It’s an age-old challenge. How to grill a steak that is both tender and juicy on the inside and has a seared, flavorful, well-browned exterior? We know just the person to ask: Meathead Goldwyn, the founder, editor, and “barbecue whisperer” of the popular website AmazingRibs.com. His book, “Meathead: The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling,” written with physicist and AmazingRibs.com science adviser Greg Blonder, was released this month.
The ideal steak, Goldwyn believes, can be achieved through understanding the science of cooking meat.
First, Goldwyn says, use a dry brine: Sprinkle the steaks with ½ teaspoon of kosher salt per pound of meat and let them cure in the refrigerator for a few hours or overnight. “At low levels,” explains Blonder, a product design and engineering professor at Boston University, “salt encourages water molecules to stick to muscle fibers as it begins to break them apart.” You end up with a tenderer, juicier steak, he says.
Then it’s time to grill. With thick-cut steaks — 1½ inches or more — the key is a technique called reverse searing, which uses two temperatures zones in the grill. Start by cooking the meat slowly over low heat. Then build the crust over high heat.
When you grill low and slow before searing, Goldwyn says, you get a steak that is “bumper to bumper, edge to edge, top to bottom the same color, the same texture, the same tenderness.” That’s because in the low heat zone of the grill, with the lid closed, you use indirect heat to reach the optimum temperature for tender, juicy meat. “It is warming gently and slowly by convection airflow on all sides, top, bottom, left, and right,” says Goldwyn.
That low and slow cooking gives you control over how much the molecular structure of the meat changes as it cooks. What gives meat structure are bundles of long, thin muscle fibers tightly packed together and wrapped up neatly in thin sheets of connective tissue. Blonder likens the bundles to individually wrapped sticks of string cheese.
Cooking shrinks the connective tissue surrounding the bundles, he says, and they pull away from each other, releasing liquid in the process. As the temperature of the meat increases, the connective tissue continues to shrink while proteins in the muscle fibers become more compact, making the meat drier and firmer.
You want this, up to a point. It is what transforms raw muscle into meat and gives it a satisfying, juicy firmness you can sink your teeth into. Cooking low and slow keeps the chemical changes from going too far and making the meat dry and tough.
Now you can get your sear — and your flavor — in the high-heat zone. This creates grilled steak’s hallmark rich brown exterior. It’s a visual indicator that one of the most important reactions in food science has taken place, and made the steak delicious. When the meat hits the hot grill, the Maillard reaction — that molecular magic that puts brown on crusts and creates irresistible aromas — gets into full swing. Amino acids from the meat’s proteins interact with its natural sugars, forming hundreds of flavor molecules as the steak takes on color.
Frequent flipping keeps the interior of the steak from overcooking while the crust builds. Direct heat on the high-heat side and an open grill lid are what make it work, says Goldwyn. “With the lid open, all the energy, all the heat, all the radiation is hitting one side [of the steak] and one side only.” When you flip it, he says, “the heat dissipates into the cooler air so it doesn’t push down into the meat as much.”
When the steak reaches its target internal temperature, take it off the grill and serve it immediately, says Goldwyn. “Don’t let your meat sit around and rest. If it does, it continues to cook, and it overcooks,” he says. “If you have a little extra juice that comes out of the meat, it’s not wasted, because you mop it up with the meat and the mashed potatoes. Nobody ever turns in a plate that has got a puddle of juice on it.”
Science and technique aside, what’s really key about grilling, says Goldwyn, is cooking for the people you care about. “What’s more important than what’s on the plate is who is in the chairs,” he says.
■ Ask your butcher to cut steaks 1½ inches or thicker.
■ Start with a clean grill. Heat the grill and scrub the grate with a wire brush, then inspect it to make certain there are no remaining loose bristles.
■ Set up a low temperature zone in your grill by keeping the burners on one side off or adjusting the height or amount of coals for charcoal grills. You want the temperature where the burners are off to be about 225 degrees with the lid closed.
■ Cook steaks in the low temperature zone with the lid closed until they are about 15 degrees below the desired final internal temperature. Then remove them to a plate for a few minutes and turn all the burners up to high (for charcoal grills, adjust the coals or add new, fully lit coals).
■ Once it is as hot as possible, return the steaks to the grill and sear with the lid open, flipping every 60 to 90 seconds to control the internal temperature and build the crust.
■ The USDA recommends cooking steaks to a minimum safe internal temperature of 145 degrees, followed by a 3-minute rest to destroy pathogens. Goldwyn targets internal temperatures of seared steaks at 130-135 for medium-rare, 135-145 for medium, and 145-155 for medium-well.
■ Always cook steaks that have been mechanically tenderized — a process used by meat processors and butchers to make meat more tender — according to USDA safety guidelines. This process can increase the risk for microbial contamination by bringing pathogens from the meat’s surface to its interior.
■ Use a quick read digital thermometer to accurately determine internal temperatures.