Friday, December 2, 2011

No, really. How long do you grill your steaks?

I’m a steak guy.  Steak is the cake of my life.  There’s birthday steak, graduation steak, anniversary steak, celebratory steak, pound (of) steak, “I was bored, so I made a” steak, etc.  For the majority of my life, having a nice steak dinner meant going out to a steakhouse and ordering a filet.  It became such a big tradition that I started a journey to find the best steakhouse in the country.   While this journey was delicious and a lot of fun, it was wildly expensive and I started to realize that if I wanted to eat good steak on a regular basis, I would have to figure out how to prepare it myself.

After a dozen or so tries at steaks in a pan and/or oven, I had to concede that I was incapable of making a great steak myself.  Then, my wife and I were invited to go wine tasting with a couple good friends up in Santa Barbara County.  After a long day of tasty wine and great company, we had dinner at a place called The Hitching Post II.  Their Santa Maria grill fueled by red oak logs created a smoky crust around the steak better than anything I had tasted before, even from the best steakhouse broilers.  It was then when I realized that I could create a fantastic steak not with a pan, an oven, or a broiler, but with a hardwood grill.

It took a couple years, but I managed get my hands on a Big Green Egg.  Here’s how I do it on the Egg:

Four filets.  These are biggies and average about 9.5 ounces each.  The first thing I do when dealing with sizeable steaks is season them.  Salt and Pepper will do, but I like The Hitching Post II’s Magic Dust.  I don’t grill a piece of beef without this stuff.

Required Equipment: 2 sets of tongs (one for the raw meat and the first turn, the second for post-turn maneuvering) and a reliable meat thermometer (like my fancy shmancy ThermaPen).

Fire up a full chimney starter filled with natural lump charcoal and wait 10-15 minutes until it’s blazing hot and all of the coals are grey with scarlet glowing underneath.  Any hardcore EggHead reading this will say that this isn’t how you properly start a Big Green Egg, but this is how I do it for steaks.

Pick your flavor.  Two big chunks of cherry wood is my favorite.  Play around with different hardwoods to find your favorite subtle flavor enhancer.

Cherry Wood.  Gameday Flannel.

Put the chunks on top of the coals and watch the smoke come up.

Open up the top and bottom vents all the way.  I take the daisy top vent completely off my BGE for maximum airflow.

It was a really cold night, so 550 degrees is all one chimney could produce.  This is probably as low as I’ll go for grilling steaks.  Ideally, this would read 650+.

Those two chunks of wood create a lot of smoke.

A whole lot of smoke.

Get your grate cleaned, oiled and hot, then put on the steaks.

“Listen, I'm serious, just tell me how long to cook the steaks for.”  Keep in mind that every fire is different.  Just because you fill the same chimney up to the same level, doesn’t mean you’ll get the same fire every time.  My general rule of thumb is 3-4 minutes per side on super-high heat for a medium-rare, depending on the thickness of your steak.  At the end of the day, you can never argue with a thermometer.

When the steaks are on, close the lid, and wait two minutes.  Then, ROTATE the steaks 45 to 90 degrees.

Close the lid, wait two minutes more, and then turn the steaks over.  There should be nice cross marks, which you can see a little bit of in the picture below, but they didn't look that good this time.  

Take your tongs to the kitchen sink and get your second set.  

Wait another 2 minutes and rotate the steaks 45-90 degrees with your new set of tongs.  

After 2 more minutes (8 minutes total), they should be done.  However, I was shocked at how little these steaks had cooked.  I knew my fire wasn’t as hot as it needed to be and that it would take a little bit of overtime to get these thick steaks cooked properly.

I was finally able to take the steaks off after about 14 minutes on the grill.  If you’ve grilled steaks before, 14 minutes will be a shockingly long time to be over heat.  I probed these steaks with my ThermaPen meat thermometer at least 4 times because I couldn’t believe it was taking so long. 

The ThermaPen read 125 degrees for medium rare and about 130-135 for medium before I put them on a cooling rack to rest.  The cooling rack is essential for keeping the crust on the bottom of the steak.  Notice the dark red or even crimson crust?  That comes from the smoke created by the cherry chunks.  I swear I didn’t adjust the coloring of these photos, the juices in the pan would be bright red if I did.

After they rested for 5-10 minutes and the temperatures came up another 5-10 degrees, they were ready to be served.  My wife’s awesome green beans and steamed broccoli made me feel a little better about eating a steak in the middle of the week.

The extra time on the grill actually gave the steaks a stronger smoke flavor and the lower temperature allowed the steaks to be cooked more evenly throughout.   Here’s the last bite of my perfect medium-rare wood-fired steak. 

Boomshakalaka!  Man that steak was good.  I have to be honest and say that I'll take my steak over almost any steakhouse's, with a couple of exceptions.

I'm still curious if anybody has figured out how to make a great steak in a kitchen.  I only managed to do it once in over 12 tries and I set off the smoke detector every single time.

Here's a picture taken a few months ago at a previous steak dinner (yes, I do this quite often).  Those were probably the best grill marks I've made up to this point.


  1. Wow, I'm nearly speechless. That is the best blog I have ever read and a truly inspiring use of the word Boomshakalaka. (I love that word, but Heidi hates it so I rarely pull it out) I will be using your techniques soon. Seriously Jim, this is fantastic.

  2. Great article, Jim. Stumbled upon your blog because I love steaks and love experiencing with new cooking techniques for my steak. I'll try yours soon in couple of weeks since I'll be receiving couple of long time pals who share the passion of a great steak. For now, my best steaks have been cooked very simply on a simple gas bbq grill (I know, boring, Lol) but I am planning to do some serious upgrade soon (wood/charcoal are definitely what I need)

    1. Thank You! Lots of great grilling can be done on a gas grill, but even a simple kettle grill can upon a world of opportunities and flavor you can't get with the gas. I would say that I use my gas grill during the week and use my charcoal on the weekends when I have more time.