How to Grill Steaks (and nearly everything else perfectly, every time)

By 8 m read
How to grill steaks - Mostly oak (Photo by Erich Boenzli)
Mostly oak (Photo by Erich Boenzli)

The first BBQ in the history of humankind (totally made up by me)

Since the discovery of fire, people probably first sat around it to stay warm and maybe enjoy light from it too. While they were snacking on their fresh woolly mammoth kill, clumsy Pete accidentally dropped a piece of his raw meat in the fire. Chief Sarah was pissed and quickly removed the piece of valuable meat from the fire with a stick. 

 

They looked at the burnt piece and couldn’t decide what to do with it. Wolfdog Kira was napping in the corner of the cave when her nostrils suddenly picked up an incredibly enticing smell that she’d never smelled before. She got up, followed the trail, and found the source of her olfactory excitement. A piece of charred meat was lying on the ground, surrounded by her masters, but nobody was touching it. 

 

Without a second thought, she jumped between her masters, grabbed the meat with her canine teeth, and quickly retreated out of stone throw’s distance. She ate it so fast that smart Alec looked over and said: “Look how she just ate it like a wolf!” That was the original form of “wolfing it down” and the original first BBQ.

 

So as the story goes, the rest is history. In the meantime, about 1.47 billion U.S. dollars worth of grills and barbecues are sold in the United States every year. And every season, we need to get the latest grilling technology, the latest gadgets, and of course the latest stupid apron that says “Griller in Chief” or something. 

 

What is grilling?

Grilling is another form of applying heat to food. I won’t dive into the chemical details of the Maillard reaction in this article because I want you to start a fire and start grilling. Studying is for another time. 

 

So, grilling is cooking. What is the goal of cooking? To have the outside and inside of your food cooked to the desired level of doneness at the same time. Think about it. If you understand this simple statement, applying the right amount of heat for the right amount of time will become as easy as pie. 

 

Should I use gas or wood/charcoal?

I have a gas stove in the kitchen so I’m not buying another gas grill to cook the same way outside. To me, grilling means burning wood. Having a wood burning stove in the basement to heat the house, seasoned wood is always at hand. I understand that a gas grill is way more convenient to cook with, but the flavor of food cooked over a woodfire will always be superior. Maybe that dates back to our first memory of our ancestors. Thanks clumsy Pete. 😂

 

Secondly, propane gas just never cranks out the kind of heat that wood can.

How to grill steaks - Lobster tails grilled directly on the charcoals (Photo by Erich Boenzli)
Lobster tails grilled directly on the charcoals (Photo by Erich Boenzli)

What kind of wood/charcoal is best?

Answering that could stir up the comment section a bit. But if I use charcoal, I only use all-natural hardwood lump charcoal. Using a chimney starter will get you going in no time, without the smells and other undesirable side effects of using charcoals soaked in lighter fluid. All-natural hardwood lump charcoal does have an advantage over wood…it burns slower and hotter. 

 

When it comes to seasoned wood, I’m using the same wood that I use to heat the house. Mostly oak and some maple. Most hardwoods work. Pine and other evergreen wood is not recommended. They burn fast and their resin creates a black smoke that will add not-the-tastiest flavor to your food. But you can actually use fruit woods. Some chefs swear by using grapevines and fig wood to achieve a unique flavor. I haven’t tried this yet. 

 

What kind of equipment do I need?

Less is more. The more grilling gadgets you have, the more distraction you’ll have from actually paying attention to your food. So what are the essentials?

 

Invest in a good quality charcoal grill. Nothing fancy. A Weber 22” original kettle charcoal grill for about $110 will do perfectly. Before I bought my trusty Weber many years ago, I had a cheap grill that – within one summer – got a) rusty and b) burned a hole right through the rusty bottom and nearly set our deck on fire. 

 

Besides the grill, all you need are a grill cover, long-handled tongs, a long-handled steel cleaning brush, a chimney fire starter, and maybe some grilling gloves. That’s it. If things get a little crazy in the flare-up department, it also helps to have a little spray bottle filled with water handy. 

 

Total out of-pocket expenses: less than $200. Or clear an area free from grass, grab a couple stones, form a ring on the ground, start a fire, and add a grilling rack. You’ve just reduced your start-up costs by about $100. And if you cook the right steak the right way, everyone will think it’s from the fanciest steakhouse. 

 

Now that we’ve got the grilling equipment out of the way, we can talk about what really matters:

How to grill steaks - 2-minute saltimbocca from the grill (Photo by Erich Boenzli)
2-minute saltimbocca from the grill (Photo by Erich Boenzli)

Direct vs indirect heat

The next step is to understand how to achieve the perfectly cooked steak or leg of lamb, lobster tail, or sliced eggplant. Understand that the smaller the piece you’re cooking, the higher the heat you’ll want. It might sound counterintuitive but actually makes perfect sense. Stay with me here…

 

So let’s go from the smallest to the biggest (reasonably speaking, we’re not the Flintstones).

I created a recipe for saltimbocca on the grill. High heat and about two minutes of cooking. Done. How do you cook your burger patty? High heat, a couple of minutes per side. Done. 

 

How about your 2” rib eye steak. Now it gets a little trickier. A 2” rib eye steak might take about 5 minutes per side to have a perfectly medium-rare interior. But 10 minutes of high heat on the outside might make it a little crispier than desired. 

