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Foodie Friday: Raise the Steaks

The article formerly known as RBR Tailgate

T-bone steak cooking on grill.

My first memorable Georgia game is connected to a family wedding. Alabama had actually played Georgia five times prior in my life to that point, but three of those were before I turned nine, none of them especially important at the time they played. The other two: ’84-’85, also games without much at stake when they took the field. Ray Perkins ‘Bama, lot of barbershop griping about “new-fangled football” and “not doin’ it the way Bear woulda.” I can’t remember a single play of any of them.

That 6th Georgia game was 9/22/1990, Gene Stallings’ 3rd as new head coach. The season was still riding an “under new management” air of excitement. And we had a family wedding scheduled that day. However, the game was supposed to end prior to the wedding start. In theory, not a problem.

Of course, before a wedding starts, the photographer has to work through a ton of pictures. The wedding coordinator at this old Huntsville church, a rather fearsome battle-axe, had a strict schedule and expected everyone to stick to it. The anointed time for the groomsmen pics rolled around, and… no groomsmen. She heads off in a huff to find them, and of course they’re gathered around a TV in the back of the church. Sharp scolding, much shooing, must get back on schedule. The entire photo session, she’s loudly lecturing the groomsmen about their priorities. Men! Football!

So, the photographer finishes with the men, and she sends them away so the bride and her bridesmaids can make an appearance. Except, the bridesmaids are nowhere to be found. Gathered around a TV in the back of the church, cussing a Georgia comeback.

Battle Axe + Church + Cussing + Off schedule = Fireworks

Some of you may remember that Gene opened 0-3 including that loss to Georgia, all close losses after leading into halftime. That Georgia game was especially frustrating, allowing 11 unanswered late to lose 16-17 despite outgunning the Dawgs by 130 yards. Garrison Hearst had a day for the Dawgs on the ground. So, the wedding was beautiful. Reception talk opened with polite formalities about the wedding and newlyweds, with a quick transition to this Gene feller maybe needing to go back to Texas. Where (segue, segue, segue)... they cook a lot of steak?

The best way to cook a steak: we’ve had this discussion before in bits and pieces. Yes, it’s largely a matter of personal preference. I’m curious how all of you are doing in your own journeys in search of the perfect steak.

I grilled steaks for my mother-in-law’s birthday Monday night, and while I was out on the deck, I spent some thinking about how much my approach to cooking steaks has changed over the years. It’s arguably the simplest thing I cook from scratch, but my “recipe” hasn’t kept a single step. My start point, 30 years ago, was the method my dad handed down to me: two-zone kettle set-up, salt and pepper before it hits the grill, sear the crap out of it as close to the coals as possible, then raise the grate and move it to the other side of the grill to finish with indirect heat while basting with butter. Lots going right in that process. The exterior was mouth-watering. The interior was another story.

Where am I now? Let’s detail that, and then you guys and gals can shred my lack of discernment and taste.

Grill versus Sous Vide: I’ve tried sous vide for just about every cut of beef, including chuck roast. Multiple times, to make sure I’m not comparing something I know well (my grill) to something I’m new at (fish tank beef). Josh, I agree, nothing nails the temperature gradient better. Perfect medium rare all the way across, stem to stern. Apply a good sear, and you’ve got in theory a perfectly cooked steak.

Except… the texture’s off. Not horribly so, just enough (sort of like our secondary play this season). I wrote this off as a cut-quality issue at first, but my wife insisted it was the cooking method. So, exasperated, I got 4 strips off the same loin, cooking 2 of them on the grill and 2 of them via ‘vide. Same internal temperature. ‘Vide steaks came out of the water bath 10 minutes after hitting temperature, verified with a thermometer (so, it wasn’t a case of sitting in the bath for a couple of hours while the meat fibers disintegrated). Exact same sear technique for all 4. And as much as it pained me to admit it, she was right.

I’m not even sure how to describe it. The grill steaks just had a better mouth feel. I could be convinced that the vide steaks are “better” but that I’ve just trained my taste buds to prefer a slightly inferior cooking method. Fine. Doesn’t change what I prefer, and given the fact the steaks are largely the same temperature all the way through, I just think hot, dry air (with the right smoke) does things to beef that can’t happen in a vacuum bag.

