If you're lucky, you've had a perfect steak.
It was probably cooked by someone else. It might have been at a backyard cookout or a swanky steakhouse. But you remember the way it tasted the same way you remember your favorite scene in your favorite movie.
I had never dreamed of being able to re-create that deep flavor, chewy-tender texture, caramelized crust and rosy middle. But with Father's Day coming up, it was a chance to learn.
The scene went something like this:
Food writer to husband: I need to learn how to cook the perfect steak.
Husband, grabbing tongs and heading for deck: No problem, little woman, I'll show you how.
Food writer (rolling her eyes): Well, this will be fun.
The husband's method
Actually, the man knows how to grill.
“First, the grill has to be hot, clean and lubricated,” Rick says in his teacher voice. He soaks a folded paper towel in cheap olive oil (it's thicker than canola) and rubs it all over the grate.
He pulls the steaks out of the refrigerator at least an hour before cooking, so they come to room temperature. He loads up the smoker box with hickory chips and preheats the gas grill to “400, minimum – the hotter the better. ”
Just before cooking, he sprinkles the steaks with pepper, sea salt, smoked salt and fleur de sel. “I'm traditional, I don't like any hoo-ha on my steak.”
The steaks go on and Rick closes the lid to keep the heat high. “You can leave the lid off when you use charcoal,” says Rick.
After 13 minutes, the 1-inch-thick strip steaks and ribeyes are medium-rare. He leaves mine on a little longer.
I prefer the finer grain of the strip to the fatty quality of the ribeye. And I like the flavor of the gas-grilled meat better than the charcoal.
But can I duplicate this?
The chef's method
I called Daniel VanHeusden, executive chef at Denver's Capital Grille, and invited myself for a demo.
Tucked into the far corner of the long, narrow galley, the grill is the most important station in his kitchen. It looks like a stainless steel cube with a slot opening. Inside, it emanates a red glow that hints of its 1,600-degree capacity.
VanHeusden opens one of the refrigerated drawers tucked under the counter opposite the grill. You can almost hear the angels sing as he lifts a rosy slab to a cutting board, where he turns it on its side to show creamy ribbons of fat.
“What truly makes a great steak is marbling,” VanHeusden says. “Fat is flavor.”
He sprinkles the porterhouse (a giant T-bone) with a salt-sugar-garlic powder blend – that's it – gives it a little massage, and slips it into the broiler.
After a minute, the meat begins to sizzle and sparks actually shoot from the fat. When it's done, the chef pulls it to the cooler part of the grill to rest before serving.
The caramelized crust doesn't taste burned at all. It's one of those no-words-for-it experiences. All I can do is chew and point with my fork.
Now it's my turn
Returning to my backyard grill, armed with expert advice on meat (well-marbled, dry-aged, cooked on high heat for a caramelized crust), I'm ready to take on the toughest critic: my husband.
Now that I know the technique, I might even cook him his perfect steak – a ribeye, rare. Because usually, the perfect steak is the one cooked by somebody else.