TO GRILL A STEAK
“The only time to eat diet food is while you’re waiting for the steak to cook.” Julia Child
Before you can grill a steak, you have to buy it, selecting from the bewildering array offered by your local butcher or supermarket. You would be well advised to befriend your butcher; his good will can provide you with meat cut to your specifications. There are a couple of considerations in buying a steak. First is the grade, the quality of the meat based on marbling and the age of the animal. In the United States, grading is performed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (and formulated to support the American beef industry). The categories are prime, choice and select. Only two percent of American beef qualifies as prime, and most of that is either exported or sold to restaurants. The second consideration is cut.
Starting on the animal’s upper back and moving down to the mid back, you have the rib, the short loin and the sirloin. The rib contains the rib-eye steak, and the short loin produces the T-bone, the tenderloin and the porterhouse. Strip steaks, like the New York strip, also are cut from the short loin. The sirloin, unsurprisingly, is the source of sirloin steak. Different cuts have different qualities:
RIBEYES are among the most popular and most expensive cuts because they are well marbled and therefore tender and juicy when grilled. Supermarkets tend to cut ribeyes too thin – request that your friend the butcher cut yours between 1-1/2 and 2 inches thick.
SIRLOINS are less tender than tenderloins (the source of filets mignon), but are still well marbled and flavorful.
SKIRT STEAK is a long cut from the underside (the plate) of the beast. It is tougher and fattier than most cuts and, as a result, it benefits from a tenderizing marinade. Grill it medium rare (if it stays longer on the grill, it will be shoe leather) and slice it thin. This is the cut of choice for fajitas and tacos.
STRIP STEAKS, often called New York strips, are cut from the porterhouse and T-bone sections of the short loin. They are nicely marbled and very flavorful.
T-BONES are named after the T-shaped bone straight down the center of the cut. They are found farther up the short loin and therefore are not as tender as a porterhouse, but they are still well marbled and flavorful.
Beyond these standard cuts for grilling, there also are FLANK and HANGAR STEAKS, tough, fatty cuts that require marinating and a quick grilling to no more than medium rare. Served sliced thin, either can be substituted for skirt steak. And finally, there is CHUCK, the cut of choice for burgers.
Whichever cut you choose, take a careful look at the texture of the meat. It should have small streaks of fat running through it. If there is no fat, the meat will be lean, tender, but not as flavorful. Thick lines of fat indicate lots of connective tissue, which will leave the steak tough. You want your steak to be bright red with small streaks of creamy white fat evenly distributed throughout the meat. You should estimate that you will need at least 1 pound per person of boneless cuts, and a quarter pound more per person for cuts with the bone in.
So, you’ve bought your steak, and now you must cook it. Before grilling, take the steak out of the refrigerator, allow it to come to room temperature (about 30 minutes), then rub it with a little olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. While the meat sits, prepare the grill for cooking.
If you’re using a charcoal grill, open the vents on the bottom of grill, then light the charcoal.
Loosely ball five sheets of newspaper and put them in the bottom of the grill kettle. Place the lower grill over the newspaper and make a mound of charcoal in the center of the grill using about 20 to 25 briquettes. Light the newspaper in three or four places and monitor the flames, making sure that no pieces of burning paper fly out of the grill and checking to see that all the paper has burned and that the center of the charcoal mound has ignited (it should have an orange red glow).
Scrape the cooking rack and scrub it with a wire brush to remove any previous grilled food. When the coals are all ignited and covered with a layer of fine gray ash (about 15 minutes after lighting), spread coals evenly over the bottom of the grill (one briquette deep), and hold your hand 5 inches above grill rack. Fire is medium-hot when you can keep your hand there for just 3 to 4 seconds (according to Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby in The Thrill of the Grill, if you can only hold your hand there for 1 to 2 seconds, the fire is hot, and if your hand can remain there for 5 to 6 seconds, it’s low). If more heat is needed, add 5 to 10 more briquettes evenly distributed over burning coals. Oil the cleaned cooking rack lightly and put it in place above the burning coals. If you are using a gas grill, preheat burners on high, covered, 10 minutes, then reduce heat to moderate.
Grill the steaks on the rack over medium-hot fire, turning once, until an instant-read thermometer inserted horizontally 2 inches into meat (do not touch the bone) registers about 120* for medium-rare, about 8 minutes per side. Some flare-ups might occur. If so, remove the steak from the grill with long tongs, allow the fire to calm down, then return the steak to the grill.
Nick the steak on one side and look at the color to check again for doneness. You want the steak to be “black and blue,” restaurantese for burned and crusty on the outside and “blue”, the French term for superrare, on the inside. Note that a steak has to be really thick to stay on the grill long enough to form the required crust outside while remaining rare inside. Keep in mind that the steak will continue cooking as it rests off the grill, so take it off slightly rarer than you want to serve it.
If you aren’t able to grill outdoors, steaks can be cooked in a hot, lightly oiled, ridged grill pan over moderately high heat, turning once, for about the same time period. Remove the steak from the fire, transfer it to a cutting board and allow it to rest for 5 minutes. Slice on a diagonal across the grain.