The weird thing: it’s the complete opposite with seafood. I’ll never grill, boil, or steam shrimp again. Sous vide nails perfectly cooked shrimp, and the texture of perfectly cooked shrimp is amazing. Bit of a snap, but still very tender. Even slightly overcooked shrimp can be rubbery and slightly undercooked can be mushy. Sous vide eliminates those. Thin fish fillets are often a disaster on the grill; they’re perfect with sous vide. Just have a hot skillet (or a blow-torch) standing by for anything you’d like to finish with a sear or some char.

Chicken? Again, no real difference that I can taste, but chicken comes out perfectly with sous vide. Pork tenderloin? Same. It’s just beef, and more specifically, steak, where we seem to find a difference. It’s not even that sous vide steaks are bad. They’re great! I love my fish-tank steaks. I just think steaks on a grill are slightly better.

So, now that we’ve covered cooking method and I’m back to the grill, what am I doing differently from 30 years ago?

Dry-brine: A great grilling web site convinced me to dry-brine my steaks (1/2 tsp kosher salt per pound of steak), preferably overnight in the fridge on a rack over a cookie sheet, open air (no cling wrap or foil). Wow. I couldn’t believe the difference. Huge boost to flavor and texture (grill and ‘vide both). Weirdly enough, salting burgers at any point prior to hitting the grill ruins them, while waiting to salt steaks on the grill just leaves you reaching for the salt shaker at the dinner table. Learned that one the hard way. Plenty of web sites can explain why.

Reverse-sear: I cook my steaks on a smoker set to 225 degrees, with a small amount of smoke, preferably 2-3 ounces of pecan or mesquite. I use 3 meat probes, and I pull everything off when the 3 probes average 135. By that point, I’ve got a bit of browning around the edges, but not much. Which brings us to…

Sear: My old sear technique was to put the steaks aside, throw open the vents on the Big Green Egg, get it rocket-hot, get out the heat gloves and long-tongs, throw the steaks back on the grates, and just start flipping. I still like to brush with butter and sprinkle my favorite seasoning blend on them, and frankly, that whole process was just a massive hassle. I had to wait for the Egg to come up to heat, with those mostly-done steaks just staring at me. Working the tongs, seasoning, and basting brush while wearing heat gloves usually left me cursing my clumsiness. And if the steaks had a really high fat content, and if I forgot to burp the Egg…. For those of you that don’t know, a rush of oxygen hitting a bunch of fat dripped onto wicked-hot coals, waiting for that air, creates a really nice fireball. Which hits you in the face. And roasts your eyebrows and any hair hanging out of your ‘Bama cap.

My new sear method actually comes from experimenting with my sous vide: a blow torch. It’s awesome. I can fire it up with the steaks still on the smoker as they hit 135. I can brush butter and sprinkle seasoning with one hand while applying the flame with the other. I can see exactly how much browning is going on without my face melting from 750 degree air coming off the Egg. It’s a new tool, and I went a little too far a few times until I got practiced with it, but now I get a perfect sear with it. I’m even to the point I can easily personalize steaks for my family. My son likes medium rare with very little sear. My daughter and I love medium rare with a lot of sear. My wife likes medium with some sear but not too much. My mother-in-law likes medium rare with medium sear.

Cut: This is where I’m going to get really ripped. Because by far, the steak that I get the most compliments on, the one people most often want seconds, is…. tenderloin. I know steak purists want the marbling of the ribeye or the strip. I know tenderloin gets labeled as a dry cut lacking in fat (hence flavor) and gets accused of lacking a truly beefy taste. I don’t have those issues. And the meat pretty much melts in your mouth.

I get them cut 2’ thick, as many as they can get off a loin, and have the rest, fat and all, ground into burger meat. Fresh Market in my neck of the woods about 4 times a year will drop their prime tenderloin price to $14 a pound if you buy the whole thing, which they’ll butcher for you. $10 a pound for “premium choice” (premium just being a marketing term). That’s still not cheap, but 4 times a year, anyone invited to that meal drops their other plans. Those steaks are fantastic.

So, how about y’all? Where has your pursuit of steak perfection taken you?

Sear the Dawgs. Roll Tide