How to Grill the Perfect Steak
You know what’s better than a nice steak grilled to perfection? Yeah, me either! If you’re a vegetarian just stop right there. You found the wrong page because we’re about to cook some animals. I think the rest of us still reading can all agree that there isn’t anything much better than a good juicy steak with beautiful sear marks, sitting next to a baked potato covered in butter, yum! Of course there are lots of ways to cook a great steak, but if you want a perfect steak, you have to grill it. There’s something primordial about cooking with fire. It connects us with our inner caveman and brings out the savage in us. And he’s hungry! So you want to know how to grill the perfect steak, right? I can help with that.
Best ways to cook steak
Steak benefits from immediate, direct, high heat. You don’t slow cook a steak; it should be cooked as fast as possible. This makes grilling an idea way to cook steak but there are a few other options. I believe grilling is the best, because it gives you both the high direct heat as well as infusing the meat with a little smokey flavor and the grill marks make for a beautiful steak. A couple other ways do have their merits though and I want to share them now.
If you have a cast iron pan and the ability to get it really hot then pan frying can be a great option for steak. Cast iron retains a great amount of heat which helps it continue delivering the high heat after you drop the steak into the pan.
I don’t mean cooking over a campfire. I mean dropping the meat right on the coals. The idea is that by getting as close as possible to the coals, or directly touching them, you get maximum heat transfer. Remember steak does best when cooked quickly with high heat so this idea makes sense, although it doesn’t sound like the cleanest way to cook.
Reverse-sear and sous-vide
Sous vide and Reverse-sear are becoming popular ways to cook steak. Reverse-sear is the process of baking the steak at a low temperature, under 200, for an hour or so before moving onto the desired cooking method. This allows the steaks internal temperature to get closer to the desired doneness before searing. Once it reaches your target temperature you remove from the oven and give it a good sear on the grill or in your cast iron skillet.
Sous-vide means vacuum sealed. The process is to vacuum seal the steak and submerge it in temperature controlled water set at the desired end temperature. This way you can maintain the steak at that temperature for several hours or longer without overcooking or burning the meat. There are even expensive devices available to maintain the temperature to 1/10th of a degree. There’s a lot of detail to how this works, and this isn’t a sous-vide article so I won’t go into it here, but you can get a really tender steak this way with even a tougher cut of meat. The final step, like reverse-sear, is to put the steak on the grill or in a skillet to give it the sear.
The perfect grilled steak
We’ve settled in on grilling our steak now, right? You’ve made a smart decision and I promise you won’t regret it. There are a few things you need to know.
If you want to grill great steaks
- What are the best steaks for grilling
- Best steak seasoning
- steak preparation
- grill temperature for steak
- Perfect grill marks for a pretty steak
- Steak temperature, or steak doneness
- Resting the meat
What are the best steaks for grilling
The first rule to getting a great steak is starting with a good steak. Look, it’s simple. Being a great cook helps you make food better. You can turn crap into edible and you can turn good into great, but you can’t turn crap into great. I’m not saying you can only cook filet mignon. What I’m saying is the grade, cut, and quality of your meat matters to the end result.
So what are the factors? In short there are three main factors.
The United States Department of Agriculture has spent an enormous amount of time and tax payer money helping you out here. If you’re just bored and want to learn about meat read this paper on USDA grades. Otherwise there are three main ones that you need to know about and a few special ones to remember. The factors for USDA rating include animal maturity, firmness, texture, color, and marbling. I’ll discuss marbling separately.
USDA Select is the basic quality of meat. I don’t want to scare you into thinking this is some substandard level of meat. It’s perfectly safe to eat and can be quite tasty. But there are better grades and so this isn’t what we want for the perfect grilled steak.
USDA Choice is starting to get into high grade stuff. This is the first grade you will start to see at steak houses and will work if that’s all that you have. But there’s something better available.
Here’s what we’re looking for. If you’re looking at three steaks, each one of a different grade, you’ll notice about $2/lb difference between each grade. This will be the higher priced one and for good reason. You get what you pay for and prime means prime. If you want to make a great steak then this is what you want. Bite the bullet and pay the price, you won’t regret it. But don’t stop here, keep reading to find out what to look for to get the best prime steak possible!
Angus beef hit the US in the late 70’s and has stuck around for good reason. As a breed of cattle it produces on average better marbling with a faster growth rate than most other breeds. Basically you get more bang for your buck. But beyond that there’s nothing that makes Angus beef particularly better than other beef. It will just typically score higher than other beef. In other words, USDA Prime Angus Beef isn’t much different than USDA Prime Beef without the Angus sticker. You will just get more Prime beef off an Angus cow. The important thing to look for is still the USDA grading. USDA select Angus beef is still just a select piece of meat.
