When it comes to basic cooking, grilling a steak over a hot grill should be the easiest thing in the world.
How many times have you gone to a barbecue at a friend’s house, and the steaks have been tired and dry and lacking in flavor. Too many times I hear you cry.
Well, here are some surefire tips on taking the uncertainty out of grilling a steak on a charcoal barbecue.
Know Your Meat
Make sure you have bought good quality steak from a reputable butcher or supermarket. The better steaks are worth paying that little bit extra for.
Take a good look at the piece of meat you are going to cook. Each piece is slightly different, so understanding the starting point of how the meat looks and feels will help you gauge the cooking time to get the steak perfectly done to your taste.
The best chefs rely on the feel of the meat to know when it is cooked right, rather than just the eye or a clock.
So feel the meat before it goes on the grill to check how elastic it is, and how it springs back into shape once you touch it. Knowing this will help you feel how the meat is cooked.
Preparing the Meat
Whatever you do, don’t take a steak straight out of the refrigerator and put it on the grill. Otherwise, it will turn out leathery and not great to eat.
Bring the steak out of the fridge about 30 minutes before you intend to cook it. Allow the steak to reach room temperature.
Trim all the excess fat off the meat, as this will only flare up the grill which can burn the meat. If you purchased your steak in bulk, such as a side of beef, then the butcher has already trimmed your meat to perfection.
It’s good to score the fat on the outside of the steak to stop it from curling up. Now is a good time to season liberally with salt and fresh ground pepper, and a little good quality olive oil, or other cooking oil if you prefer.
Make sure both sides and the edges have been coated and set aside.
Preparing the Charcoal Grill
You can start preparing your charcoal grill when waiting for your steak to reach room temperature and while it absorbs the seasoning.
I would usually use lump charcoal rather than briquets, as I think you get more heat, but others may disagree.
As we are grilling meat, not smoking or barbecuing, we need to get the grill as hot as possible. Make sure the lid is closed and the air vents in your grill are open, so there is a good flow of air through the charcoal with will boost combustion.
To cook a steak well it has to be hot and fast, so the grill needs to be as hot as you make it.
My charcoal grill can take up to 30 minutes to get really hot, just the right time for a steak to marinade and get to room temperature after being removed from the refrigerator.
Once the charcoal grill has reached a high temperature, it is time to prepare the cooking grate.
A lot of experts will advise coating the grate with a thin layer of oil that has a high smoke point such as extra virgin olive oil immediately before placing the steaks on the grill.
This can be achieved by putting a little oil on a kitchen paper towel and rubbing it across the grating, making sure that the complete cooking area is coated. If the grill is hot enough, there should be a little smoking.
However, not everyone likes the extra smoky atmosphere created, and if you are not quick the non-stick coating will burn off with the intense heat of the grill.
Alternatively, I have found using an onion does the trick, and its non-stick qualities appear to last longer in my experience.
For this, you need to take a large juicy union and cut it in half. Rub the onion half over the grill. The juices from the onion will coat the grill grate, and it leaves an excellent cooked onion smell in the air.
Getting the Timing Right
Let’s assume your steak is around about average at 1in (2.5cm) thick and use this as our base for grill timings.
If you like your steak medium rare, then you will have a total cooking time of four minutes. If you prefer medium well to well done the grilling times should be four minutes to seal at a high heat, and another four minutes to cook at a lower heat.
If your steak is thicker, then increase the time to one and a half minutes for medium rare and three minutes for medium well to well done. Alternatively thinner steaks can be cooked quicker.
These timings work when the grill is very hot and has comfortably reached 700F (375C).
If your charcoal grill does not get that hot, think about extending the grilling times appropriately. If you grill can only reach 500F(260C) then grilling times should be doubled.
Hot and Fast
With your steaks and charcoal grill prepared it’s time to cook. Make sure you have everything you need such as a plate to put the steaks on once they have been cooked, and it is useful to have a clock or timer to get your grilling times just right.
The aim is to get the surface of the steak nicely seared with a crisp caramelized surface and allow the inside to be just the way you like it.
If you want your steak to have that iconic crosshatch grill pattern on the outside, where the meat has been nicely caramelized, it’s best first to decide which part of the steak you will designate the top.
This will help in its rotation on the grill to give it an enticing appearance when cooked.
Open the top on your charcoal grill and place the steak over the hot charcoal with that you have decided is the top facing the hinge.
Close the lid and count the time. It’s best to use a clock or watch with a second hand or a digital timer. As described earlier for a steak about 1-in (2.5cm) thick this should be about a minute.
Open the lid of the charcoal grill, and quickly turn the steak around through 45 degrees.
This is going to leave the professional diamond pattern marking on the outside of the steak. Close the lid immediately, and count for another minute.
Once again lift the lid of the grill, and be ready to turn the steaks quickly. If the side you see, which is not facing the hot charcoal flames, is still raw then close the lid and cook for another minute.
If the meat has a gray look to it, then it is time to flip it over and start cooking the other side. Turn the steak over and rotate it back through 45 degrees, so the top of the steak is facing the hinge as before.
After the minute of cooking is up open the lid, and before turning, check to see if there is any redness around the edges of the steak.
At this time the side of the steak should have a nice color, and not appear to be raw.
Allow another minute of grilling if needed. If all is well, turn the steak through 45 degrees, as you do so check on the firmness of the meat. If there is a still a good amount of give, then the steak is medium rare.
Close the lid and allow the steak to grill for another minute.
Once you have given the steak a final minute to cook, open the cover of the charcoal grill, and move the steak away from the flames to an area of indirect heat.
Using a probe thermometer, you can check the internal temperature of the steak to see how it is cooked.
- Rare – 120-130F (50-55C)
- Medium Rare – 130-135F (55-57C)
- Medium – 140-150F (60-65C)
- Medium Well – 155-165F (68-74C)
- Well – 170F + (77C +)
If the steak has not reached the internal temperature for your taste, then move the meat away from the flames, and let it sit for another minute or so before checking the internal temperature again.
Keep in mind that a steak will continue cooking once it is removed from the grill.
Time to Rest
Remove the steaks from the grill to a cutting board or large plate, and cover with aluminum foil to allow the meat to rest for five minutes.
The resting process gives the steak time to relax and for the juices and heat to evenly redistribute themselves. This step is vital for the perfect steak.
Once you have given the steak time to rest, it’s time to eat and enjoy your work on the grill.