How to Grill the Perfect Steak

David Walzog knows meat. As executive chef at Michael Jordan’s Steak House N.Y.C. and Tapika, he always gets that elusive steakhouse char. His secret: dipping the steak in a combination of butter and oil, coating it with a generous layer of kosher salt and cracked black pepper, and searing it over the hottest possible fire.

Whether he’s at work or at home, Walzog starts with the best prime-grade, dry-aged beef (see page 46). You can substitute a one-and-one-half-inch-thick choice steak from the grocery store, but you won’t get the same depth of flavor. Walzog looks for meat with the most marbling, i.e., visible grains of fat running through the steak. As the steak is cooking, the fat melts, naturally tenderizing the meat and building in flavor. (He avoids vein steaks – the ones with a half-moon-shaped vein running through the cut – because they’re too tough.)

At home, Walzog uses a Weber charcoal grill, stacking approximately 35 pieces of charcoal in the center. He lets the fire burn for fifteen to twenty minutes, until the coals turn about halfway white; then he spreads the, out to one side, leaving a cool spot on the other. Next, he covers the grill with the lid, top vent open, for three to five minutes, until it’s seriously hot – hot enough to sear the outside quickly and form a crust.

The goal – the perfect steak – is defined by the contrast between the charred exterior and the warm, juicy center. Walzog’s detailed instructions follow.

Cooking the steaks:
4 prime New York strip steaks (11/2 inches thick, about 14 to 16 ounces each; the thickness is more important than the weight)
2 sticks unsalted butter
1/2 cup corn oil
8 teaspoons kosher salt
8 teaspoons cracked black pepper

Melt the butter over medium-high heat and skim the milk solids from the surface. Set aside to cool.

Remove the steaks from the refrigerator about 30 to 40 minutes before cooking. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and allow the steaks to come to room temperature. Before grilling, shape the steaks by gently pushing the sides into the center to create height.

Mix the oil and 1/2 cup of clarified butter on a large serving plate. Put the steaks into the oil-butter mix to coat each side, then lift the steaks to allow the excess oil to drip off. (Make sure that the steaks don’t have too much oil-butter mix on them, as this will create flare-ups on the grill.) Coat each side of the steaks with 1 teaspoon of salt and 1 teaspoon of black pepper. “You can’t have too much salt on a steak,” says Walzog. “It makes a great crust.” Or try substituting one of the rubs described below.

Place the meat on the hottest part of the grill. If at any time the grill flares up, move the steaks to the outside edge, returning them to the center when the flame dies down. Do not slide the steaks across the grill; gently pick them up with tongs. The key is not to flip them around. Ultimately you want to turn a New York strip steak only three times, cooking each side twice for 3 minutes at a time (for a total cooking time of 12 minutes), to get a rare steak with adequate char.

Telling when a steak is done is not an exact science. One technique is to cut a small slit in the steak to see the color of the meat. A professional presses the meat and compares its firmness to the softer, fleshy part at the base of his or her own thumb; if it’s the same density, the meat is rare. The firmer center of the palm is like the feel of a well-done steak. (It takes practice.) An instant-read meat thermometer is most accurate of all; insert it into the center of the steak. Rare is 110 to 115 degrees; medium-rare, 120 degrees; medium, 125 to 130 degrees; medium-well, 130 to 135 degrees; and well, 140 degrees. (Err on the low side, since steaks will continue to cook when removed from the grill.) Allow the meat to rest for 3 to 4 minutes before serving, to allows the juices to emerge from the center.

Chili rub:
1 tablespoon ancho-chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon kosher salt

Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl and oil the steaks as in the previous recipe, coating each side with 1 teaspoon of the chili rub. Follow the instructions above for grilling steak, bearing in mind that the steaks should be placed farther from the hot center of the fire, as the ancho-chili powder has a tendency to burn. (Do not use fresh garlic or coarsely ground chilies – they will scorch and become bitter.)

Herb rub:
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon ground fennel seeds
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons mustard powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
2 teaspoons Spanish paprika

Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl. Oil the steaks as in the previous recipe and coat each side with 1 teaspoon of the herb rub. Grill as directed above.

From the May 24, 1999 issue of New York Magazine.

How to Grill the Perfect Steak