In part 1 of the Basic Principles of Grilling, I covered all the technical aspects. Now let’s put that information to use and grill a couple nice, juicy steaks. Before we start grilling, let’s talk about salt. When and how you salt can make or break a delicious steak. There are many opinions as to when you should salt your meat before grilling so I decided to try a few out this spring. After testing, I’ve found what I think is the best method.
Preparing the Meat
For most of my adulthood I subscribed to the theory that you should season meats with salt no more than 5 minutes before you cook them to prevent the salt from extracting moisture from inside the meat. After all, the goal when cooking any kind of meat is to cook it to your desired temperature while retaining juiciness… so extracting meat juices before they’re even cooked is counter-intuitive, right? Maybe not because new testing suggests otherwise.
I’m not sure who first decided to salt to a steak and let it rest for an hour or so before grilling it but the idea intrigued grill enthusiasts from around the country. There are articles all over the interwebs from people who have tested the theory and enthusiastically support it. Many respected grillers insist that extracting some liquid before cooking prevents steaks from “steaming” on the inside and leads to greater overall flavor. Not willing to just take someone else’s word for it, I conducted my own experiment.
I bought two 1-inch steaks and applied two different salting methods to each. I removed them both from the cooler an hour before cooking to allow them to come to room temperature (find out why in this post). I salted steak #1 liberally with kosher salt on both sides and let it set at room temp for an hour. Steak #2 sat at room temp, untouched, for the same hour. I lit the grill and while it heated, I did my final prep. Steak #1 had a substantial amount of liquid on it so I pat it dry with a paper towel and added some freshly cracked pepper. Steak #2 hadn’t been seasoned so I salted and peppered it. I grilled them both to medium rare and let them rest for eightish minutes before tasting. And the winner is… steak #1. Not only did I like steak #1 better, but so did three friends in a blind taste test.
To be perfectly honest, I didn’t think steak #1 would win when I saw the amount of liquid that pooled on the top during the hour it was salted. But my friends and I all noticed that less juice seeped out of steak #1 than steak #2 after they were both cut. Essentially, they lost about the same amount of juice before they reached my mouth so that became a moot point. Since steak #1 had better flavor, it was the outright winner.
That covers steak but what about other meats? Chicken and pork chops both benefit from brining before grilling. My standard brine is 1 part kosher salt, 1 part sugar, 4 parts water (although I’m dying to try Alton Brown’s mustard & cider vinegar brined pork chops). Bring them to a boil and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Allow to cool and pour over chicken pieces or pork chops. Refrigerate for 1-2 hours (more for larger pieces of meat). I often add other flavorings like hot sauce, peppercorns, or hearty herbs to the brine for added flavor but it varies from dish to dish. Of course, brining takes some forethought. You can’t have dinner on the table in 45 minutes from start to finish so plan accordingly.
Fish doesn’t require any special attention. You can usually season it right before cooking if you’re not using a marinade.
Setting up the Grill
Now that our meat is ready, it’s time to grill. For today’s instruction I chose a propane. Set-up is minimal… just light your grill according to its specs, turn all flames to ‘high’, and close the lid. If you’re using a charcoal grill, get out your charcoal chimney and set up for grilling over direct heat (The Kitchn has a great post with videos to help you out). Just like with a propane, cover your grill and let it get nice and hot. Whether you choose propane or charcoal (more about the difference here), the method for grilling meat is the same.
There a few other pieces of equipment you need:
- long handled tongs
- grill brush
- oil towel (I use dry paper towels but some people use clean, old rags)
Once your grill gets nice and hot, brush the grill grates with a wire brush to remove any leftover food from the last use. If you don’t have a grill brush, wad up a large piece of aluminum foil into a loose ball. Grip the ball with your tongs and use it to brush the grill.
Time for Grilling
Now that the grill is clean, close the lid and wait for it to get as hot as possible. While waiting, I normally get everything else ready to go. That means I have a small container of oil, my tongs, an oil towel, and my seasoned food waiting nearby.
Now that grill is hot, dip your folded paper towel or old rag into a small dish of cooking oil (canola, vegetable, or peanut). Working quickly, open the grill’s lid and rub the grates with your oil towel. This is called “seasoning” and it will help prevent your food from sticking.
Once the grill is seasoned it’s time to cook. Place your meat on the grates directly over the flames. Since steaks cook rather quickly, leave the lid up. Closing the lid will turn the grill into a sort of oven and your steaks will bake while they’re searing. That’s not what we want here.
If you want to create an attractive cross-hatch pattern on the top of your steaks, rotate them 90ish° after they’ve been on the grill about 1 1/2 minutes. After another 1 1/2 minutes (about 2-3 minutes total), flip the steaks.
Let the steaks cook on this side around 3 minutes for medium rare (about 130°F). Don’t worry about the cross-hatch pattern on this side… it’s the bottom and nobody will see it anyway. If you like your steaks cooked more, place them over indirect heat, close the lid, and cook to the desired temperature (for pretty temperature guides see this post and this post).
Once your steaks are cooked, remove them from the grill and allow them to rest for about 5-10 minutes. I usually split the difference and wait about 8 minutes before digging in. This will allow the juices redistribute and thicken a bit, which keeps them from running all over your plate when you cut into the steaks. You can gently cover the steaks with aluminum foil (don’t seal it closed) to keep them from getting too cold but when grilling in 90°+ weather, it’s not really necessary.
It’s no secret that I don’t want anything more than salt and pepper (and maybe a little garlic powder… maybe) on a good steak. When a steak is seasoned and cooked right, random seasoning blends, fancy “crusts”, and sauces will only mask their perfect taste. However, I have been known to drop a pat of compound butter on a steak as it rests. Garlic and parsley compound butter is my favorite for steaks… learn how to make it here. The first time I put compound butter on a steak, I was grilling for my roommate and myself. We couldn’t believe how delicious it was and agreed it was the best steak we’d ever tasted.
I used a propane grill today but in full disclosure, I much prefer charcoal for grilling steaks. The flames char the meat nicely on the outside and give it a better overall flavor. Steaks just look and taste better when cooked over charcoal. I chose propane because it was just sitting there, ready and waiting for use. Charcoal takes a little more work and attention and I can easily get distracted when cooking and photographing at the same time.
If you want even more details about cooking the perfect steak, check out this post. There you’ll find even more details like why you want your steak dry and room temperature before cooking. I hope this post inspires you to fire up your grill! Next up… roasting.