How to grill a perfect steak
Jason Labahn knows steaks inside out. In 2011, he moved to Vancouver to help launch the high-end steak house Black + Blue (1032 Alberni Street). Back in Las Vegas, the executive chef had opened steak restaurants in a slew of hotels, including the Bellagio and the Mirage. He sums up the art of barbecuing steak: “The grill is hot. The grill is clean. The steaks are seasoned. The steaks are cooked, rested, and served.”
Before any of that happens, the first decision is the cut of steak. Labahn suggests a rib eye if you’re a less confident griller. Its higher fat content will make it more forgiving in terms of overcooking. “The inner muscular fat bastes the meat around it,” he explains. Also, the bone will keep the moisture in and give more flavour.
Black + Blue serves P.E.I. Blue Ribbon steak from cattle that are potato- and grass-fed, but keep in mind that grass-fed beef is pricier, has a stronger, beefier flavour, and, because it’s leaner, won’t take as kindly to cooking beyond medium-rare.
Other meat experts around town have their own tips on how to cook a great steak. Michael Pacey, chef and lead butcher at the Butcher (4529 West 10th Avenue), stands in front of the display case and points to the grain-finished steaks (the cow feeds on grain for its last 30 days). He favours these because the meat is more marbled and tender.
In a phone chat, John Lim Hing, co-owner of the barbecue joint Hog Shack Cookhouse (160–3900 Bayview Street, Richmond), recommends becoming chummy with your local butcher. But if you buy your meat at a supermarket or big-box store, he says, look for fine marbling and stay away from bright-red steaks, since they’re less aged. Once you have your steak, you can season it anywhere from five minutes to an hour before grilling. Just keep it simple: high-quality olive oil, sea salt, and freshly cracked pepper. “If you’re paying for a premium steak, you don’t want to cover up the flavour,” says Lim Hing.
Labahn says if you do go for cheaper cuts—like skirt, flatiron, and top sirloin—you can tenderize your meat and marinate it for two to three hours, or overnight. His go-to recipe is a mixture of soy sauce, garlic, thyme, and crushed chilies. Pat the steaks dry after you remove them from the marinade, and don’t forget to bring them to room temperature, which takes about five to 20 minutes (15 minutes for a two-inch-thick steak). “A cold steak on a barbecue is death to the steak,” Pacey warns.
As for charcoal versus gas barbecues, the experts agree that charcoal imparts more flavour. Labahn reminds you to make sure the barbecue is clean before bringing it up to a high temperature. For charcoal, he says, you’ve reached the right heat if you can hold your hand about a foot above the grill for five seconds before having to pull it back. For gas, crank it up to its highest temperature, then once it’s very hot drop it to medium, and you’re ready.
“People flip too much. ‘Look, I’m barbecuing, I’m going to flip it for the hell of it,’ ” says Lim Hing, laughing. Labahn says steaks should only be flipped once. It depends on the cut and thickness, but he says for a medium-rare to medium two-inch New York steak, grill it for two minutes, then give it a quarter turn and let it grill for two more minutes. Flip the steak and cook for two minutes on the second side. Quarter-turn it and let it cook for another couple of minutes, then remove it from the grill. The quarter turns give nice grill marks and ensure even cooking.
Pacey says when in doubt, defer to the grill. If the meat is sticking, it’s not ready to be turned. Cook with the lid down, and don't open and close it between turns; it’s like needlessly opening the oven door.
In terms of doneness, experts can tell by the touch, but Pacey and Labahn concur that this technique is best left to very experienced cooks. Labahn says if you use a thermometer, take the steak off when it has an internal temperature of 110 ° F to 115 ° F (43 ° C to 46 ° C) for rare to medium-rare, 125 ° F (52 ° C) for medium, and 140 ° F to 145 ° F (60 ° C to 63 ° C) for beyond medium.
Pacey says that since poking into the meat with a thermometer causes the juices to run out, he uses the colour of the juices coming up on the surface of the steak as a guide. Look for bright-red juices for rare to medium-rare, a pale pink for medium, and grey for medium–well-done.
Labahn explains that the steak will continue cooking, the juices will settle, and the muscles will relax while you let it rest for five minutes per pound before serving.
He adds that if you’re still freaked out at the thought of ruining a good steak, Black + Blue catering can come to your back yard, grill your steaks, and teach you how it’s done. After that, you’ll have no excuses.