May 25, 2022
By Lynn Burkhead
For a collection of only five letters, that simple word is loaded with memorable meaning, rich flavor, and even a bit of dining power. Just mention the word, and our minds are often transported somewhere else, usually to a place filled with good smells, great flavor, and big smiles.
It’s often the centerpiece of meals to remember, key business gatherings and celebrations from anniversaries to birthdays.
But while steaks can deliver a meaningful meal during the best and most important occasions each year, perhaps the best flame-kissed beef is simply that which is served up in the gathering twilight out back, a prime cut of marbled meat that is grilled hot and fast, isn’t over cooked, and is delivered to the plate straight off the grill on a late spring or early summertime evening.
If there’s anything that says a plateful of Backyard Ready deliciousness is about to be served up, it’s the sounds, the smells, and the sights of a good steak sizzling over a backyard flame.
As long as you cook it properly, that is. Otherwise, a bad steak dinner might leave your guests picking at their plates with memories of eating a piece of charred boot leather lathered with steak sauce.
So how do you grill the perfect steak? While doing so is a bit of a culinary art that you’ll get better at over time and with ample practice, it all starts by following a handful of simple principles for great outdoor cooking:
Buy the Right Steak
If you’re going to grill the perfect steak in the backyard, start by buying a good steak.
A great guide to doing so is in the excellent cookbook Franklin Steak: Dry-Aged, Live-Fired, Pure Beef, a steak cooking Bible by Texas brisket king Aaron Franklin, the owner of the Austin-based and world famous Franklin Barbecue. While Aaron is enthusiastic about his renowned brisket that people stand in line hours for—I’ll put it this way, I’m a brisket snob and Franklin’s brisket is the best I’ve ever eaten—he’s also pretty gifted and knowledgeable when it comes to cooking a steak too.
In general, Franklin and others note that it’s important to have a rudimentary understanding of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s beef grading system as you stand over a collection of steaks wrapped in cellophane and try to make a selection at the local grocer, the corner butcher shop, or even directly from a cattle ranching operation.
Why all of the fuss about the grading system? Well, because the grade shields used by the USDA are meat-industry symbols and language that can tell a consumer quickly what quality of American beef that you are actually buying. More importantly, it will tell you how much marbling the steak has (the USDA defines marbling as "…the amount of fat interspersed with lean meat), a critical ingredient for keeping steaks basting as they cook over a hot fire and not drying out during the process.
If the grade shield says Prime, you’re buying beef from young, well-fed cattle and meat that has "… slightly abundant marbling…" and beef that "…is generally sold in upscale restaurants."
If the steaks you’re buying have the grade shield of Choice, it’s still a high-quality cut of meat, albeit with less marbling than Prime cuts do.
And if the grade shield says Select, the meat is still very uniform in quality according to the USDA, but also normally leaner than the higher grades are. But it’s also “…fairly tender, but because it has less marbling, it may lack some of the juiciness and flavor of the higher grades.”
As you survey the various steak cuts in front of you, keep in mind that the higher grade cuts are generally tastier, easier to keep from drying out in the grilling process, but also carry more fat content. If you have health concerns, you might want to opt for the leaner cuts, even if they aren’t as tasty and require a little more careful attention during the cooking process.
Speaking of steak cuts, what about the various types of steaks that are available to backyard chefs? There are a number of them, coming from different parts of a cow and all offering various amounts of flavor, tenderness, and marbling.
If you’re new to the steak game, and want a solid understanding of all of this, it’s hard to do better when it comes to understanding the delectable kingdom of steaks than by referring to the “Beef Bible” produced by wood-fired pellet grill manufacturer Traeger. FYI, more from the Utah grill and smoker company in just a minute.
Prepare It Properly
To me, this is a simple part of the whole grilling process, since I come from the Texas school of a little salt, a little pepper, and call it good.
You can certainly buy pre-prepared steakhouse rubs at your local grocery store or box store, and many of those taste extremely good and come from famous restaurants like those mentioned above. By all means, don’t be afraid to experiment here.
But for my money, sprinkling kosher salt several hours before you cook it is the way to go, and that idea is also confirmed by Aaron Franklin in his steak cooking manifesto. And if you want, sprinkle a little black pepper on the beef too, if you so desire. (Note: If you’re going to brush the steak lightly with something like olive oil, which can help enhance grill marks and produce a savory crust, put the oil coating on first, then sprinkle on your salt, pepper, and/or other rubs after that.)
Finally, keep in mind that there are mixed reviews on bringing a steak up to room temperature before cooking. Some swear by the process, others like Franklin aren’t so sure that it makes much difference and note that cooking steaks at refrigerator temperature is acceptable. Experiment with both and let experience become your guide here.
Cook it Correctly
When it come to grilling a steak, there are several ways to go about cooking these great beefy meals, including the old fashioned way that it’s often done here in the Lone Star State where I make my home. And that’s to use a grill situated over a real wood fire, often a load of mesquite wood found here deep in the heart of Texas.
