Cooking steak on the grill or in the grill pan is a universal question. Read more below to understand some of the techniques for cooking the perfect steak.
A GUIDE TO SUCCESSFULLY CHOOSING, PREPARING, AND COOKING THE PERFECT STEAK
Being able to successfully cook a steak is a skill that most people aspire to have. Pay attention to these details and you’ll see that it’s not that difficult to pull off.
To begin, you need to understand the basics of the different cuts of beef and how to choose the right one. From there, we’ll get into how to cook it to your desired level of doneness.
Choosing a Steak for Cooking the Perfect Steak
Examining the butcher shop cases can be overwhelming. There are so many different cuts available—big steaks, skinny steaks, huge roasts, small roasts, and more. If your goal is to cook a good steak at home, I recommend sticking with the rib-eye, T-bone, New York strip, or Filet Mignon. These are the most expensive cuts, but in steaks, you get what you pay for and these are the most tender when grilled or pan-fried. The differences in tenderness come from the cow having stability muscles (think the lower back), which are less powerful and thus tender, and load-bearing muscles, which are tough. Price is directly correlated to these qualities. A tender steak will cost a lot more than a tough steak (though with the right treatment, you can successfully turn a tough cut like brisket into a tender, flavorful meal).
If the sheer volume of beef cuts still overwhelms you, check out our easy-to-read guide to steaks and their tenderness, price, and ideal preparation.
The seasoning requirements differ based on the cut. A tougher steak requires more seasoning because your eating experience is mostly about tasting the seasoning, rather than enjoying the tenderness of the cut. For example, you can get away with simple salt and pepper on a perfectly cooked filet mignon, while a flank steak used for fajitas should have some sort of spicy rub all over.
Cooking Tips for Cooking the Perfect Steak
So, you’ve purchased steaks that fall on the tender side and you’re ready to cook them. First, let them rest at room temperature for about 30 minutes to take the chill off. This results in more even cooking. Pro tip: If you are cooking for someone who likes a well-done steak and you like yours rare, leave yours in the fridge until the absolute last minute; your steak will cook less than your guest’s in a similar amount of time.
If you’ll be cooking on the stovetop, a cast iron or stainless-steel pan will work best. Nonstick coating can’t handle the high heat required for cooking a steak. Before you place the skillet over high heat, lightly season the steaks with a mild rub or just salt and pepper. While the skillet is warming, pour in a few tablespoons of peanut, canola, or other high-smoke-point oil. When the oil is shimmering and the pan is hot, place the steaks in the pan and loosely cover it with foil to prevent oil from splattering. Now is also the time to turn on any kitchen fans, as this will generate some smoke. If your steak is less than 1 inch thick, you can plan on cooking it in the pan the entire time. If your steak is thicker than an inch, do the searing on the stovetop and then move the entire pan to a preheated, 400-degree oven to finish cooking it without overly charring it.
When the steak hits the hot pan, start your timer. In general, 2 to 5 minutes per side is sufficient for medium doneness on a hot skillet. This range is flexible because, among other variables, everyone’s heat is slightly different, as is the steak’s starting temperature (depending, for example, on when you pull it from the fridge). For a thickness of an inch or less, I like to sear for about 3 minutes on each side, after which you should let it rest. If you have a thicker steak, you would put it in the preheated oven after the two 3-minute turns and let it cook for another 2 to 5 minutes until you achieve the desired doneness.
When you are finished cooking the steak, add a tablespoon of salted butter on top and a fresh herb – thyme works well – to get that expensive steakhouse-style flavor pop.
You have two methods for determining doneness. One is to use an accurate digital cooking thermometer. If you are aiming for a rare steak, you’ll need to pull it off the heat when the internal temperature is between 120 and 130 degrees F. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you want a well-done steak, you should pull it off the heat when the internal temperature is between 160 and 170 degrees. The illustration below shows varying levels of doneness. The steaks will continue to cook slightly while resting, so take that into account as well.
Is this all a bit much to remember? Bookmark our illustrated guide to steak doneness and keep those temperatures in mind next time you’re trying to achieve the perfect level of doneness.
Don’t have a fancy digital cooking thermometer? No problem—you can use your hand! By positioning your thumb and fingers in various ways, you can mimic what a steak should feel like at various levels of doneness. The tenderness of a steak will roughly correlate to the feeling of the thick part of your palm, below the thumb, when your thumb sequentially touches the index, middle, ring, and pinky finger. Touch that part of your hand with the index finger of your other hand while moving your fingers from index to pinky, and you’ll feel that part of your palm getting firmer. If this seems daunting at first, simply use both methods. Get used to using a thermometer and at the same time touch the steak and see what it feels like. Don’t understand what we mean? Check out this guide to using your fingers to check a steak for doneness.
