I had to learn how to cook for myself in my early teens. It’s just the way things were.
My parents got divorced in their early 30s and still had plenty of youth and vigor as we do in our 30s, so their priorities shifted a bit. I get that.
So, my cooking was limited to how to make the perfect grilled cheese or bologna sandwich and how to perfect Campbell’s Cream of Tomato soup.
I would read the label of the soup can like the way I read cookbooks now. At that time, that was the only instruction that I got. As I recall, the trick to creamy soup was to use half water and half milk. I even would follow the serving suggestion picture and put a pat of butter in the middle of the soup bowl. To me back then, that was gourmet dining at home.
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After I got out on my own and started cooking for myself as an adult, I had a few loftier goals. Then, I wanted to learn how to master just six things: A really good steak, a great-tasting burger, chicken wings, nachos, brats and pizza. All of those were foods that I would enjoy at restaurants but hadn’t yet mastered at home.
So today, I want to talk about steak. Yeah, I know everyone makes a great steak. In fact you’ll hear a lot of people talk about how they make a steak better than most restaurants. And to be honest, that’s a very fair statement.
But let’s talk about the finer details of making a steak so that maybe even you, the “backyard perfect steak-maker” might even learn a thing or two. This could give you the chance to up your game just a bit.
The reverse sear
This is a technique that for many people who follow me on Facebook have heard me preach about for years. In fact, by now, you may have even heard about this technique in a magazine or an article or two. But I’m going to lay it out for you here, step by step, along with a couple other of my tricks, to show you how you can reign as “king of the steak” in your neighborhood.
To start with, get a good-quality, thick (11/2 to 2 inch) steak. Fortunately, in Kansas City, we have a bounty of good butchers and meat markets. The favorite cut of beef for most chefs is the rib-eye. Bone-in if you can get it, but boneless works too. Why the rib-eye? Because the rib-eye is usually marbled through and through. And marbling (or fat) is what gives steak its flavor and juiciness.
Here are the basic steps we are going to follow. Don’t be intimidated by the number of steps; each one is easy. The critical factors are timing and patience. You want to start the first step hours before you want to eat.
Salt the meat
Don’t be afraid of salt. As Alton Brown taught me, “salt makes food taste more like itself.” First, pat the steak dry with a paper towel and then season the steak with 1 teaspoon of kosher salt (not table salt) and press the salt into the meat, both sides and all around the edges.
Place the steak on a wire rack over a pan (rimmed baking sheet or any similar pan will work), and place it back in the fridge uncovered for up to three hours. During this process, the salt will be penetrating into the meat to help drive flavor into the steak. Your patience will be rewarded.
Take the chill off
At least one hour before you intend to cook the steak, pull the steak out of the refrigerator. You’ll notice some accumulation of moisture on the surface of the meat. Using a paper towel, pat the steak dry and season one more time with 1 teaspoon of kosher salt, being sure to cover the entire surface area. Note: Don’t be worried about leaving the steak out at room temperature. Salt inhibits the growth of bacteria. After all, salt has been used since ancient times to preserve meat because of that property.
Set up the grill
Set your grill up for a two-zone fire over medium heat (300 to 350 degrees). A two-zone fire means having heat on one side of the grill and no heat on the other. If using a charcoal grill, put all of the lit charcoal on one side and nothing on the other side. If using a gas grill, just ignite one side. Note: Some gas grills light front to back versus side to side. In that case, light the back half of the grill and keep the front half off.
If using a charcoal grill, add a chunk of smoking wood or chips that have soaked in water for at least 30 minutes and then drained, directly onto the fire and place the lid back on the grill. If you have a gas grill with a smoker box, follow the manufacturer’s directions and then close the lid.
Start low and slow
Using paper towels, pat the steak dry again, removing all accumulated liquid. Using a grill brush, clean the cooking grates before you put the steak on the grill. Place the steak on the cooler side of the grill and shut the lid. If you are using a charcoal grill, make sure you place the vents directly over the steaks. This helps to draw the smoke across the food, infusing the meat with even more flavor.
At this time, light another half chimney of charcoal to be used later. You might be thinking that this is a slow process, but trust me, your patience will be rewarded.
Check the temp
Cook the steak until it is 20 degrees below your final cooking temperature (135, medium rare; 145, medium). For example, if you want a medium rare steak, pull it off the grill when the steak reaches an internal temperature of 115 degrees. Use an instant-read thermometer to check temperature.
Steady the meat with tongs, and insert the probe into the side of the steak, being sure to get the tip as close to the center as possible for an accurate reading.
Pat me baby one more time
At this point, take the steak off the grill and pat dry. Why again? If the steak is moist, it makes it harder to sear and crisp. I won’t bore you with the science of it, but your steak will end up “steaming” more than “searing” if the surface is wet.
Turn up the heat
If using a charcoal grill, pour the additional lit half chimney of charcoal on top of the other charcoal and leave the lid off. The lit side of the grill will get very hot, very quickly. If using a gas grill, turn up the lit side to high, close the lid and let the grill heat up.
After the grill is very hot, clean the cooking grates that are directly over the heat with a grill brush. Lightly coat the dried steak with vegetable, canola or grapeseed oil. These oils have a higher smoke point and are neutral in flavor, which is perfect for a steak.
Time to sear
Place the steak on the screaming-hot side of the grill. I usually leave the lid off or open during the searing process because this is going to go quickly. After 30 seconds, rotate the steak 90 degrees to the right or left. This is how you get those cool-looking grill marks.
After another 30 seconds, turn the steak over to the other side and repeat the one-minute protocol, turning after 30 seconds to get grill marks. After both sides have cooked, we want to sear the edges a bit. So, using long tongs (and grill gloves), place the steak on its edge and sear 30 seconds at a time until all of the edges have come in contact with the grill.
Now we wait. Yes, I know with all of those steps, you want to eat that beautiful creation. Heck, you want to just cut it open to see if this method worked, right? I know, I know. But you must resist or all of your work will go down to the drain, or at least out of the steak. You see, at this point, what we want to do is let the steak rest on a plate or cutting board, covered loosely with aluminum foil for about seven to 10 minutes.
During this time, the juices in the steak are redistributing themselves throughout the meat so that you can enjoy juicy satisfaction with every bite. If you were to cut the steak right after taking it off the heat, all of those internal juices would just run onto your cutting board or plate. Again, your patience will be rewarded.
While the steak is resting, go ahead and lift up the foil and add some fresh ground pepper. Classic steak is always made with salt and pepper, so you may have wondered why I didn’t start off with salt and pepper. The reason is simple. Salt is a rock (mineral), and it does not burn. Pepper is a dried fruit and will burn when you sear the steak. So if you add pepper while the steak is resting, you’ll get to enjoy the flavor of fresh ground pepper versus fresh burnt pepper. If you’ve never tried it, you’ll be surprised at the difference.
And now it’s the time you’ve been waiting for. Go ahead, cut into that steak and admire that edge-to-edge perfectly cooked steak … I’ll wait. Heck, you may want to take a picture and share it on Instagram, because it looks so beautiful. You might as well show me, too, at craigjones_grillmayor on Instagram.
Now, give it a taste. Crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside. And there you have it. You now know how to use the reverse sear for perfect results. And as I kept telling you, your patience was rewarded.
Craig Jones is a live-fire cooking expert, the Grill Mayor for Food Network (2012), and owner of Savory Addictions Gourmet Nuts. He’s also a certified KCBS BBQ judge, a master student of pizza crafting and an enthusiastic supporter of the greater Kansas City food scene.