In fact, some of the best steaks I’ve ever eaten came on a South Texas deer hunt a few years ago when my sons and I traveled to the Brush Country to chase management whitetail bucks with Major League Fishing (Link: www.majorleaguefishing.com ) pro Kelly Jordon, a longtime family friend. KJ knows how to catch big bass—at one time, he was the only angling pro to have won tournaments with the Bassmaster Elite Series, the FLW Tour, and Major League Fishing—and how to cook some serious steaks over a mesquite wood fire at deer camp.
Want to give that "Cowboy Cooking" method a try, the kind of rustic steak grilling made famous by legendary Texas chuckwagon cook Tom Perini, owner of the Perini Ranch Steakhouse in Buffalo Gap, Texas?
To do that and follow the example of the two-time chef for the White House Congressional Picnic, you will need a supply of mesquite wood, a barrel style smoker, a backyard charcoal style grill, or even a grate over an open fire. You’ll need to let the mesquite reduce down to glowing hot coals, and then put it over direct heat quickly, cooking it fast and furious to get a savory crust on the outside. After that, you can move it to the reduced heat side of the grill and let it slowly finish to the desired internal temperature and level of doneness, or flip it more often and keep it over the direct heat.
Of course, as a collector of cookbooks on Texas cooking and wild game and fish recipes, I’d also suggest that you can order the Perini Ranch Steakhouse: Stories and Recipes for Real Texas Food to gain a better understanding of all of this. You can also travel west of Fort Worth on Interstate 20, visiting the renowned steakhouse right outside of Abilene and get a few tips from Tom himself, or even go online and order an award-winning mesquite smoked peppered beef tenderloin cut directly.
While the wood-fired method of steak cooking has provided T-Bones and Ribeye’s for my family down through the years—a technique that we all learned under the watchful eyes of my late father-in-law, Pat "Pappy" Lovera, a master at cooking steaks for family gatherings and holiday events—there are also other ways to grill your steak properly, including on a pellet-style grill.
If the source of your backyard cooking unit is like those made by the Utah based Traeger, how long do you grill your steak for when using pellet wood fuel like Mesquite? According to Traeger’s steak grilling guide referenced above, “It's all about the internal temperature of your steak.”
Traeger says to first, set the grill temperature to High heat. Next, put the steak on the hot grill and flip it once in the middle of the cook to achieve grill marks. And finally, place the meat on the serving plate when you’ve hit the desired temperature. And by the way, Traeger notes that those temperatures are as follows: Rare: 120-130°F; Medium Rare: 130-135°F; Medium: 135-145°F; Medium Well: 145-155°F; and Well Done: 155°F and up..
For what it’s worth, I’m also from the school that you want your steak to be red or pink in the middle to achieve the best flavor, so there’s that to consider, although some like my wife prefer a steak that is fairly well done. To each their own, but ask your guests what they prefer and cook according to the proper internal temperature.
Speaking of internal temperature, you’ll probably want a good meat/steak thermometer like the one’s you can purchase at ChefsTemp. They are perfect for all types of backyard cooking, even if you’re grilling your steak over a propane gas fueled grill.
If that’s the case, ChefsTemp says that the cooking process takes 20 minutes or less in general. Once you’re ready to go and the grill is hot, you place the steak on the grill. Once you turn the steak (after getting a crust and grill marks on one side), follow the temperature progression and pull when you get the desired finish (By the way, ChefTemps says that they like medium rare steaks cooked to 141⁰F).
What about a charcoal style grill like the ones made by Big Green Egg? In their guide to cooking perfect steaks on such a cooker, you’ll want to set up for direct cooking at 650°F. For sear marks, use a cast iron cooking grid and also maybe a few wood chips to add a little smoky flavor to the process.
Then it’s time to let the meat sizzle on the Egg: “Place the steaks on the grill and sear for two to three minutes. Carefully open the dome and flip the steaks onto a new section of the grid. After two to three more minutes, flip the steaks once more.
“Completely shut down the EGG by closing the damper top and draft door. Let the steaks continue cooking for 3 to 4 minutes, until they reach the desired internal temperature (check with a meat thermometer).”
No matter what cooking platform you are using, the idea is to build a hot fire, sear the outer sides of the steak so that flavor and moisture will be locked in, slowly building to the desired level of doneness and internal temperature for the various steak finishes, and letting the steak achieve all of its marbled and flavorful goodness.
One final note, many people like to finish their steak grilling process by placing a pat or two of butter—often with thyme and garlic added in—on the meat for a stylistic and flavorful finish straight out of a high-dollar steakhouse. Steaks can cook and taste great without this step, but it’s also an impressive way to finish the cooking process in front of your Backyard Ready guests!
Let It Rest Before Serving
Once you get the steak off the grill it is vitally important to let the steak rest for best flavoring and rave reviews. Both Green Egg and ChefsTemp urge this final step, one that takes a few minutes to pull off.
“Once you get the steak off the grill it is vitally important to let the steak rest for 5 minutes undisturbed, so the juices which are on the edge will return to the middle,” notes ChefsTemp. “After allowing the steak to rest it is time to put it on a plate.”
And after grilling the perfect steak in your Backyard Ready space, it’s time to add a baked potato or some fries, some simple sides like grilled vegetables or baked beans and maybe even a salad to balance everything out.
After that, it’s time to sit back and enjoy one of the best outdoors meals of the year. Bon Appetit, Backyard Ready style, of course!