The First Steak of Spring

Yesterday was vegan day for us, which is… fine. But today, the weather decided to give us a full preview of the upcoming spring, with high temps, sunshine, and wildlife, and I made the executive decision to reach into the strategic beef supply for our first steak of the season.

We buy all of our red meat in bulk, and butcher it ourselves. This means a big boneless ribeye primal that we can process into steaks (or holiday roasts) to our liking:

We vacuum seal and freeze them individually, then thaw for use with (as far as I can tell) absolutely no drop in quality as far as a year out from initial butchering. What this means is we can buy some excellent quality product at a nutty price (eventually I’m buying half a cow from someone local, but we’re not quite there yet). What’s more, we actually have steaks cut to the thickness we want on demand, versus crossing our fingers that the local market is putting out something besides printer-paper t-bones.

So, how do we do ours? Well, we salt it at least an hour before cooking, but overnight if possible, and we don’t spare the salt:

Why so long? Just like we discussed in our pot roast post, the salt needs time to draw out some moisture from the steak, and then (more importantly) to travel back into the meat with that same moisture. It’s like trying to get into someone’s fancy hotel, where they come down to the lobby to get you.

I salted this steak same-day, but at about 10am, which is the above photo. This is how it looked at 4pm:

All that salt is gone, and it didn’t march away on its own. Instead, it’s distributed throughout the steak. We’re good to go here, but keep this in the fridge until about an hour before you’re ready to cook it.

For us, on this incredible day, cooking means grilling, and grilling means charcoal.

I don’t own a gas grill. I hate them. I’m not going to judge if that’s your jam, but… well, I just don’t get it. It’s the outdoor equivalent of an air fryer. Anyway, I digress.

I use charcoal, and if you’re new to it, there’s nothing to be afraid of. I use a chimney starter stuffed with paper towels to get my coals going:

If you want to use lighter fluid, that’s cool too, just follow the instructions on the label and you’ll avoid any “lighter fluid” smell. I used it for years when I was in corporate America because it was quick and easy; I just got sick of paying for it once I had more time than money.

After about fifteen (15) minutes, you’ll see flames peaking out of the the top of your chimney starter. This is when I dump the coals, despite all of the articles claiming you should wait until everything is white ash. I like to pile them in a corner, and let them get fully lit like a bonfire:

Then, when they’re good and going, I add some fresh charcoal over the top to ignite and slow the burning of the charcoal below. I’m building a steak forge here.

I let it go a bit more, then form into the shape I want. We’re in Maine and have a wood stove, so fire-tending implements are abundant. What I’m going for here is something called a two (2)-zone fire, which just means I’m keeping the coals on half of the grill only. That will be the hot zone for direct action, with a slightly cooler convection zone for finishing (if needed).

Shape it up, and get the grill grate on to heat up (and burn off):

When the coals are finally all white and glowing, scrape down your grate, and get your steak on:

Aaaaaaand here’s where things get complicated. No matter what anyone tells you about time, temperature, flipping, “meat feel” or whatever, there’s no real way to figure out doneness except using a thermometer. Every hunk of meat is different; every fire is different. If you’re new to steak cookery, go ahead and sink a probe thermometer into the beef and monitor for your target temp. For me? I like to live on the wild side, and I just go by feel, which sometimes has disastrous results.

The foregoing notwithstanding, there are a few cardinal rules to follow:

  • Don’t walk away. It’s easy to lose track of time, and really this process is going to take like fifteen (15) minutes max, and that’s if you’re cooking the steak into oblivion;
  • If your meat is well-marbled, you’re going to get flare-ups as the fat renders and hits the coals, then ignites. The grill lid is your friend, and closing it up will extinguish any big fires;
  • Speaking of flare-ups, they’re the fastest way to turn the outside of your steak into charcoal, so keep them from getting nuts. Hence the whole “don’t walk away” point.
  • Go with your gut. Meat cooking is a primal thing, and your instincts will guide you well. If you think it needs more time, give it more time. If you think it needs to come off RIGHT NOW, then pull it. You’ve got this.

Here’s how we look after the first flip:

Nice crust and not carbonized. Now that we have this, if we need to move to the “cool” side of the grill to finish, we’ve already done the hard work.

From here, well, it’s up to you. Personally, for the first steak of the season, and on the heels of vegan day, I want this thing rare. In the summer, mid-rare is more my preference for a ribeye. Cook it however you want and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You’re grilling, it’s your call.

When it comes off, let it rest for at least five (5) minutes to mitigate some of the juice loss (there will be some no matter what). Then, let’s talk about carving:

If you’re going to eat this whole thing yourself, go nuts. For our family, we carve it a specific way that gives everyone what they want, including a couple of pouty dogs.

Looking at the photo above, it all seems like one hunk of meat, but it’s actually a few different parts that we split out:

Top left is non-renderable fat, which goes to the dogs with the other trimmings. The other two hunks get sliced as follows:

For our family, we sort of “grab and go” from here, and everyone takes what they want. I’m partial to the cubes on the right; my daughter loves the bias slices on the left. It’s a party!!!

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