Is this all a bit much to remember? Bookmark our illustrated guide to steak doneness and keep those temperatures in mind next time you’re trying to achieve the perfect level of doneness. Also practice touching the meat, as we show below, and learn to feel your way to the perfect steak using your touch and chef’s intuition.
Grilling Tips for Cooking the Perfect Steak
Would you rather cook your steaks on the grill? You can easily apply most of the above methods to a hot grill, cooking the steaks directly on the grate. The same searing times apply, and if you have a steak that is thicker than 1 inch, simply finish cooking it over indirect heat (so in an area with no charcoal or with the gas burner turned off). You should get the same great results, but with the added bonus of grilled, smoky flavor.
To sum up, successfully preparing a steak is all about cut selection and cooking time. If you stick with a tender cut of beef and cook on high heat, then you can confidently start with the 2 to 5 minutes of sear time on each side and then finish it off in the oven.
The question is one of the most common we hear. What is the most popular wood you sell?
Initially, our response was that there wasn’t one hardwood that was dominating the order system. That certainly has changed over the course of the past few years.
Without question, Hickory has become the most requested hardwood.
Why Hickory The Wood To Smoke?
I truly believe the catalyst for the popularity of hickory particularly for smoking foods, is television and YouTube. Yes, all those cooking and food shows and YouTube channels have catapulted grilling/smoking with wood and charcoal leaning toward Hickory. As if Hickory is the only choice for “real” barbecue.
Some of the roots of the popularity of Hickory is the generational secrets of barbecue. Hickory has been, for many decades, a commonly found hardwood in the traditional barbecue states who are credited with bringing barbecue to the limelight. North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia and then advancing west to such states as Tennessee, Missouri, and Alabama. Gradually, those who wanted to duplicate the smoke flavors of the south continued to request hickory. The result: hickory has become one of the highest demand hardwoods in North America.
Is There a Holy Grail for Smoking Wood?
Without question, those known in the world of barbecue as major players have stimulated the belief that their choice in smoking wood is the key to their success and notoriety. Here’s is the conflict: many fail to admit that there are many other factors that account for their success. Although they may have made their mark by sticking with that one wood for the entire time they cooked and gained popularity, they also committed to specific equipment, fuel product say a specific brand of charcoal, meat supplier, whether they keep the bark on the wood or remove it, and brands or recipes for rubs/sauces/marinades. ALL these items factor into the overall success of a cooking event even in barbecue.
Life of the Tree is Key
I won’t get into the details about one brand of charcoal or briquette over another, or the influence of a wet or dry rub on the meat’s ability to absorb smoke vapor. Those discussions will be for another day. What I will stress is that the climate and soil of tree’s location is by far a key determinate in whether it will make a great smoking or grilling wood. Specifically, the more balanced the pH level of the soil the tree’s roots are bound to and the amount of precipitation the tree is exposed to in a given year, directly affect how favorable the wood will be for smoking, grilling, and cooking in general.
I’m often told by new customers who had previous experience with hickory and found it to be too strong in flavor, producing too dark a coloring to the food’s exterior, and often producing a sooty appearance to both the food and equipment, that once they tried our wood, they had the exact opposite result. Why? The easiest answer is we simply have better-growing conditions in the Northeast than other areas that grow Hickory trees. Plus, we have access to the better species of this hardwood family.
More Choices Don’t Always Mean Better Outcome
With over 20 species of Hickory in North America, they are not all equal when it comes to cooking with them. Many of these 20 species are known to produce bitter undertones when foods are exposed to their smoke vapor. That means poor results for the cook or Pitmaster who believes in hickory for their food production.
I like to compare hardwoods for cooking to extra virgin olive oil. There are hundreds if not thousands of brands of olive oil available. Yet, many producers marketing an extra virgin olive oil (EVO) are using low-grade oils in the production rather than meet the requirements for EVO labeling. Wood is similar. There is no obligation to label where the wood comes from, how old it is, how it was processed, what species it is from, and if it is from the raw material of the timbered tree or a by-product or waste product of another use. Just like olive oil producers using pomace or the olive residue left over from the traditional production of olive oil, hardwood can be a leftover as well and re-purposed into something it wasn’t initially intended for.
Blaze Your Own Trail
My hope is that I’ve stimulated some thinking into what makes for a great smoking wood, grilling wood, or cooking wood in general. Instead of duplicating a celebrity figure or following a current fad, blaze your own trail into what pleases you and the people you are serving your amazing grilled and smoked foods from the wood fire to. With so many factors affecting a food’s taste, appearance, and aroma, it’s time to simply experiment, keep a log, and find what pleases you. It may turn out to be one hardwood that you feel is the wood or it could simply be the food that guides you. Hope you enjoyed our blog IS HICKORY THE WOOD TO SMOKE & GRILL WITH?
