What You Need to Know to Grill the Perfect Steak

The most common refrain I hear when I tell my friends that I’ve started grilling meat is: “I want to, but I don’t know how.” I get it. It’s a lot of pressure to take on the responsibility of making dinner, especially if you’ve invested in some pricey meat, like steak. However, if I can learn how to grill the perfect steak, so can you! Here’s what you need to know to grill the perfect steak.

Which steak is the best?

I like to think of steak cuts in tiers. There is no “bad” cut because steak is delicious. However, some cuts are better than others. Breaking the cuts into three tiers, from Premium to Average, helps me categorize my meats and plan my meals.

1. Premium cuts: Ribeye – Filet Mignon – T-Bone

These are the cuts that you’ll most likely see at a steakhouse. They are typically found with more marble, which adds juiciness and flavor. These steaks are more expensive than others in other tiers. You are paying for the quality (and reputation, in some cases) of the cut. These steaks are simple to cook due to their high quality, which means you may pay a premium for the meat but have a higher margin of error.

2. Good cuts: Porterhouse – Hanger – Top Sirloin – Strip

These four cuts are still incredibly delicious. I’m trying not to take away from them by placing them in this tier; it’s just they are, pardon the pun, a cut below the others. Hanger steak, in particular, is having a moment and is quite sought after. These steaks offer a lot of the quality of the premium cuts but are typically more affordable. What you may lose on top-end rating, you make up for in pricing.

3. Average cuts: Bottom Sirloin – Flank – Skirt – Round

The most affordable options may seem like the natural entry point to the steak market. I urge you to resist the temptation to go this route. While more affordable, these steaks require near perfection on the grill to turn out a quality meal. If you feel like taking on the additional challenge of seasoning, marinating, and threading the needle of grilling to a perfect temp, then, by all means, go for it.

Do I need to marinate my perfect steak?

To answer this question, it comes down to the quality of the meat. Take a look at the tiers. As a rule of thumb, anything in the premium tier needs nothing more than a seasoning of salt and pepper to be a quality meal. Heading further down, especially once you get into the average tier, I recommend creating a marinade for your meat. A marinade soaks into the meat, adding an additional layer of flavoring and making it more tender. I prefer a simple marinade—something like equal parts Italian dressing, A1 sauce, and Worcestershire sauce (maybe some lemon). I let my steaks soak for a few hours before patting them dry.

How should I set up my grill?

I profess: I used to think that if I wanted to grill the perfect steak, it was as simple as getting the charcoal lit and throwing on the meat. After years of study and trial and error, I now understand the science of heat zones. Some grill experts recommend three zones, but I prefer just two: hot and indirect. If you’re using a gas grill, this is easy, but if you have a charcoal grill, you must pile your charcoal up on one side of the grill, leaving the other empty. It requires planning. Grilling is about using heat effectively to let the meat cook.

Once you’ve set your grill up with the proper heat zones, let the grill grates get hot, and then put your steaks on the hot zone. I’ll explain the indirect heat zone in the next section.

Should I flip my steak?

Too much flipping leads to underperforming meat. Some grill experts use the 60-40 method, and some suggest an equal 50-50 split. Either way, you probably only need one flip. This will make sure that you have an equally cooked piece of steak. Too much flipping can lead to poking and all the juices leaking out of your steak.

If you have a steak that has caught on fire or is cooking faster than others, move it to the indirect heat zone, rearrange your steaks, and keep at it. Do not flip more than you need to. Consistency, heat, and patience are your friends if you want to grill the perfect steak.

How do I know when a perfect steak is done?

Most people think they want their perfect steak done “medium” but couldn’t identify medium from a line-up. The fastest way to determine doneness is to use the finger check.

Touch your fingers together, and feel the area of skin below your thumb to identify “doneness.”

  • No fingers: Raw
  • Thumb +Pointer: Rare
  • Thumb + Middle: Medium Rare
  • Thumb + Ring: Medium
  • Thumb + Pinky: Well done

If this sounds like witchcraft, a more straightforward method is to use a meat thermometer and the internal temperature to guide your preference.

Now do we eat?

Not quite. After you’ve pulled the steak off at the right feel or temp, the key to a perfect steak is letting it rest.

Patience is key here. Pull the steak a few degrees before “ideal” or one finger before ready and let the meat rest on the plate. By letting it rest, the steak juices have time to redistribute into all the areas they need to get. Steaks do not need to be eaten right off the grill, so take a few minutes to finish the other parts of the meal as your steak settles.

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