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How to Cook a Great Steak on a Terrible Grill

With just a few affordable additions—and an admittedly dangerous method—you can create flawless results using just a humble kettle grill

All you really need to cook a steak is fire. (Photo: Keith Jenkins/Creative Commons)

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You don’t need to buy a Traeger or Big Green Egg to cook excellent steaks and hamburgers. Here’s how to get the most out of your crappy charcoal grill this weekend, without going broke. 

Just Say No to Gas

Propane cannot get as hot as charcoal, and does not produce the same flavors when you’re grilling meat. For this reason, many meat aficionados (well, mostly me), consider cooking on propane to be an act of heresy. Any further talk of gas grills will not be tolerated.

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What real charcoal actually looks like. (Photo: Big Green Egg)

You’re Using the Wrong Charcoal

The main advantage of charcoal is how much heat you can get it to produce, plus its smokey flavor. But most charcoal briquettes are made with additives, are difficult to light, don’t get that hot, and take forever to back down to lower temperatures. Fortunately there’s an alternative: natural lump charcoal. It’s just charred wood, so it’s going to enhance rather than detract from your meat’s flavor, plus it lights in an instant, and is capable of producing the extreme temperatures you need to replicate my results. Natural lump charcoal is the most effective way to transform your grilling results, even if you’re using an old Webber kettle. 

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These things really do make lighting your grill way easier. (Photo: Webber)

The Right Way to Light It

Dumping a bunch of lighter fluid on it ruins the point of natural lump charcoal. Instead, grab a cheap chimney starter and light it the right way. Chimneys allow you to focus the heat of a flame, quickly and easily turning a bit of flaming newspaper under a stack of charcoal into red hot embers. You can also use a natural fire starter to make things even easier. Once your coals are glowing red in the chimney, just dump them into the grill, pour in more charcoal out of the bag, add the grill grate, close the lid, open the dampers, and wait for all your coals to catch before starting to cook. 

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Start Clean

Completely empty your grill of any ash before getting started. This will allow your grill to breathe fully, and will minimize the amount of ash you get on your food when you add forced induction, which we’re getting to. You also want a clean grill grate. Wait till after your charcoal is glowing red, then use a quality stainless steel grill brush to scrape the grate clean. 

crappy-grill-therm
You are not grilling well if you're not monitoring temperatures. A basic probe thermometer like this one will ensure you cook your meat to the exact temperature you want it at. (Photo: ThermPro)

Monitor Temperatures

You’re going to want to be able to monitor both the ambient temperature inside the grill, plus the internal temperature of the meat you’re grilling. I recommend using a quality digital gauge for both needs, not the crappy dial thermometer that came with your cheap grill. That was probably never calibrated to begin with and sitting outside all the time will have gotten it even more out of whack. The iGrill Ambient Probe is made to fit the hole in the lid of a Webber kettle grill, and allows you to remotely monitor temperatures through a smartphone app. Not bad for $15. For a meat probe, I like the ThermPro TP-16. It’s cheap, it’s accurate, it has an alarm. 

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Turbocharge Temperatures

Grab a cheap hairdryer you can devote solely to grilling duties; it will get dirty. By opening both the lower (induction) and upper (exhaust) ports on the grill fully, then forcing air into the grill, you will be able to take it hitherto unimaginable temperatures. And those are the secret to perfectly searing a steak. Just be aware that forcing air through your grill will cause sparks and flame to shoot out of the exhaust port with force, and that opening the lid on an extremely hot grill will create a sudden rush of oxygen and a subsequent burst of flame. I consider singed hair and eyebrows to be the mark of a successful barbecue. 

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How to Grill the Perfect Steak

Ask the butcher at your usual grocery store to cut you some ribeyes that are at least an inch-and-a-half thick. Rub those down with an ample dose of kosher salt, black pepper, and garlic powder, and set aside to rest for an hour or two; meat grills up best when it’s at room temperature.

Get your grill started, and a deep bed of coals glowing bright red. Bring the steaks out to the grill, and get them ready to go.

Next, point the hairdryer into the grill’s induction port, and switch it on high. Start with the hairdryer six or so inches away from the port, and experiment with moving it closer as heat and results allow. You want to create roaring flames, and rapidly increasing temperatures: 800 degrees or more is possible. Once there, put down the hair dryer, and using extreme care, open the grill and add the steaks. Be aware that you will get a burst of flame when you open the lid, but try to keep that lid open for as short a time as possible.

Sear the steaks for 30 seconds per side, reapplying the hair dryer if ambient temperatures inside the grill begin to fall. Remove the steaks from the grill, and set aside somewhere that’s safe from your dog for at least 20 minutes. Close the dampers on the grill enough that temperatures begin to lower, and try to get the grill to where it’s holding 225 to 250 degrees.

I like to cook my veggies on the grill during this time. Once you’re ready, stick a temperature probe in one of the steaks, and add them all to the grill. Watch their temperature rise, and flip them when they’re at about 110 degrees. Set an alarm for 130 degrees, and immediately pull the steaks off the grill when they reach that. Rest them for five to ten minutes, then slice them across the grain into quarter-inch-thick slices and serve. 

Plus, the Best Burger

Follow your favorite burger recipe to form the patties, just make sure they’re about an inch and a half thick. For buns, use brioche if you can find it. If not, melt some butter and brush it onto both sides of the bun. Follow the above steps, and stabilize the grill at 450 degrees ambient. Stick a probe into the thickest part of one pattie, and grill on one side until it reaches 100 or 105 degrees. Flip it, and pull the burgers off when they reach 130. Briefly grill the buns with the inside down, then serve with your favorite toppings. 

Congratulations, you’re now the best barbecue chef in your neighborhood. 

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