By Ben Eisendrath
Your grillmaster friends may well be grilling their steaks backwards. Do they lecture you on how searing the meat first "locks in" the juices, after which it is safe to grill? If they do, they’re victims of one of the most enduring myths in grilling.
Pre-searing a steak doesn’t seal in the juices. It does not form a barrier against moisture loss. And a jab or a turn with a fork certainly will not burst your steak and “let all the juices run out”.
We grillers are after a perfectly cooked, juicy steak. For us, overdoing a steak is the stuff of nightmares. My family still talks about The Christmas of the Overdone Steaks, an inattention disaster of the first magnitude and a direct result of one of Dad’s life lectures gone long. And nobody remembers the lecture, only the medium (!) steaks.
Doneness, or temperature, is everything. We go to great lengths to monitor progress, whether by thermometer or finger-poke. But in order to effectively do this, the meat has to be accessible to test. When you create a crust at the beginning of cooking you're inserting a texture barrier between you and the area of the meat most critical — the center. To me and my touch-grilling brethren this means the finger meets a harder crust — if not blocking our feel for progress, at the very least making our tactile thermometers a lot harder to read.
And if that isn’t enough, this is worse:
Crusting the meat traps surface seasonings. Most of what was carefully applied before grilling gets locked up when it could have penetrated the steak via moisture flow. Pre-searing keeps the good stuff out better than it keeps moisture in. Salt and seasonings may taste great on the outside of your meat — but why stop them there when great works await deep under the surface where they can join flowing fat?
The Pre-Sear History:
Science has long known the truth about searing too. The 1850s (and a German chemist named Liebig) can be blamed for birthing the “locking in the juices” theory – which has been believed through the days of August Escoffier himself - all the way to the beginning of the 20th century. But since the 1930s, experiments have repeatedly toppled the idea, in fact showing that pre-seared cuts actually lose more moisture due to the rapid destruction of cell structure early in cooking. Food scientist Harold McGee put it well — “The crust that forms around the surface of the meat is not waterproof, as any cook has experienced: the continuing sizzle of meat in the pan or oven or on the grill is the sound of moisture continually escaping and vaporizing.” Contemporary mad scientist Alton Brown performed the same pre-sear myth-bust in an episode of Good Eats. Yet the myth persists.
Here's how to do things in the right order:
My favorite steaks are 2” bone-on ribs. These larger cuts of meat, in addition to having a flavor-boosting bone, excellent fat content and my favorite balance of tooth versus tenderness, will cook slower and be more forgiving on the grill (higher volume to surface area ratio).
Temper your meat. Bring it to room temperature or even a little higher (in a warm oven or high over your grill on a perforated shelf). Season about 30 minutes ahead of time, and season simply with a generous coating of coarse sea salt and a drizzle of premium extra virgin olive oil. If you like — and I sure do — push some minced garlic into the steak's larger fat deposits. Pepper one side if you're an au poivre kinda person (I am). Keep a fresh lime handy.
Set aside a generous supply of the oil and seasoning mixture you used on the steak for your basting duties and arm yourself with a brush.
Get your fire going while the meat finishes tempering. The grill should be at moderate heat for this thick cut of meat — you do NOT want high searing temperatures (those you cannot hold your hand over for three seconds) at the beginning of cooking or you'll end up with a burned outside over an underdone interior.
Place the steaks edge-down, upright and standing on the bone. You're going to leave them this way for about 20 minutes, or until the bone and immediate area around it are looking nice and browned. Remember, these are hefty steaks, protected by a slowly heating bone. Take your time. Baste the meat as often as you think about it with the extra oil and seasoning mix. Don't let the outside ever look dry. Use a fork or spoon to periodically taste the standing moisture on the steak — that flavor is a sure indicator of what is going on beneath, season more if necessary.
A well-seasoned steak brushed with oil, butter or a favorite marinade as it cooks will top an unbrushed one — no matter how expertly grilled — every day of the week. Embrace the fact that there is moisture coming and going. It’s a good thing. Fear moisture loss, but don’t think you can’t intervene.
When the bone looks brown and sizzling, squeeze lime over the whole steak and drop it down onto one side. The lime’s acid adds a complementary zing to the savory you’ve built in the meat. Depending on your grill, you'll do each side like this for about 7-10 minutes — keep things at moderate heat. Baste, baste and baste some more. When you turn the steaks, flip them to an oiled fresh area of the grill surface; the first side will have cooled the metal under it. After the steaks are to the done-ness level you like — using poke test (our family likens the touch of medium rare to the resistance of a perfect derriere) or thermometer — give another squeeze of lime, crank the heat up or throw a log on and give each side a good infernal sixty-to-ninety-second sear. The super-moist outside you've built with your basting attention will be transformed into a browned thing of beauty. Hold the steaks for a few seconds on their fatty opposite-side edge from the bone to get the outer fat melting, then remove.
Rest your beauties for 7-10 minutes, then carve and serve.
Slow first, sear last equals perfect control. Don’t try to “seal anything in”. You’re creating something — you want to season, affect things, make adjustments — until the very end. Now invite those expert friends of yours over and contribute your results to the demise of the sear-first myth.
Ben Eisendrath designs and manufactures wood-fired grills for purists of the culinary community. His company, Grillworks, specializes in an Argentine approach to cooking, and in creating the most flexible, beautiful tools possible to the live fire master. His designs can be found both on the patios of serious home grillers and in the kitchens of today's vanguard of cutting-edge chefs.