The experts take us to grilling school.
You’ve seasoned your steaks and rolled out the grill; now, the real challenge begins. The perfect steak can be a lifelong pursuit, and even with the best equipment on the block, you’re bound to end up with a dry-rubbed boot if you don’t have patience, says Victor Albisu, executive chef at Washington, D.C.’s BLT Steak. “You see people throwing their steaks around and flipping them,” says Albisu. “Instead, it should be a Zenlike experience.” From grilling safety to flipping technique to the best way to start your fire, we’ve tapped three steak experts to divulge how to master the backyard barbecue.
1. Don’t Poison the Guests
Between transporting raw meat and dealing with open flames (and, in most cases, a few beers), a lot can go wrong when you’re ready to grill. Chef Peter Felton of The Farmer’s Cabinet in Philadelphia says the most important way to avoid danger is to plan ahead: “Make sure the grill is ready before you bring out the meat; don’t let the meat sit out in the sun.” He also urges sanitizing the platter that held the meat before bringing your steaks to the table, or using a different platter for each trip.
2. Prepping the Grill
Admit it: When you’re done grilling, the last thing you want to do is clean… so you don’t. That usually leaves an interesting charred mess for your next cookout. To get the grill ready to go, start a fire and let it burn for 30 minutes before cleaning it with a sturdy grill brush. To season the grill for cooking, Albisu uses an old trick his grandfather taught him: “Take an onion, cut it in half and fork it. When the grill’s hot, rub it with the onion, then leave it on the grill to char.”
3. Flipping Out
Despite the ubiquity of spatulas, most chefs agree a sturdy pair of tongs are the way to go, specifically “something short and compact,” says Rodney Scruggs of Washington, D.C.’s Occidental Grill & Seafood. According to Scruggs, a one- to two-inch steak should be set down straight on the hot spot of a grill, then turned at a 45 degree angle halfway before flipping—about 4 to 6 minutes per side—to achieve those classic diamond grill marks. And definitely tilt the meat to cook the sides: “You want to seal in the juices,” says Scruggs. “When you cook the meat, you’re pushing those juices in, so anywhere you can grill on a steak’s surface, you should.”
4. Great Balls of Fire
For a charcoal grill, arranging the coals properly is essential. Albisu prefers using a briquette starter to ensure an even burn. Scruggs, on the other hand, gets his hands dirty and tosses in a few wood chips for added flavor: “I like to put one layer of wood chips down, add charcoal and light it without fluid. Once they’re glowing, turn the briquettes over and add another layer of chips about five minutes before you grill.”
5. Rest in Peace
Any seasoned chef will tell you that letting a steak rest after grilling is crucial. “It’s invaluable,” says Albisu. “It’s the difference between average and spectacular. If you don’t let it rest, you should really just grill chicken.” Grill your steak to just below the desired level of doneness, then remove it and let it rest on a platter for 5 to 10 minutes. The downtime seals in the steak’s flavor and hot juices, which continue to cook the meat once it’s off the grill.
6. Where’s Your Hot Spot?
Every grill has hot and cool spots, and mastering their locations will help you achieve cooking perfection. You create your own hot spots on a charcoal grill, but according to Scruggs, gas grills can be tricky: “It seems like the middle would be the hottest, but that’s not always the case. The flame goes where the air is, so the hottest spot is often on the perimeter.” Scruggs recommends firing up the grill and covering it with slices of something inexpensive, like zucchini. After a few minutes, you’ll clearly locate the hot and cool spots without ruining an expensive cut of meat.