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Primal Slabs of Flavor


This Father’s Day, indulge any “paleo” instincts you may have with a big juicy steak cooked right on the coals. The most primordial cooking method of all, searing steaks on hot coals creates beautifully charred crust and a juicy, tender interior. You can do this on coals raked from a campfire—as long as you have been burning logs of non-resinous hardwood such as oak, walnut, hickory, or mesquite—or over a bed of red-hot and well-dusted hardwood lump charcoal in your grill. Do not use formed charcoal briquettes (their ash sticks to the steaks) or lighter fluid (it causes off flavors).

In the past, we preferred “Cadillac” cuts for this kind of thing: New York strip and ribeye (bone in or out). Too bad they’re prohibitively expensive, especially if they are well-marbled or grass-fed, let alone a super-special breed like Wagyu. Over the last few years, we have come to appreciate a few new-to-us breeds and good, economical cuts with just as much flavor as the much-loved (and accordingly priced) ribeyes, strip steaks, and loin cuts. Our most striking discovery? Chuck eye steak, also known by “chuck fillet,” “chuck tender steak,” or “poor man’s ribeye”… truly the best flavor/texture-value proposition in the meat case for grilled or broiled steak. Quite a bit of fat resides in a good chuck eye steak, but a surprising amount of it renders even over the short cooking time needed to properly grill a rare steak. As the fat renders, it bastes the meat, which is much “beefier” in flavor than other, more popular cuts.

Regardless of the cut, be sure they are at least one and a half inches thick (you can always split them after cooking for fainter appetites). Feel free to use Porterhouse and T-bones: they are by far the most generous and dramatic-looking cuts. Just bear in mind that they are tricky to grill accurately since the bone acts like an insulator, keeping the meat around it rarer than the rest of the steak. Prime-grade beef is best, but in any case, choose steaks that have nice marbling for the juiciest and most flavorful results (marbling is the fine, uniform network of white fatty tissue in the muscle). We press kosher salt and coarsely ground black pepper onto each side of the steak and let them come to room temp for an hour before grilling.


Steaks Seared on Coals
serves 1 to as many steaks as you can fit on a super-hot coal bed


More a general technique than traditional recipe.

Light your charcoal with a chimney starter or rake well-developed coals from your fire. When the coals are glowing and have developed a thin layer of white ash on top, spread them evenly with a long pair of tongs. Blow any accumulated ash off of the coals by vigorously fanning them with a thick magazine, a pie pan, or anything else you might have handy. Place the steaks directly on the red-hot coals. Squeeze one quarter of a lemon over the surface of each steak. Cook undisturbed for four minutes. Turn the steaks, squeeze another lemon wedge over each steak, and cook for an additional three to four minutes.

Pull the steaks off the coals to check their doneness, being sure to knock or shake off any coals that have stuck to the steak. You can make a small cut in the thickest part and take a peek at the inside. You want the interior to appear just short of the desired doneness, so if you like your steak medium-rare, stop cooking when it still looks somewhat rare inside. If you have an accurate instant-read thermometer, you can always insert it several inches into the side of the steak. Look for: 120° to 130°F for rare, 130° to 135°F for medium-rare, 140° to 150°F for medium, and 155° to 165°F for medium-well (the temperature will continue to rise as the steaks rest).

If the steaks are not quite done but nicely browned, prop them upright and against each other in the coals to finish cooking, turning every minute, until they are to your liking. Squeeze more lemon juice on the steaks if desired and let them rest on a platter for five to ten minutes. This ensures that the steaks finish cooking and their juices redistribute. Serve immediately… try to share.


jackie's picture

i'm a little leary putting the steaks on the about a roast?
john's picture

Definitely tried that! Sounds like a good idea, but the crust gets a little out-of-control before the roast gets to rare/medium-rare. Of course, that was with a HUGE whole ribeye roast. I ended up wrapping it in foil half-way through cooking and nudging over to a cooler spot of the fire. If you keep an eye on it and don't mind transferring it when things get a little too cinder-like, go for it... though I would recommend a smaller roast than what we tried. Either way, the result will be delicious: I still remember the feeling of carving a whole ribeye roast into steaks and devouring them by the fire, slathered in chimichurri... peak experience!
Drew's picture

Hi, I came across this article and I'm really interested in cooking steaks directly on charcoal! Sounds like a super cool cooking technique. I really want to give it a try but I'm wondering how I should start the fire? In the article you mentioned that starting the fire using a chimney starter would be ideal. But I'm from Singapore and over here we don't have chimneys (and hence no chimney starters)! Typically, we use firestarters (like these: when bbq-ing. I'm just wondering if that is fine when cooking directly on the charcoal as well because I read elsewhere that using lighter fluids for this is not advisable and I'm wondering if the chemicals in the firestarters would render it unsuitable too. Thanks for your advise!
john's picture

Hello Drew. It's a good idea to avoid charcoal or starters with accelerants. A "chimney starter" is simply a way of using newspaper to start charcoal. You can start the charcoal by mounding it on some paper, or just build a tiny wood fire with kindling and put the charcoal on it when it's lit.

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Combine in a small bowl with a fork:
           2 tablespoons butter
           2 tablespoons white (shiro) miso

Set aside. Cut the green tops...