Ah, the smells of summer in Northern California. The sweet, briny air of the ocean mixed with eucalyptus and redwoods as you approach the coast. The intoxicating smell of a fresh tomato just off the vine. And of course, the irresistible aroma of meat searing over an open flame. We are now officially in peak grilling season, so what better time to challenge a few myths and dogmas in the quest for a perfect steak?
I’ve been grilling for more than 30 years. Over that time, I’ve challenged long-held assumptions, experimented with new techniques and ditched my old ways when those techniques yielded better results. I suspect I will be a lifelong student of the grill, but it is now pretty hard for me to spend $50 on a restaurant steak when I know I can achieve great results with cuts from Sonoma Mountain Beef, Long Meadow Ranch or Farmer Joy’s from the Napa Farmers Market. Herewith, a few grilling myths to challenge:
Myth 1: Gas grills are great and so much easier.
Dude. The gas-grill manufacturers have hit the jackpot with the American public. While you can shell out big bucks for slick features and design, most gas grills don’t have the BTUs to do a proper hi-temp sear on a steak. Walk into the kitchen of a renowned steakhouse, and chances are you’ll see an overhead broiler that can hit temperatures around 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s some serious heat from serious commercial equipment, but for residential purposes, lump charcoal, not briquettes, in a Weber-style kettle grill will get you a lot better results than gas.
Charcoal is really not that hard to deal with. Dump some in a chimney-style starter, crumple newspaper underneath, light it and go prep your steaks. When all the charcoal is lit and the top coals are tinged with gray ash, spread them in an even layer covering half of the grill. You want to leave a cooler zone where the meat can rest. Just be careful of mesquite and other lump charcoals that impart a lot of smoky flavor. I’m a fan of Royal Oak. It burns pretty clean and is reasonably available.
Myth 2: Flip the steak once halfway through. Bonus myth: Rotate it 45 degrees halfway through each side for cross-hatch grill marks that look so professional.
Busting this myth took a few years. I had to tear down my technique and build it back up again. But here are the facts: Grill marks are just char marks across gray or well-done meat. Charred meat tastes like ashtrays, and well-done meat tastes like rubber bands. (Not really. A badly cooked steak is kind of like bad sex: it’s still a steak.)
The magic with grilled steak happens when you get a crust going. The caramelization and other reactions on the surface of browned meat are where the umami flavors and pure hedonistic delight lie. But you can’t get a uniform crust by flipping once. Try it and you’ll have a thoroughly overcooked piece of meat.
The answer? Flip often. Like every 60 seconds. Sear the bejesus out of your steaks, moving them around on the grill or using a spray bottle to vanquish flare-ups, and flipping every minute or so to slow the interior cooking while you build up the crust. You’ll get grill marks, then cross-hatches, then a uniform brown crust as you flip again and again. Do it correctly and you’ll end up with a delicious crust and meat that is evenly cooked throughout.
Once you’ve got the crust near-perfect, move your steaks to the side of the grill opposite the coals, and place the grill lid, slightly offset, over them until they hit the desired temperature. You’ll need an instant-read thermometer so you can avoid overshooting your temperature target.
Myth 3: Touch for doneness.
I can get pretty close to knowing when my steak is done by pressing on it with my tongs. But the difference between bovine sushi and rubber bands can be razor thin with this cooking technique. I am a firm believer that steak should be cooked to 135 degrees F, but whatever your temperature preference, don’t overshoot it. You can’t uncook an overdone steak.
An instant-read thermometer will give you an accurate reading in 2 to 3 seconds. I use a Thermoworks Thermapen at home. It’s not cheap, but with all the money you saved getting a kettle charcoal grill instead of gas, you should have plenty left over for this key tool. I pull steaks off the coals when they register 115 degrees F to 120 degrees F in order to end up at 135 degrees F, or medium rare. With my technique, you should expect this “carryover” cooking— a 10- to 15-degree rise in temperature as the steak rests.
Tuscan-Style Grilled Steak
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1 ribeye or New York strip steak, 3/4 to 1 inch thick
Kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs per steak (I like rosemary, oregano and thyme)
Fleur de sel or other finishing salt
Build a fire of lump charcoal covering half of a kettle-style grill. Place the grate over the charcoal to preheat, then scrape off any food residue, and wipe with a paper towel soaked in canola or other high heat oil. (Use tongs to hold the paper towel.)
Pat the steak dry with a paper towel. Season well with salt and pepper on each side, patting it into the meat with tongs.
Once the fire is ready, place the steak over the hottest part. Flip every 60 seconds and move the meat away from flare-ups, cooking until a brown (not black) crust forms on both sides.
Move the steak to the cool side of the grill and partly cover with the grill lid. Cook until an instant-read thermometer reads 115 degrees F to 120 degrees F, flipping every 3 to 5 minutes.
Pour the olive oil on half of a plate. Sprinkle with the chopped herbs, fleur de sel and more cracked pepper.
When the steak reaches the desired temperature, put it over the coals again for a few seconds to get the crust hot. Place the steak on top of the olive oil-herb mixture, then flip to season both sides. Let rest for 5 minutes to allow the juices to settle, then dig in.
Farmers Market cooking demonstration: Chef Brian Streeter of Cakebread Cellars will do a cooking demonstration at the Napa Farmers Market on Saturday, June 30, at 10 a.m. The demonstration is free and recipes and tastes will be provided.
Farmers Market kids activities: Bring your little ones to the Napa Farmers Market on Saturday, June 30, for Story Time at 9:30 a.m. Story time repeats at 10:30 a.m. followed by Earth Art, a creative activity.
KVYN/KVON Music Stage at the Napa Farmers Market: Tuesday, June 26, artist is The Season of Us. Saturday, June 30, artist is Run With Patience.
Derek Bromley is the founder of Ohm Coffee Roasters, a vendor at the Napa Farmers Market. He is also on the market’s board of directors.
The Napa Farmers Market takes place on Tuesdays and Saturdays from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., in the parking lot of the South Napa Century Center, 195 Gasser Drive, Napa. The market participates in the Market Match program, doubling the value of CalFresh benefits purchasing power for all eligible food products. For more information or a schedule of upcoming events, visit www.napafarmersmarket.org.