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Sear Excitement

Once you’ve gathered the right equipment and built the perfect fire, you’re just about ready to grill a steak. It’s something everyone has done before, but this time try something a little different.

I like grilling steak because too few people do it. It seems like when I go to a grill party, it’s always hamburgers or hot dogs. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s nothing like a properly grilled steak. I’m an adult after all.

You could grill a beef tri-tip, which would be ideal if you were serving four to six people on a small grill and you wanted to slice the steak. You could also grill skirt steak, flap steak or flank steak, but when I say grill a steak I mean a single steak for one to two people. The best steaks for grilling are porterhouse, T-bone, rib eye, New York strip sirloin and filet mignon. My favorite is the rib eye, also called a Delmonico steak, preferably bone-in, and about one-inch thick. Slice off excess fat, but leave the little layer of fat surrounding it.

You can get your steak at the supermarket, but for that fabulous steak, take a look at the links section on my website and scroll down to “Food Products-Meats.”

Build your fire using a few more pieces of charcoal than you usually would. Make sure you build the fire to one side of the firebox so you have a cool area of the grill when needed. If you are using a gas grill, you will only be able to get it as hot as the highest setting. Get it going, making sure all the coals are completely red hot and ashen with no visible black coals before you start grilling.

Cook your New York strip steaks like Ike

Some people oil, salt and pepper steaks before grilling. You can too, but it’s not necessary. Spread the coals out and lay the steaks directly over the fire. After a minute, flames will engulf the steaks. Let the steaks rest on one side, engulfed, for two to three minutes. Turn to the other side and leave for two to three minutes.

Now remove the steaks to the cool part of the grill, cover, and finish them until very rare, another two to three minutes. For rare, cook them three minutes a side over the fire and three minutes a side covered in indirect heat. Cook a little longer for medium rare. If you like beef cooked more than medium rare, rib eye is not your steak. Use a cut of meat with more connective tissue to keep it moist and which will benefit from longer cooking, such as top round steak.

Grilled bone-in rib-eye steak with maitre d'hotel butter. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Grilled bone-in rib-eye steak with maitre d’hotel butter. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

I don’t do it much anymore but years ago I would remove the grill grate, tap off any ashes from the coals and throw New York strips steaks directly onto the coals themselves. You brush off any ash and eat. I learned this method, believe it or not, from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was quite a cook, if you didn’t know.

Anyway, remove the steaks, season with salt and pepper, top them with a little maitre d’hotel butter, let rest for three minutes and then eat. Maitre d’hotel butter is made by blending together room-temperature unsalted butter, finely chopped fresh parsley, a little salt, and a few drops of fresh lemon juice. Welcome to heaven.

Grilling tips and techniques

  • Best results are attained when food is at room temperature before being grilled. Let larger pieces of grilled or spit-roasted meats rest 10 minutes before serving so juices can settle (usually this will happen without planning for it). Lean meats, such as rabbit and chicken breasts, should be grilled close to the flame over very hot coals to sear the meat quickly and trap juices.
  • Chicken and duck with skin should be grilled farther from the flame or in the cool spot of the grill, covering, uncovering and moving the pieces as needed to avoid flare-ups. Place an aluminum drip pan filled with some water underneath the chicken or duck, letting the fat drip into them, with the coals on either side of the pan. When cooking chicken and duck you want to be careful not to grill it too quickly: It takes time, otherwise the skin will blacken before the inside is cooked.
  • Grill sausages over a low flame or by indirect heat. Grill them slowly, without flames, because of the possibility of flare-ups. Turn frequently. Par-boiling sausage slightly before grilling is essential to avoid their bursting from the intense heat of a grill.
  • Vegetables should be grilled slowly with a brushing of olive oil. After grilling, drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil, if desired.
  • Whole fish can be cooked on the grill, using a grill topper if the spaces between the grids of your grilling grate are too wide. The grilling grate or grill topper, or hinged fish grill, should be very hot and oiled. The fish should be oiled too so that it will not stick. Fish grills to doneness at 10 minutes per inch of thickness measured at the thickest part of the fish. Once the fish is on the grill, don’t move; let it cook properly so its skin becomes crispy and removes easily from the grilling grate instead of sticking. Alternatively, place a flat cast-iron griddle on the grilling grate, let it heat for 15 minutes, then place the fish on top of it and use two offset spatulas to turn the fish.
  • Grilling beef: The fire should be hot enough so you are not able to hold the palm of your hand 3 inches over the fire for more than three seconds. A 1-inch-thick steak is medium rare when poking the steak with your index finger feels identical to when you poke the flesh of your fist where the index finger meets the thumb. A ¾-inch thick sirloin steak takes five minutes a side on a high gas fire for very rare. I never grill prime beef more than medium rare — you just lose taste that way. If you like your steaks well done, use less expensive, tougher, cuts of meat that benefit from longer cooking times. Cooking a tender steak, such as filet mignon, until well done simply makes it tougher and dryer, defeating the purpose of having bought a tender steak in the first place.
  • Because of the variety of grills and types of fires, I suggest that the look of the food, along with the cook’s common sense, be given preference over cooking times in recipes.
  • Leaving the cover on or hood down means the grill will provide a constant temperature, control flare-ups, and provide better results in cooler weather or with large pieces of meat.
  • Once the food is on the grill, be patient and don’t fiddle with it unless instructed to by the recipe. Don’t keep turning the food unless the recipe instructs you to do so. Every time you squeeze or poke food on the grill, you lose precious juices, especially from meats, and you lose the opportunity to develop attractive grid marks. Never use two-pronged forks with anything being grilled because all it does is puncture meat and let juices escape. Use long-handled grill tongs instead.
  • For doneness, don’t cut open with a knife; learn to tell doneness by touch. You will learn this through experience. Learn to under-cook food so you still have the option of throwing it back on the grill. Overcooked food is just that. Because fires differ, I emphasize learning from experience for cooking times.

Top photo: Kilic sis, a Turkish grilled skewered swordfish. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard/KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for "A Mediterranean Feast." His latest book is "One-Pot Wonders" (Wiley).