Grilling Steaks: Technique, Temperature and More

For Perfect Grilled Steaks, Cook at High Temperatures

New York strip steak on the grill
New York strip steak on the grill. mphillips007 / Getty Images

Grilling steaks is much more than just a way of preparing our next meal. Cooking steaks on the grill is all about the quest for perfection. And when it comes to grilling a steak, one thing that can't be stressed too highly is the importance of getting the grill as hot as possible.

Also see: Prepping Steaks for the Grill

In my article on seasoning a steak, I mentioned that undersalting is one of the most common mistakes home cooks make.

Another is not using enough heat — and this is especially true when it comes to cooking steaks.

Sometimes it's because there's not enough heat available to begin with. Home stovetops don't pump out as much heat as commercial equipment. But in many cases, home cooks tend to get a little jittery when they see a lot of smoke or hear a big, loud sizzle, and they turn the heat down. This is a natural reaction, but it can work against you sometimes.

Get the Grill Smoking Hot

Obviously you don't want to burn your food or start a fire, but when you're grilling a steak, it's really important to use the highest heat you can generate. This is because high heat cooks faster. And the less time your steak spends cooking, the more tender it will be.

Also see: What is the Best Steak?

Another reason we want high heat is that it's the only way to produce the Maillard reaction, which is a chemical process responsible for forming the flavorful brown crust on the exterior of a steak.

If your pan or grill isn't hot enough (or if you try to cook an ice-cold steak), you won't be able to achieve that brown tasty goodness. You'll instead get a tough gray steak without a lot of flavor.

While we're on the topic, yes, grilling is the best way to cook a steak. But let's acknowledge the reality that not everyone owns or has ready access to an outdoor grill.

It's true. Some people don't have TVs either. It's nothing to be ashamed of. Not only that, but not everyone is fortunate enough to have one of those fancy ranges with a built-in grill. So what's a regular person to do?

Grill Pans: Friend or Foe?

You can certainly broil a steak, and you can cook it on the stovetop using a cast iron skillet or grill pan. That's right, a grill pan is a perfectly legitimate way to cook a steak — provided you are able to get it hot enough. For that reason, your best bet with grill pans is one that's made of cast iron. If I had to choose one, I'd go with a flat cast-iron skillet. The grill pan will produce grill marks, it's true, but I think the flat skillets cook more evenly. (If you really care about grill marks, use a grill.)

Cast iron is heavy and a pain to take care of (particularly grill pans, because the ridges make them harder to clean). But cast iron gets hot, and more importantly, it stays hot. Just make sure you open your windows and turn the fan in your vent-hood all the way up. You'll also want to pour off any fat that collects in the pan while you're cooking.

Another note on pans, grill or flat: Do not overcrowd the pan. An average skillet will accommodate two good-sized steaks.

Try to squeeze a third steak in there and you'll cool off the pan too much.

Grilled Steaks Are the Best

But the grill is the best place to cook a steak. And apart from those fancy rangetop grills, grilling takes place outside. Which is convenient, because with the kind of temperatures you want, you're going to generate a good amount of smoke. And no matter what kind of vent hood you have, you probably don't want that much smoke in your house.

Nor am I here to tell you that you should use a gas grill versus charcoal versus wood. People will argue that wood adds flavor and all, but whatever type of grill you favor, just make sure it gets really hot. How hot? You shouldn't be able to hold your hand about an inch above the grill for more than two seconds. If you can, it's not hot enough.

Next: Medium Rare: The Best Way to Cook a Steak