How to Grill Steak Directly on Hot Coals
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Nothing Delivers Hardwood Flavor and Incredible Sear Like Cooking Your Steak Directly on Hot Coals
One of my favorite things about cooking over hardwood heat is that there are so many different ways that you can cook your food.
When it comes to searing steak over hot coals, nothing is more fun and less mess than grilling your meat directly on the coals themselves. I call this Jurassic BBQ, but it goes by many other names, including Dirty Steak and Caveman Barbecue among others. No matter what you call it, cooking your steak directly on the coals is a great way to get tender juicy wood-fired flavor with practically no mess or fuss at all.
What You will Need to Grill Steak Directly on the Coals
You won’t need much to get a tender juicy steak when you’re grilling right on the coals. Here are the tools of the trade:
- a barbecue or other suitable surface for the hot coals — large enough to accommodate whatever you are cooking (you won’t need a grill grate);
- hardwood lump charcoal (no briquettes);
- salt (coarse grain sea salt or kosher salt);
- barbecue tongs;
- heavy duty aluminum foil; and
- your steak of choice.
You can try any cut of steak that you like and have fun experimenting when cooking on the coals. In this post I am sharing my experience with Strip Steak and Skirt Steak cooked directly on the hot coals, but this also works very well with the classics such as Rib Eye, Sirloin and even a T-Bone or Porterhouse.
No matter what cut of beef you are grilling, the set-up and approach is basically the same.
Prepare Your Steak for Grilling
One of the keys to great tasting steak cooked directly on the coals is similar to the process you follow when cooking Brazilian BBQ.
Remove your meat from the refrigerator one hour before cooking. Place it on a rack (a screen or baker’s cooling rack) so that air can circulate fully around the meat. Salt both sides of your steak liberally with kosher salt or sea salt and allow it to sit at room temperature for 60 minutes. This will effectively brine the meat and help to give your beef a nice crust. You will notice that the salt dissolves and the steak becomes moist on the surface as the moisture is drawn out by the salt.
Some cooks will also add olive oil and pepper to their steak immediately before placing them onto the coals. While I do that when grilling on a traditional grill, I don’t do it when cooking directly on the coals. The pepper and oil can burn on the extreme heat of the coals. So while it’s not necessary to the process, feel free to go ahead and experiment with whatever approach you like.
For the record, I add fresh cracked black pepper when I remove the meat from the grill and prior to letting it rest. You can also add garlic or any other spices or rub that you like. Another option that will give your beef a flavor boost is to marinate the meat before grilling. Again, this is not necessary, as the steak itself will shine with only salt and wood-fired goodness to flavor the meat.
Less is more.
Grilling Your Steak on the Hot Coals
Fire up your hardwood lump charcoal and be sure that it is white hot before you start to cook. Do not use chemical firestarters or anything else that will affect the flavor of your steak. I use a charcoal chimney when cooking on a grill or I use the coals created by my brick oven when cooking the steak that way.
You can make your own coals by burning hardwood, such as in a campfire or brick oven. The important part is that you are using natural hardwood coals.
Arrange your coals so that there are no open spots and flatten the coal bed as much as you can to give a nice relatively even cooking surface.
Place your salted steak directly on the coals and let the magic begin.
Cook times will vary depending on the type of steak you are grilling and the level of doneness that you prefer.
Here are some guidelines based on my experience. I like my steaks just past mid-rare, so take that into account with these cook times.
– Strip Steak, one-inch thick, 2 minutes per side
– Skirt Steak, one-minute per side, then 30 seconds per side (total of 90 seconds per side).
Note on Cooking Times: Using a typical grocery store strip loin steak, two minutes per side will result in a medium to medium-well steak, with just a hint of pink. If you like your steak medium-rare to medium, reduce the time to one minute per side or 90 seconds per side. You’ll have to experiment the first time you try this, but after that you will start to get a good idea of the results you will achieve with each time.
For a thicker steak, you will need to adjust your times. Alton Brown grills his skirt steak for only 45 seconds per side. That is a bit too rare for me, but if you like your steak on the rare side, here is Alton Brown’s great YouTube video on the whole process (this was very inspirational for me). If you are grilling skirt steak and you have never done it before, pay special attention on the proper way to slice skirt steak towards the end of the video)
There is a some trial and error to this type of cooking, but if you follow these simple guidelines you really can’t go wrong when you’re first starting out.
When the steaks are done, remove them from the heat and wrap them tightly in heavy duty aluminum foil (you can wrap them as a group). Allow them to rest for 15 minutes in the foil. It will feel like an hour.
After 15 minutes has past, open the foil and take in the delicious wood-fired aroma.
It is now time to enjoy the fruits of your labour.
It’s All Part of the Show
Cooking steaks this way is not only a lot of fun, but it is also a great way to prepare steaks for guests. There is definitely a bit of show factor and flare when you do it this way and the end result is sure to please.
There are variations to this technique as well, including cooking your steaks on a grate or rack placed directly on the coals. This method makes it a little easier to manage the steaks and you won’t get charcoal lumps sticking to the meat (the charcoal lumps do no harm and come right off). I sometimes use a rack when cooking in the brick oven because it makes it easier to reach in and out of the doorway, but generally I prefer to go directly on the coals for full flavor.
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