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Barbecue Secrets

A juicy article about steak

Aug 2, 2007


This is the cover story of the summer, 2007 edition of City Palate, a Calgary-based food publication I've been contributing to for many years. It's a long post. Hope you enjoy.

I. Love. Steak.

A lip-smacking tribute to the king of grilled meat, the glorious beef steak

As I write this, the giant rib eye that I just finished devouring is pleasantly stretching my overfull belly, which is throbbing happily as it begins processing its glorious, meaty cargo.

The after-effects of that super-delicious steak are still with me. My lips are greasy, the gaps in my teeth hang on to the remaining shards of flesh, and my taste buds resonate with a familiar peppery afterglow.

Licking my lips nostalgically, I have a steak flashback.

Cut to five minutes ago. There it is, glistening on the plate as it throws off the classic aroma of seared fat, mesquite smoke and charred spices. Atop the steaming slab sits a slowly liquefying daub of Gorgonzola butter. The dark mass of the steak is framed nicely by slices of ripe red tomato, a few spears of grilled asparagus and a handful of roasted nugget potatoes, all drizzled with fruity olive oil, spritzed with fresh lemon juice and dusted with a sparkling skiff of Malden salt.

That bite. That first bite! Sawn from a corner of the steak with the serrated edge of my knife, the freshly exposed surface shines with juice as I draw the slice to my mouth. Its warm red core is silky on my tongue, and the crusty, chewy outer layers give my teeth the most meaningful assignment in their lives.

I liberate another shiny slice from the beautiful hunk and ceremoniously drag it through the mixture of juice, savory butter and olive oil that has pooled on the plate. The next forkful includes a tangy chunk of tomato; the next, a creamy bite of potato. Then a lemony, palate-refreshing bite of asparagus.

Oh, yes, almost forgot the wine. A big, jammy Shiraz of course. A slug of that, and then back to the motherlode of a steak, which looms on the plate, its edge now jagged like a mine face, waiting to be carved away.

Many satisfying chews and gulps of wine later, I reach my final destination: the rib bone, with its familiar curve. Setting down my implements, I grab the meat-sicle with my bare hands and gnaw away at it, reveling in the fattiest, richest, chewiest bites, my cheeks shining in the candlelight.

Finally, I can wrest no more flesh from the bone. The job is done, and all that’s left is to release a meal-crowning burp and loosen my belt. Hallelujah.

So, now you know what I do when my wife’s away for the weekend.

A beef steak primer

And now for some advice on how you can replicate great steak experiences at home (with your spouse or not).

Okay. First, and perhaps most important, you have to get a perfect piece of meat, well-aged and nicely marbled. My favorite, as you just found out, is the rib eye steak with the bone attached. I like it because it has lots of fat, and it also has nice chewy connective tissue that makes for an interesting texture (and makes for a steak that kids often don’t like). But there are all kinds of great cuts:

  • The king of grilling steaks the rib eye,  is one of the most marbled and delicious cuts. It's rich and juicy and because it's got so much fat it's hard to overcook. Even better when it's on the bone.

  •  Flank/skirt/hanger steak, from the diaphragm of the animal, is the most flavourful cut of beef in my opinion. It’s best when treated with an overnight marinade, seared quickly on the grill to a maximum doneness of medium rare, and then sliced thinly across the grain and served fajita-style in warmed tortillas with all the fixings.
  • Strip loin or New York strip is the classic restaurant steak. With its perfect shape and thin edge of white fat, it’s hard to ruin one of these. No need for complex treatment; a quick dry or wet rub or a short bath in a soy sauce-based marinade is all you need. Or maybe just course salt and freshly cracked pepper.
  • The filet mignon or tenderloing steak is the most expensive cut. This super-lean steak is a favourite among the ladies. Its mild flavour benefits from a wrapper of bacon, a pat of compound butter or a rich sauce but, as with all steaks, it also is nice with just salt and pepper. This one is also best served as rare as possible. Overcook it and it gets mealy.
  • Sirloin is a less expensive cut. Like the flank, this sinewy steak has lots of flavour, but it’s relatively lean. This is a great breakfast steak, cut thin, fried fast and served with a couple of sunny-side-up eggs laid on top.
  • The Porterhouse/T-bone is gloriously complex, with a tasty, more chewy piec of loin on one side of the bone and a round of filet on the other. This is a rich steak. I like to get one custom cut to about a 3-inch thickness, cook it over medium heat and then carve the meat off the bone and pre-slice it for my guests.
  • Round steak is my least favourite cut of beef. Extremely lean, kind of tough, and not a lot of flavour. Acceptable if cooked quite rare, and, like sirloin, not bad for breakfast.
  • Chuck. Not good for the grill, but this delicious cut is redolent with intramuscular fat and grisly connective tissue. Simmer or bake it for a long time and it takes on magical properties. But summer’s coming, so just never mind.

Steak your reputation on these tips

Cooking a steak is easy. Almost as easy as ruining one. Heed these words and avoid grill-related emasculation.

1. Turn it down. High heat is important to grilling a great steak because it makes grill marks, which give a nice charred taste to the steak and make it look appetizing. So preheat your grill on high, get some nice grill marks in the first couple of minutes of cooking, and then turn it down to medium-high or even just plain medium. Your steak will cook more evenly and you’ll avoid it being burned on the outside and raw and cold on the inside.

2. Pay attention. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. Don’t walk away from the grill. Or, if you do walk away, set a kitchen timer to prompt you come back. Most steaks take about three or four minutes per side, which means if you want to pay full attention it might take eight minutes out of your day. The alternative: go watch TV and come back to the grill when your steak is ruined.

3. Don’t oversauce. I never use barbecue sauce on a steak because I prefer to taste the steak. But if you do use barbecue sauce, use it for the last minute or two as a finishing glaze. Slather it on at the beginning and you’ll have a black steak that tastes of burnt sugar.

4. Let it rest. Here’s a rule of thumb: if it’s done on the grill, it’s overdone on the plate. Take your steak off the grill when it’s almost done, then let it rest, tented in foil, for at least four or five minutes before serving. This allows the residual heat to complete the cooking process and lets the juices in the steak redistribute into the meat so they won’t spurt out when you carve your first bite.

5. Thick is better than thin. Most steaks you buy in the supermarket are cut too thin because they’re designed for people who cook on too high a heat. Get the meat cutter to cut a 1 1/2 to 2-inch steak, cook it a little longer and on a little lower heat, and you’ll get a juicier, more succulent result.

I could go on. But, really, cooking a great steak is pretty simple. Follow these rules and you will experience excellent steak flashbacks that will keep you licking your lips for days.