Additional reading the topic of wood species and other cooking ideas!
Dr. Smoke- “While hickory is the number one choice for Southern barbecue, it should not be your only choice. When asked YES-HICKORY THE WOOD TO SMOKE!
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Our Hickory double filet is great for most smoking or grilling equipment – So YES-HICKORY THE WOOD TO SMOKE!
These two questions have been quite common for the 12+ years we’ve been in business. What does a cubic foot box of wood weigh? How many pieces do you estimate are in a cubic foot box of wood?
Due to the regulations imposed by The National Conference on Weights and Measures -Uniform Regulation for the Method of Sale of Commodities, we cannot specify weight on a wood product, even though we are a cooking wood. Instead, when asked about weight, we only provide an estimate clearly stating that wood is not sold by weight due to the variation in moisture level and density of the wood selected.
I can, however, tell you the details that a recent first-time customer posted to an online forum that had me elated!
The Specifics You’ve Asked About
This customer took a lot of time and effort to get to the details about our wood; the packaging and the weight not just of the carton, but of specific select pieces. This customer purchased the Serious Smoker Double Filet Wood Chunk which is our cubic foot carton product with the smallest chunk sizing. We offer an option to select up to 3 wood choices for this carton size, with this customer selecting our 3 most popular hardwoods: Hickory, Sugar Maple, and Wild Cherry.
First, let’s look at this customer’s overall purchase.
It’s In The Numbers
The packaged hardwood weighed in a 32.5 lbs. A total of 139 pieces of wood were packaged. Of that total, 48 pieces were Wild Cherry, 44 pieces Sugar Maple, and 47 pieces Hickory.
This customer owns equipment that references specific weight of wood needed to smoke optimally. In this case, just 2-4 ounces of wood is ideal.
Although weights for each of the 139 pieces of wood were not obtained, sufficient sampling was done. Here is what was reported:
The lowest weight of a Wild Cherry chunk (remember, these are all double filet) was 1.5 ounces and the highest was 4.1 ounces.
The lowest weight of a Sugar Maple chunk was 2 ounces and the highest at 5.7 ounces.
The lowest weight of a Hickory chunk was 2.8 ounces and the highest at 6.4 ounces.
For this equipment user, there was an estimate that 139 pieces of hardwood would provide for some 100 smoking events!
What I loved the most about this report is that it correlates specifically to the density of these 3 hardwoods. Hickory has the highest density of the 3 kinds of wood selected and this is reflected by the weight of the individual pieces sampled. Sugar Maple would be next in density followed by the Wild Cherry, all proven with the reported weights.
What Did You Learn?
Unquestionably, there is a lot of wood chunk pieces in a cubic foot carton! Which means you want to ensure you can use that much wood in a reasonable amount of time to maximize the freshness factor and peak level for function as a smoking wood. Individual pieces will vary in weight even if the dimensions of the pieces are relatively the same. That is the nature of a water-rich material – the water weight influences the overall piece weight.
We are indebted to this customer for taking the time to inform us all of his findings since, by law, SmokinLicious® can’t offer this detail.
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More Related reading on wood chunk for smoking and other cooking tips and recipes
[Fruitwood trees are often sprayed with pesticide to maximize the fruit yield. Spraying of chemical on the bark may not be too good for using in barbecue?]
ARE FRUITWOOD TREES LIKE THE APPLE “SNOW WHITE” BIT INTO?
There is a fierce debate out there about the use of fruitwood trees, specifically apple and cherry varieties, for cooking purposes. As a Company, we frequently get the same question – “Why don’t I see Applewood as an option to purchase?” Here’s the short answer: We do not, and will not, produce our products from orchard-based woods. Our reason is simple – we do not believe in smoking foods over woods that have been or have the potential to be sprayed or growth enhanced with chemicals.
Let’s review a fact about trees. All trees produce prussic acid, better known as hydrogen cyanide. We feel that humans can use woods produced in nature when they have been left alone, unburdened by the human hand in trying to manage what sometimes is the normal cyclical pattern of nature. In the areas in which we purchase the heartwood for our cooking wood production facility, the varieties of cherry (Prunus pensylvanica L.f.) we commonly deal with are: Northern Pin Cherry, Fire Cherry, Wild Red Cherry, and Pigeon Cherry. Of course, predominately, we bring in Wild Red Cherry. There are many different cherry tree varieties available throughout North America. The main difference in these woods is that our forest trees, the type we manufacture, tend to be on the sweet-tart side versus the sour-bitter. For the most part, hydrogen cyanide is found mainly in the leaves and seeds of the cherry tree. Black Cherry bark is also commonly used in herbal cough remedies.
