about a finger deep. Leave it there until you reach the desired temperature.
  8. Spit grill steak – Grill your steak on a spit or rotisserie. Cut of a thin slice every time you get a nice crust. Of coarse this will only work on thick steaks like the picanha (tri-tip).

Selection of equipment – This part is most of the times pre-determined. You either have a gas grill, a charcoal grill or you want to do this on your stove in a pan or a griddle.

  1. High temperatures - The most important thing is that you are able reach high temperatures to sear the steak. I am talking … seriously hot, you should not be able to hold your hand  2” above heated surface. When you sear over charcoal or a sizzle zone on a gas grill, you should not be able to hold your hand anywhere near the heat source. If you have a charcoal grill you would preferably use lump hardwood charcoal. On a gas grill you would like to have a special searing station and in your kitchen you should have enough power or use a cast iron skillet to build up that heat.
  2. Heat zones – If you have a thick steak, more then two fingers thick, you have to work with two heat zones. One to sear the steak, the other one to cook the steak until you reach the desired temperature. When you grill over an open fire you should create more distance between the steak and the fire, either sideways or in height. On a grill with a lit its already very common to use two zones.
  3. Closed or open fire – Grilling a thick steak over open fire is always a challenge. Its harder to control the temperature, because the wind can influence your temperature. Also the heat will be coming from one direction and not cook your steak evenly when you placed it in the cook zone. When you grill indoors you can grill your steak and then place it in a pre-heated oven to cook.

Desired temperature – The perfect steak is always grilled rare, that’s a fact. Of coarse if average Joe asks you for a medium-well or a well-done steak you will give it to him. Then you are glad you didn’t spend a boat load of money on his steak. You grilled your stake rare, when the core temperature reaches 120º Fahrenheit or 49 º degrees Celsius. There are two ways that you can determine weather your steak is rare. One way is measuring, you will need an instant read core thermometer, like the Thermapen or the digital core thermometer from Rösle. The other way is to touch the steak and determine the tension in the meat. The more tension the higher its core temperature. To grill the perfect steak measuring is the absolute preferred method. No matter how experienced you are, its always hard to touch a steak and determine the core temperature. Now we have to talk about how we are going to get the steak to the rare stage. If you have a steak that is two fingers thick or thinner, you just grill both sides. When you have a thicker steak you will have to cook it after, or before you sear it. This depends on your selection of technique. If we take traditional searing of a thick steak as an example sear - cook – rest. Before we start searing the steaks we need to get our steak to room temperature. This will help to cook the steak faster and with that not dry out around the edges. In the searing stage we would like our fire to be as hot as possible. This gives us a thin and firm crust, but does not cook the steak to much. During the cooking stage we would like to have a cooking temperature of around 350º Fahrenheit (180 º  Celsius) or lower. This ensures that we are not cooking our steak to fast and with that drying out the edges of our steaks. Finally we rest the steak at room temperature. Now lets look at the temperatures during the stages.

For the traditional searing of a thick steak

For the smoke and sear or a reversed sear

These temperatures should be taken as an example. They will probably never be exact. For instance  your fire is to hot for an end sear that will take your steak up 10 degrees and not burn the outside.


Adding flavour – Be careful with adding flavour to the perfect steak. Someone spend years if not decades to perfect the flavours of a breed, just to present you with the perfect steak. It would be a waste to just throw on any dry rub. What does work for the perfect steak is enhancing the flavours.

  1. You could enhance the flavours by adding salt and pepper. Preferably salt flakes they wilt melt fast on the steak and give a flavour boost. Black ground pepper has the same effect but use less than salt.
  2. Next to adding flavour by adding salt you could add flavour by adding a few drops of lemon juice. You should not be able to immediately taste the lemon, but it gives a certain light fruity flavour which breaks down the fat of the steak.
  3. Thyme, rosemary and garlic are also great to rub your steak with. When I mean rub, I mean rub a branch of thyme against the steak and then throw it away.
  4. The next best thing to add flavour is a dry rub which has next to no sugar in it. So it should consist primarily of ingredients I mentioned above. Be careful with the amounts that you use. It could over power the flavour of the steak.


Serving – Now that you have put so much effort in grilling the perfect steak you will have to finish strong. Think about the perfect temperature. Do you want the steak to turn cold when you are eating your way through it? Do you want people to drink a coke and wash away all those great flavours and at the same time destroy there taste buds?

  1. Serving on a cold plate - is bad for the flavours of the steak. The steak will cool faster than is necessary and with the cold you will experience less of those wonderful flavours. So you will either have to pre heat the plates or you will have to use an insulator to serve it on. This insulator could be a wooden cutting board, or a side dish like pasta or mash potatoes.
  2. Serving with side dish – is great if there is enough room left on your plate. Be careful not to add side dishes which over power the steak flavour wise. Also a side dish should enhance the flavours of the steak.
  3. Serving drinks – Al those great flavours that you have carefully build an preserved should be cherished. Serving a glas of coke with the steak is not cherishing those flavours. The best thing to do is serving a flavour neutral drink. This could be a light flavoured beer that compliments the steak, or even better a glas of water. If you want to serve a wine with your steak, make sure that you have the right wine. Don’t forget the steak is the star here not the wine. Sommeliers like to use a wine which is quite powerful and heavy that ‘s fine, but you still want the wine to be in the background compared to the flavours of the steak.
  4. Steak knives – The first cut a person makes in this steak is the first impression of your skills as a pit master. When you use a serrated knife it will tear up the steak and make it look dry. Also the steak will feel like its tough because you are tearing it. If you use a proper steak knife it will sink through your steak, just by using its own weight. Now that’s impressive. Steak knife blog article


Now that I wrote this down I realize that I probably left out a lot of information and that I am still not at the point where I can honestly say that I have grilled the perfect steak. So the quest for the perfect steak will continue.


If you have anything to add, or you disagree on some points let me know and help me achieve perfection.