- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 1, 2003

A lot of people are firing up their grills these days, and when they do, it’s often to cook steak.

Steak tops our list of foods to grill, and the ability to cook one seared and crusty on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside and grilled to the exact doneness desired is the mark of a master.

Unfortunately, all too many steaks come off the grill undercooked, overcooked, dried-out or tough. If these sound like familiar problems, listen up. Here’s a guide to grilling the perfect steak.

The first step is to select the right steak. Not all beef cuts are right for grilling. The high, dry heat of the grill requires a relatively thin and tender, well-marbled cut. Favorites include the supertender filet mignon, the flavorful New York strip, the generously marbled rib-eye and the tasty T-bone. Or you can kill two birds with one stone by grilling the most prestigious cut of all — the porterhouse — which consists of a New York strip and filet mignon connected by a slender bone.

Three additional steaks bear mentioning, although they’re not quite as tender as the cuts just mentioned. Skirt steak, flank steak and sirloin are loaded with flavor and are fabulous grilled. The secret is to slice them thinly crosswise to shorten the length of the tough meat fibers. This brings us to London broil, which is a method for slicing meat. It can be made from flank steak, sirloin or even top or bottom round.

Remember, some steaks just aren’t meant to be grilled, such as chuck or sliced eye of round.

The next step is to build the proper fire. Steak needs a high heat to sear the outside and form a crust, but when you cook a thick steak, such as a porterhouse, you also need a moderate heat zone to finish cooking it through without burning. It helps to have a safety zone in case the dripping steak fat causes a flare-up.

The secret is to build a three-zone fire. When working on a charcoal grill, rake the coals into a double-thick layer on one side of the grill and a single-thick layer in the center. (This gives you a hot zone for searing and moderate zone for cooking.) The unlit portion of the grill serves as the safety zone.

To build a three-zone fire in a gas grill, set one burner on high and one on medium and use the warming rack (or unlit third burner) as the safety zone. (Note: When cooking a thin - to 1-inch steak, you can grill over a single hot zone.)

How do you measure the heat of a fire? Use the Mississippi test. Hold your hand about 4 inches above the grate and start counting: “1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi.” You’ll be able to keep your hand over a hot fire for just 2 to 3 seconds and over a medium fire for just 5 to 6 seconds.

Now you’re almost ready to grill, but first you need to clean and oil the grill grate. To do the former, brush the grate with a stiff wire brush or rub it with a ball of crumpled aluminum foil.

To oil it, fold a paper towel into a small pad, dip it in vegetable oil and rub it across the bars of the grate. Or rub the grate with a chunk of steak fat held by tongs. Not only does a clean, well-oiled grate prevent sticking — it’s essential for killer grill marks.

Finally, season the steak just before grilling. The better the steak, the simpler the seasonings. Most of the time, I just use kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. The salt crystals should be coarse so they don’t dissolve completely. (This gives you wonderful pointillistic bursts of flavor.) Ditto for the pepper, which should be very coarsely ground or even cracked.

Arrange the steaks on the grate at about a 45-degree angle to the bars of the grill grate. Grill for 2 to 3 minutes, then rotate each steak 90 degrees. This will give you that handsome crosshatch of grill marks, which is the mark of a master griller. You’ll know to turn the steak when you see tiny beads of blood form on the top. (This should happen after 4 to 6 minutes for a 1-inch thick steak, 8 to 10 minutes for a 2-inch steak.)

Use tongs, not a barbecue fork, for turning. The last thing you want to do is poke holes in the meat and drain out the juices.

The final challenge to grilling steak is recognizing when it’s cooked. The method I prefer is the poke test.

Poke the top of the steak with your forefinger. If it’s soft and squishy, it’s rare or possibly still raw. If it’s gently yielding, it’s medium-rare; a little firmer but still yielding, it’s medium. If the steak feels firm and springy, it’s well-done.

When cooking really thick steak (such as a porterhouse), you may want to use a meat thermometer. Insert it through the side of the steak to the center, not from top to bottom. This will give you an accurate reading.

As a last resort, you can make a tiny cut into the steak with the tip of a paring knife to check for doneness. Use the technique sparingly, because cutting the steak releases the juices.

Also, remember that a steak will continue to cook even after it comes off the grill, so you may want to remove it a half degree of doneness before.

You’re not done yet. The last two steps can make the difference between a satisfactory and an unforgettable steak.

Give it a rest and give it some fat. Let the steak sit on a plate or platter for a few minutes before serving. This gives the meat a chance to relax, and it will be juicier than if you cut into it hot off the grill.

While you’re at it, drizzle the steak with a little extra-virgin olive oil as they do in Tuscany or rub it with a pat of butter as they do in American steakhouses.

This thin and shiny coating of fat finishes the steak and enriches the flavor.

So now you know how to grill the perfect steak. Here’s a garlicky, Romanian-style skirt steak to try out your new expertise.

Romanian garlic skirt steak

Skirt steak is a flat, stringy steak from the underbelly of the steer. This may not sound particularly appetizing, but it’s loaded with flavor and when sliced thinly across the grain, it is as tender as you could want.

1 pounds skirt steak

Salt, freshly ground black pepper

Hungarian hot paprika

2 tablespoons olive oil

4 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 tablespoon dried oregano

Arrange steaks in a baking dish. Generously season on both sides with salt, pepper and paprika. Drizzle the steaks on both sides with oil, patting it in with your fingertips.

Sprinkle steaks with garlic and oregano, patting them in with your fingers.

Marinate steaks in the refrigerator for 2 to 4 hours. (Tightly cover baking dish with plastic wrap, or garlic fumes will perfume your whole refrigerator.)

Set up grill for direct grilling and preheat to high.

Brush grill grate with oil. Grill steaks until cooked to taste, 3 to 4 minutes per side for medium rare. Transfer steaks to plates or a platter and let rest for 2 minutes, then serve immediately.

Makes 4 servings.


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