 

Solution: Little less heat. Remember: your goal is to have the outside and inside of your food cooked to the desired level of doneness at the same time.

How to grill steaks - 5-lb whole leg of lamb, see the result below (Photo by Erich Boenzli)
5-lb whole leg of lamb, see the result below (Photo by Erich Boenzli)

Next on the grill: a whole 5-lb leg of lamb. Hot or less hot? Exactly – less hot and not even full direct heat. This puppy will take a while to cook. It’s a challenge to keep the wood fire going, but the result is out of this world. Once you master grilling a whole leg of lamb over a wood fire, then it’s time to get that apron…

How to grill steaks - It took over an hour to get this beauty tasty (Photo by Erich Boenzli)
It took over an hour to get this beauty tasty (Photo by Erich Boenzli)

To summarize: if you plan to cook over direct heat, create a hot zone and a cool zone. Use the hot zone to cook the smallest meats, like thin steaks, burgers, pounded chicken breast, and sliced vegetables. Use the cool zone for large cuts, like a thick chicken breast, sausages, and to keep food warm. 

 

To cook a whole pig, you’ll need a slightly different set up with fully indirect heat and lots of friends to share…. 😎

How to grill steaks - Level 10 grilling (Photo by Erich Boenzli)
Level 10 grilling (Photo by Erich Boenzli)

How to get the grill ready

If you use real hardwood, a little planning is required. Like making sure you have enough cold beer handy, as it will take a while to get the hardwood going. Otherwise it’s straightforward. Once the wood is ready, add the grate and let it heat up (to loosen up any previously burned-on bits and pieces). Next, pour a little vegetable oil on your grill brush and give the grate a good quick scrubbing. Be careful, as the dripping oil will create some flare-ups. Now you’re all set. 

 

How to make grill marks and should you?

Grill marks look pretty in an advertisement for Outback Steakhouse but are highly overrated. If you don’t move your meat while grilling, you’re missing out on a lot of flavor. 

 

What creates that fantastic exterior flavor? As mentioned before, the Maillard effect. That only happens where the steak touches the grate. So move your steak around to achieve more flavor. Grill one side first until the whole side is browned and you see the juices rising to the surface on the uncooked upper side. Notice how long that took, then flip the steak and grill/move for about half the time it took for the first side. 

 

It’s ok to use a meat thermometer to check for the perfect temperature (135ºF-140°F), measured in the thickest part. But also touch the middle of the steak with your index finger to feel how medium-rare feels. After some practice you’ll be able to cook your steak perfectly medium-rare every time without using a meat thermometer. Clean the thermometer, wrap it up, and bring it as a gift for the chef when invited to your next BBQ. 😉

 

If I’ve learned one thing over decades of cooking, it’s that cooking with your senses (not cooking with gadgets) that makes you a better cook. 

 

How to rest and how to cut

Remove your steak and let it rest for 5 to 10 minutes (a whole leg of lamb/other large cuts should be rested for at least 20 minutes). Carve the meat against the grain. Let the knife do the work instead of your teeth. This will make chewing much easier (not even smart Alec thought of this back in the day). 

How to grill steaks - Perfectly grilled hanger steak, carved against the grain (Photo by Erich Boenzli)
Perfectly grilled hanger steak, carved against the grain (Photo by Erich Boenzli)

What’s a good steak for the grill?

Shop with your eyes. The flavor is in the fat. For grilling, you want the fat that’s within the muscle, not the flap of fat around and on top of it. That flap of fat just renders and drips in the fire, creating flare-ups and blackening your meat. Look for marbled meat cuts, cuts with white parts in it. This kind of fat will also render during grilling and will be absorbed by the meat, creating the flavor we crave, while simultaneously tenderizing the meat. 

 

Keep it clean

While your meat is resting, do yourself a huge favor and grab another beer. Oops, I meant grab the grill brush and give the grate a good quick scrubbing. You’ll be very happy and will thank yourself the next time you remove the lid from the grill to get started.

 

All the opinions in this article are personal and hopefully help you become the grill master you’ve always wanted to be. 

 

Let the food speak for itself and watch your friends’ faces when they enjoy the perfectly grilled food of your choice. 😃

 

Do you love delicious food? Check out a few of our recipes now!

 

How and what are you grilling this summer? Let us know in the comments below!

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4 Comments
  • Ted B.
    May 22, 2020

    What a great article Erich. I now know when the first barbecue took place… I was always wondering that… lol
    I can validate that your barbecue skills are over the top. You say what you grill and you grill what you say!
    I’m looking for a new grill. You convinced me to give cooking with wood a try. And I will give your grilling recommendations a try as well. Plus, I’m going to try some of those great looking recipes to add to the grilled meat.
    Thank you for sharing! You and Viana do a fantastic job with maplewoodroad.com!

    • maplewoodroad
      May 23, 2020

      Wow, thank you for all your kind words Ted! Good luck with the wood grilling…we know you’ll master it and will love it in no time! 🙂

  • Josh
    May 22, 2020

    Outstanding article! Your mastery of the topic is evident in your use of humor and comfortably confident prose. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

    • maplewoodroad
      May 23, 2020

      So happy to hear you enjoyed it! It’s really motivating to hear your positive feedback, thanks so much! 🙂