Steak on the grill ranks as one of the best summertime meals ever. Make that best meal ever, anytime, when cooked to perfection.
Learning to grill a steak perfectly takes practice, but it’s worthwhile. I believe that if you can cook a steak, you can tackle nearly everything that cooks quickly on a grill — from beef steaks to chops, chicken, seafood and many vegetables.
Heat modulation proves the secret to good grilling: Use enough for flavor, perfect texture and browning, but not so much that food tastes burnt or acrid.
Restaurant chefs, especially those who work over live fire, spend hours honing their skills. Most of us spend just a few minutes over the weekend tinkering with the grill. This season, if you do nothing else to improve your cooking, make setting up the grill properly your first objective.
For most quick-cooking cuts of meat, poultry, fish and vegetables, the best grilling is done by centering the food over the heat source — a method known as direct grilling.
If you cook over charcoal, heat the coals with a chimney or electric starter. You’ll need roughly three dozen coals to cook over medium-high heat for 15 to 20 minutes. After the coals are glowing red and covered with gray ash (getting there takes 20 to 30 minutes), spread them out in roughly a single layer in the center of the grill. Then, position the grill grate and let it heat with the grill covered.
If you are cooking on a gas grill, heat it to high with all the burners on until the grill and the grate are hot. Reduce the flame (or turn one or two burners off) as needed for medium-hot cooking. If you want to add a smoky flavor, set a pile of soaked wood chips on a square of foil directly over the heat source.
For the most accurate grilling, set an oven thermometer on the grill grates — grill temperatures hovering at 375 to 425 degrees yield very nice results for most quick-cooking foods.
Just before adding the food to the grill, scrape the heated grill grates clean. Dirty grill grates cause sticking and can impart nasty flavors.
Then, brush or spray the food with a bit of oil. Do not spray the grill grates with oil; this causes excess smoke and unnecessary goopy buildup on the grates. Position the food directly over the heat source, close the grill and set the timer. Don’t give in to the temptation to open the grill too much or move the food around excessively. Trust the timer.
Nearly all red meat, poultry and pieces of fish and vegetables that are 1 inch thick or more will develop a beautiful browning and grill-marking by spending four minutes on a hot grill without turning. (Thin steaks and cutlets, such as skirt steak, need two minutes only.)
Then carefully open the grill; use a spatula or tongs to gently flip the items and move them to cooler spots on the grill if things are browning too fast. Finish the cooking, with the grill covered, as directed in your recipe; for most steaks, boneless chicken breasts or thighs, that means four to seven minutes more.
That’s it — practice testing doneness with the squish test by pressing on the meat — the firmer the protein, the more done it is. For medium-rare beef or lamb, the meat should not be firm, but rather should squish in a bit when you press it with your thumb. For chicken, the meat should not yield much to pressure. If you must, insert a knife to check the color until you get the hang of your grill.
Which cut to buy
When choosing a steak to grill, the more expensive it is, the more tender and less beefy-tasting it will be (think soft, mild beef tenderloin). The moderately priced steaks such as flank, sirloin and flatiron have plenty of flavor. My butcher tenderizes flank steak and then rolls it into pinwheels for attractive individual serving portions with a pleasant chewiness and flavor.
When steak is on sale, I like bone-in rib-eyes and T-bones or New York strip steaks (with or without the bone). Steaks freeze well for several months. Wrap them individually for maximum protection and ease of thawing (overnight in the refrigerator).
Take a cue from fine dining, and put a combination of flavors and textures on the plate alongside the grilled meat. Pair richness, such as a creamy sauce, with tang in the form of a tomato relish or lightly pickled vegetables.
This Spicy Avocado-Lemongrass Sauce, used here with the steak, could become your summer go-to condiment. Simply blend fresh herbs, chiles and avocado with roasted tomatillos and olive oil into a light, fluffy sauce. Not quite a hot sauce, not quite a salsa, this condiment pairs well with grilled meat, seafood and veggies, but also tastes great dolloped on baked potatoes and steamed asparagus and as a dunk for crunchy raw vegetables or pita chips.
Likewise, the Tomato-Lemon relish proves versatile. Try it over an omelet or as a chunky salad dressing for hearty greens or grilled vegetables. Stir in cooked shrimp and diced avocado for a seafood cocktail.
As for my summer potatoes, I’m crazy about smashed, crusty specimens flavored with sweet butter and charred onions. This method works well with nearly all small potatoes, from little red potatoes to fingerlings. If you like the skin on a sweet potato, as I do, this smashing and crisping method will please you mightily. Adjust the microwave cooking time, as necessary, to render whichever potato size you’re working with to fork tenderness.