Picking a method for grilling steak is like picking the perfect fly to catch trout. It depends on who you ask. In thirty five years of writing about fishing many people have asked me what's the best fly? As expert fishermen have taught me, by successful example, the best fly is the one you catch fish with. Success breeds confidence and confidence breeds success.
In 20 years of food writing it has likewise taken me a long time to come to the same conclusion about grilling a steak. You'd think it would be a simple enough endeavor to offer a clear and simple path to beefy truth. Yet, as in many things where men try to outdo one another, there is little room for middle ground. Guys have opinions and if you don't agree with theirs then it goes without saying-although it is often said anyway—that you are obviously a brainless douchebag. With steak, the argument may revolve around a small, but important number, of fundamental actions.
Do I salt before or after?
Should the flame be high or low?
Flip only once or keep flipping like a hot potato?
Rest or serve immediately?
The answer to all of the above is "yes."
It all depends on who you listen to, and, for believers in the various branches of the steak-grilling faith, they all seem to work.
Let's start with John Madden. Not because the illustrious ex-coach and brilliant football commentator is a renowned chef, but because I once did a cookbook with him about tailgating. This involved traveling coast to coast, to every parking lot in the NFL where tailgating was allowed, walking up and down endless rows of pickup trucks, inviting myself to other people's parties. I ate my way through a button-popping menu of venison chilies, taco salads, hot dogs, sausages, and Jell-O shots. One morning while working on a super-complicated gourmet cookbook with another chef I received a phone call from Madden's agent, Sandy Montag.
"I have Madden on the line. He's going to Vegas for a few days and will be hard to reach. If you have any questions, ask them now." I looked through my notes.
"Coach," I said, using the title that comes naturally to anyone who works with John, "I need to go over the recipe for the whole sirloin." I was referring to a 15-pound piece of meat that he had grilled expertly. It involved building a strong fire of red oak logs and placing the meat about two feet from the fire.
Madden thought for a second. "Well, you take a sirloin and you salt and pepper it, maybe some garlic salt too. Then you cook it for . . ." He raised his voice as he questioned his wife: "Hey, Virginia, that whole sirloin—what do you cook it for? Two or three hours?" Then, turning back to the phone: "You cook it two or three hours."
Deceptively simple, and quite delicious. When the meat was done, you cut it into steak-sized slabs and you had a smoky, juicy piece of heaven.
Next batter: the dean of South American chefs, the effortlessly elegant Francis Mallmann. About twenty years ago, at the peak of his profession, he turned his back on much of his classic culinary heritage (having trained with Verges, Chapell, Oliver, and other Michelin deities) in favor of the live fire techniques of his native Patagonia. "I got tired of cooking fancy French food for rich Argentines," he told me when we worked on the cook book, Seven Fires: The Argentine Way To Grill. In the course of writing that book, I cooked at least a hundred steaks according to his method. The goal is a crunchy, salty crust and "bien jugoso"-i.e. a uniform juicy pink on the inside.
"You must respect the first contact of the meat with fire," he said with the firmness of an Old Testament prophet who had just received a text message from The Creator. "Don't touch it! Don't move it! Leave it be."
After about 8 minutes (for a one-pound strip steak), you flip it and cook for another 7 minutes and serve immediately. He only salts on the first side. The Argentines are too in love with meat to allow themselves the luxury of "resting" the meat for 10 minutes the way every French chef I ever knew does, so it goes from the fire to the cutting board to the plate. Sometimes the slices are intercepted on their way to the plate.
The big takeaway from Francis: once again, "don't touch!"
That worked very well for me and then I wrote a book with Adam Perry Lang, master griller and a veteran of Daniel Boulud's flagship kitchen. Just the opposite of Francis, Adam likes to turn his steaks as if he were handling a hot potato. " It tempers the meat, allowing for more even crust development and heating."
Works for him. Then, like Madden, Adam also has a way of making a strong fire and then placing a big steak far from the heat. Finally he showed me a technique called "clinching." As he explained it, when a prize fighter wants to take away an advantage from a longer-limbed opponent, he will get him in a clinch, thereby closing the distance between them. With meat, if you place it directly on the coals there is no place for flame to escape your "clinch." And flame, as every griller knows, is the enemy of cooked meat.
Unless you happen to be Victor Arguinonziz, the chef of Asador Extebarri, the top-rated grill restaurant in the world, beloved of Anthony Bourdain and Mario Batali and Gail Simmons. In the small Basque Village of Axpe Axtondo, in a picturesque mountain valley, Arguinoziz takes beef from his own cattle—dark red as garnets, with the yellow fat of true grass-fed beef—and lets the flame from his custom-made charcoal lick the tender flesh until you have a perfect char and rare, meltingly soft meat. "The best steak you will ever have," said Michael Pollan.
Four chefs (or three chefs and one Hall of Fame coach) and a half-dozen completely different methods of grilling the same cut of beef. I've tried them all and they all work. I think, like so many things, it comes down to a matter of what you believe in and then practicing until you've got it right.
Peter Kaminsky's most recent book is Culinary Intelligence: The Art of Eating Healthy (And Really Well). Go buy it.