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By this point in the season, many grilling-obsessed cooks are beginning to tire of the same old methods and recipes they've come to depend on. If you haven't already tried doing a steak or two directly on the coals at a campfire or in your grill, it might be just the right antidote to cure a late-summer case of grilling apathy. The most primordial cooking method of all, searing steaks on hot coals creates a beautifully charred, crisped exterior and a juicy and 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 lump hardwood charcoal in your grill. Do not use traditional charcoal briquettes (their ash sticks to the steaks) or lighter fluid (it causes off flavors).
We highly recommend New York strip or boneless ribeye for this method of cooking, as they are relatively tender cuts that can withstand some manhandling. Hanger steak has wonderful beefy flavor, but you must be careful not to cook them above 130 degrees, since they will turn very tough. Regardless of which cut you choose, be sure they are at least 1 1/2 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 cut.
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 into the sides of each steak and let them sit on the kitchen counter for at least 30 minutes before grilling to ensure more even cooking.
Aging steaks for a day or three in the refrigerator—uncovered on a rack—can produce an even better crust and flavor, which is especially worth noting as dry-aged steaks are very expensive to buy at a the butcher’s counter (if you’re lucky enough to find them). Of course, the coals will ensure a nice crust anyway, so rest easy if you don’t have enough time, patience, or fridge space for such things (you will, however, see a much more noticable difference with regular grilling and broiling techniques).
One of our go-to Summer grilling condiments—Chimichurri— makes for a wonderful accompaniment to such barbarity: a fresh, vegetal, vinegary, spicy, and refreshing counterpoint to perfectly-done steak… or any grilled protein, come to think of it. This tweaked version is heavy on the herbs and adds a few chiles to the mix, plus a touch of our favorite smoky secret ingredients.
First, the Chimichurri. Whisk together thoroughly in a small bowl:
1⁄2 cup olive oil
1⁄4 cup red wine vinegar
3 green onions, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 or 2 finely chopped Jalapeño or Serrano peppers
1 cup finely chopped parsley (Italian or curly), cilantro, or a combination
(about 2 small bunches)
1/4 cup finely chopped oregano
Salt to taste
1⁄4 teaspoon ground chipotle or smoked paprika
1⁄4 teaspoon black pepper, or to taste
Cover and let stand for at least 2 hours at room temperature before you start the charcoal. This allows the flavors to develop. The sauce will keep, covered and refrigerated, for up to 2 days, so be sure to save any left over for a nice quick sauce or condiment.
Now for the steak. 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.
1 boneless, 1 ½-inch thick ribeye, hanger, or New York strip steak for each meat-loving hungry person (for every 2 not-so-hungry people if you are serving a bunch of sides)
directly on the red-hot coals. Squeeze:
one quarter of a lemon
over the surface of each steak. Cook undisturbed for 4 minutes. Turn the steaks, squeeze another lemon wedge over each steak, and cook for an additional 3-4 minutes.
Using a rimmed baking sheet, 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. If you chose to use T-bones or other bone-in steaks, cut right near the bone (but keep in mind the extremities are cooking much faster).
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 (their temperature will continue to rise as they 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 minutes. This ensures that the steaks finish cooking and their juices redistribute. Serve with a nice tomato or green salad, polenta, or maybe some chunked roasted potatoes, beets, or a medley of whatever vegetables you have in your crisper.
Serve with the Chimichurri in a bowl to pass around the table. A nice big Napa red is not essential, but will certainly make for some happier diners (e.g., it "pairs nicely").