Wagyu or Kobe
You are very unlikely to see this in your super market. If you do, buy it. Forget the price, just buy it. Nobody, and I mean nobody raises cows better than Japan. Japanese steaks rating Wagyu and Kobe are simply off the scale compared to USDA graded meat. If you ever see some you will notice the marbling is so intense it will look like it’s mostly fat. Trust me, that means flavor!
While marbling isn’t the only factor in USDA grades it is something you should pay particular attention too with steaks. More marbling means more juice and flavor. You are looking for thin veins of fat, as opposed to big chunks. The thin soft fat tissue will quickly melt into the surrounding meat, creating juice and flavor. Thicker harder fat tissue will give off flavor but will also leave thick connective tissue that is hard to chew. The image below of some great prime meat is an example of what you want.
What are the best cuts of steak for grilling
This is the grand daddy of them all. The Filet Mignon, Filet, or beef tenderloin. Meat is made of muscle tissue, and the more it’s used the tougher it becomes. The tenderloin of any animal is a strip of muscle, often along the back or on the inside of the ribs, that is rarely used. Because of this it remains incredibly tender. Because of it’s low fat content it is best served rare to medium rare. For well done I suggest butterflying the steak, that is cutting it nearly in half spreading open like a butterfly. Or dim the lights and get used to medium rare.
The ribeye is a goto favorite for any steak connoisseur. The ribeye comes from a much fattier portion of the cow and provides a great mix of flavor, juiciness, and tenderness. The key is high heat to quickly break down soft fats. If you want a well done steak I suggest warming with indirect heat first and then high heat to sear it. Rare to medium steaks can be hit with the high heat directly but always warm up to room temperature first.
New York Strip
Like the rib-eye the New York Strip is a staple at any steak house. Depending on the grade of meat I do believe the strip steak is a little more forgiving than the rib-eye. They both tend to have good marbling and lots of soft tissue. I think the marbling on the strip steak tends to be more consistent and softer on lower grades of meat, which makes it more forgiving to new grilles selecting meat from the butcher. As with the rib-eye, warm to room temperature and hit with high heat. You will also see this called a Kansas City Strip or just a Strip steak. They are all the same thing.
Nothing say’s full like a porterhouse. A good thick cut porterhouse can weigh in at close to 2 lb’s. The porterhouse is the strip steak and filet mignon with a bone in between them. It’s hard to go wrong with that but it’s also hard to go small. Expect a BIG steak. It can also be challenging to cook because the different cuts will cook, well, differently.
The t-bone is essentially a porterhouse without the filet. There’s still an extremely tender piece of meat next to the bone but the prime piece has been cut away, and sold at a higher price. The good news is you get a strip steak with a bone. Cooking on the bone means more flavor which is what makes the t-bone a favorite. Don’t be confused by lower prices though, the bone has weight but you won’t eat it. T-bones will often be a bit cheaper than strip steaks but you aren’t really saving anything.
What are good cuts of steak for grilling?
I don’t want to call Sirloin a bad cut of steak. It’s just not a great cut. You’ll find Sirloins being served up all over the country in Applebee’s and chain steak houses. And done right it can be an OK steak. The key to sirloin is realizing what it is. It’s a more heavily used muscle and will thus be tougher, but from use, not from connective tissue. Because of this different cooking methods won’t do a lot to help it. You need a marinade. Something with some acid to soften the tissue. After that cook with some high heat like normal and you’ll be fine.
I hesitate to put this here because it can be a truly great steak. Flat Iron steaks come from the top blade and can have great flavor. They however do have a bit more connective tissue and benefit from a good marinade and/or slower cooking. I’m not saying put it in the smoker but dial it back just a bit. Once mastered the flat iron can be great. It’s also a good substitute for flank steak for things like fajitas.
One of the kings of flavor the hangar steak simply is a tougher cut of meat. It will take a bit more skill to turn this into a delicacy. A good marinade, high heat, and serving rare will bring the flavor out and make this a treat.
Steaks to Avoid
Round steak barely counts as steak. It’s generally a tough cut of meat and hard to make tender without long cooking. It’s best for grinding into high quality burgers or with slow cooking methods like stew. You might be able to marinade this for a long time and make it into kabobs, but it’s not normally going to be a winner on the grill.
Chuck roasts or great. I love a good chuck roast. Long slow cooking breaks down the tissue and this meat just falls apart. It can be used for so many things. Slicing into steaks just isn’t one of them. I’m not sure who decided to cut this into steaks but I’m not a fan. If you know a good way to grill this let me know and I’ll update this, but for now it’s on my avoid list.