The dominant opinion is that when used in small quantities, the hydrogen cyanide is a moot issue. Now let’s talk about the smoking application of wood. Cyanogenic compounds WOULD remain a factor in our production of cooking wood. This is because we do not allow our gourmet woods to deplete their moisture content to a level that other wood product manufacturers may (what is commonly referred to as “seasoning of the wood”). For ideal smoking of foods, wood needs to have a moisture level preferably at ~20%. This results in the wood smoldering rather than burning at a rapid rate. The resulting smoke from the plant material provides for that wonderful flavor. Because smoking is done at low temperatures for longer periods of time, the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s) found in wood molecules are not stimulated as they normally would be when cooking, say, a steak over a hot flame. Thus, the health risk associated with PAH’s and smoked foods is not considered an issue. The same can be said for ember cooking – using the heat of the residual coals to cook foods.
Our main concerns regarding woods used for wood-fired cooking methods is to always ensure a bark-free product. Bark does not hold moisture but rather is designed to rid the tree of wastes by absorbing them and locking them into this area. In fact, this is the reason why bark-on woods burn so much faster than bark-free wood pieces. This portion of the tree is responsible for temperature flare-ups, tainted smells, ‘spotty’ appearance of the food’s skin, creosote, an increase in the production of ash. Additionally, once the temperature is increased during wood-fired cooking, heterocyclic amines, or HCAs, are created due to the reaction of the amino acids and creatine with the higher cooking temperature.
In a nutshell, a person is at greater risk of cyanide exposure in treated wood products for home construction than they are when consuming BBQ or other wood-fired foods. Knowing the source of the wood being used in the cooking application is vital to ensure that the necessary steps have been taken to prevent tree disease and pest infestation spread, as well as to ensure that the wood has not been exposed to any chemical/toxin treatments.
It is our hope, that one day soon, inspection of the wood products used by restaurants, caterers, BBQ competitors, and grocery stores who promote smoked and natural-wood fired foods, will occur as normally as food inspections. After all, I think we all can agree that WHAT you cook the food over is just as important as what food you are cooking!
We discuss the Electric smoker and what the before chips and after chips!- When is a wood chip dead? The chips should have full combustion for the proper smoke flavor.
ELECTRIC SMOKERS: WHEN IS A WOOD CHIP DEAD?
Without question, electric smokers are by far the easiest smokers to manage as they require no charcoal lighting, no constant checking of the fuel supply, and usually no messy ash pan. These are units that are designed to run on very little wood product, usually between 2-5 ounces because the actual ‘fuel’ is an electric coil. No gas, charcoal, or pellet.
Are There Flavor Differences?
To answer the question of whether flavor differences exist between an electric unit and those that use combustible fuel sources, you need to weigh who the response is coming from. For me, someone who has an electric unit (we need to have a good assortment of equipment to produce our recipes), I do indeed feel there are flavor differences. Without the volatile gases that are produced with combustible items meaning wood and lump hardwood charcoal, there is less of a smoke flavor. The trademark smoke ring on meats can also go missing with electric units. Take this into consideration when deciding whether to purchase an electric unit.
The Small Wood Appetite
Electric smokers are very specific when it comes to the quantity of wood to use. Most manufacturers will provide a measurement level in ounces that you need to adhere to. If you should have an electric unit that does not include the reference to wood quantity but does have a wood tray, be sure not to overfill that tray. Most units use between 2-5 ounces of wood product to start. You may have to replenish the wood 1-2 more times depending on what your smoking. Larger cuts of meat, plan on enough wood to fill the wood tray three times.
Solid Black Wood Chips
You followed the directions and placed the referenced amount of wood chip product in the unit but when the cooking time was finished, you looked at the chip tray and found most of the wood chips still in solid form. Nothing was reduced to ash and all the chips were black in color. Did something go wrong?
Black color to the wood chips means that the wood processed through most of the stages of combustion and turned to carbon on the outside, giving the distinct black coloring. If the wood chips are still in sold form, then combustion was not complete. Complete combustion would have reduced the chips to a pile of carbon ash.
Combustion Has Needs
To ensure complete combustion of a wood product specific factors need to be in place: air-fuel ratio, quality of the fuel, reduced moisture or water level, etc. The 3 ingredients that must be present to sustain combustion are oxygen, heat, and fuel. If you can achieve a balance of these 3 ingredients, you will achieve complete combustion and have great success with wood product used in an electric smoker.
Can Black Chips Be Re-Used?
The most important thing to remember about combustion is when wood is reduced to carbon, it produces very little if any smoke and has no flavor release. To answer the question of whether wood chips that are black but still in solid form can be re-used, the answer is no.
Those chips will not give out any flavor, they simply will finish the final stage of combustion and turn to ash. when is a wood chip dead
Remove those black chips and add fresh, keeping the chips in the dry state when smoking with them. You’ll find better results and less waste in the wood product you purchase.
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