Before the steak ever hits the grill there are a few things you should do. The first, and most important, is to let the steak warm up to room temperature. No matter what your target doneness is, the warmer the inside of the steak the easier it will be to get there. Second, lightly brush the steak with oil or melted butter on both sides. Finally season the steak with your desired spices.
Best steak seasoning
A good steak doesn’t need a lot of seasoning. In fact, it’s pretty good with no seasoning at all. What I recommend is seasonings that bring out the natural flavor of the steak. The main component of that is salt. Salt the steak liberally at least an hour before you put it on the grill. The salt will absorb into the steak and help retain juices inside the meat. If you want a little more flavor add some pepper, garlic , and onion, normally in powder form but fresh works as well. These are mild and will highlight the other flavors.
There are tons of recipes for seasoning mixes and plenty of off the shelf types. In my opinion you simply don’t need extravagant flavors added to steak. It’s pretty fantastic on it’s own. If you want something extra then butter, or a good steak butter, can go good as well since it mixes with the natural fat but I wouldn’t do much more than that.
grill temperature for steak
How hot should I get my grill for cooking steak? The simplest answer is as hot as possible. You don’t want active flames from wood or charcoal but you want as much heat as you can get. Professional steak houses use infrared ovens that can get as hot as 1800 degrees. You’re not going to get remotely close to that on any residential grill. Whether it’s charcoal or gas you’re going to be shooting to get in the 400 – 500 range. This gives you a good combination of high heat and temperature control.
Perfect grill marks for a pretty steak
Making a delicious steak is only half the battle. You don’t want it to just taste great. You want it to look good too. For steak that means those perfect diamond grill marks on a your meat. Giving your steak those marks is much simpler than it seems. Simply turn your steak 1/4 turn in the middle of cooking on each side. The double grill marks will intersect each other to form the perfect diamond crosshatch.
Steak temperature, or steak doneness
There are two popular ways to make sure your steak is done to the desired doneness. The first, and most accurate, is with a thermometer. It’s hard to beat science. A simple probe thermometer, like this one, is relatively inexpensive and will have you making perfect steaks every time. It even has a meat temperature chart on it for reference.
The second is with the hand test. Hold your hand out palm up and touch the meaty area of the palm. It should feel like raw meat. If it doesn’t you’re way to close to the grill. Touch your thumb and index finger together in an OK sign and touch the meaty area again. Now it’s a slight big tighter. This is rare. Touching the thumb and middle finger will give you medium rare, thumb and ring finger is medium, and thumb and pinky will be well done.
Unfortunately you don’t have enough digits to check for medium well like this. Only the six-fingered man was capable. Just kidding. All you have to do is make sure your steak is slightly tougher than thumb-to-ring and still softer than thumb-to-pinky. That will be medium well. You will notice that we describe more done steaks as tougher. The more you cook a steak the harder it is to get it tender and juicy. Not to say it’s impossible, but it’s much harder. If you are going for well done please follow all the other tips on this page as they will become critical to getting a tender steak.
Take a look at the table below for a quick reference.
|Doneness||Internal Temperature||Description||Image||Hand Touch|
|Rare||120 - 125 Degrees F|
49 - 51 Degrees C
|Center is bright red with a pinkish exterior. Warm throughout.|
|Medium Rare||130 - 135 Degrees F|
55 - 57 Degrees C
|Mostly pink with a thin red center strip. Slightly hot.|
|Medium||140 - 145 Degrees F|
60 - 63 Degrees C
|Pink throughout and browning on exterior. Hot throughout.|
|Medium Well||150 - 155 Degrees F|
65 - 69 Degrees C
|Mostly grey with a small amount of pink in the middle.||There isn't an exact finger test for medium well, however you can use either the medium test and feel for slightly harder or the well done test and slightly lighter.|
|Well Done||Over 160 Degrees F|
Over 71 Degrees C
|Grey throughout and fully cooked.|
Resting the meat
What’s the first thing you notice when you cut into a piece of meat right off the grill? If you said steam that’s a right answer. And that steam is steak juice escaping. It’s quickly followed by the run-out of juices onto the plate. Giving the meat a rest after cooking will avoid a lot of this. Take your steak off the grill and cover with foil. Let it sit 5 – 10 minutes for the juices to set up and the temperature to stabilize. You’ll get a juicier steak and your mouth will thank you.
I hope you find these tips useful and use them to make some great steaks. Let me know how they turned out or if you have any questions in the comments below.
Looking for more great grilling guides? Check out my post on grilling pizza.