How to cook the perfect steak on a grill or cast iron, the Southern Kitchen way

Southern Kitchen staff
Sliced filet

The joy of eating a nicely cooked steak is practically unparalleled. But to achieve steak nirvana, there are a few tips and techniques you’ll need to master. 

None require many ingredients or complicated equipment beyond a hot cooking surface, basic seasonings and a meat thermometer. 

First, we'll talk about the grill. With its open flame and the smoky char it imparts to meat, grilling appeals to our inner cave-dweller. But simply slapping a slab of beef on the metal grates is not enough.

The first step is planning ahead. Some say you should remove your steak from the refrigerator and leave it on the counter for a minimum of 30 minutes to allow it to come to room temperature to avoid cold zones. That's fine. But if your steak isn't terribly thick and you're cooking over high heat, it won't be the end of the world if you forget.

Skirt Steak

Now for best grill practices. Regardless of whether you’re cooking with gas or charcoal, check that you have adequate fuel on hand. You should also clean the grates of any leftover food debris so it doesn't wind up in your dinner. Light your grill and bring it up to high heat — between 500 and 700 degrees — before cooking the steaks.

Next, a word on seasoning. You don’t need to have special spice blends or marinades to cook a tasty steak. In fact, avoid marinades as surface moisture keeps meat from browning. Simple kosher salt and freshly ground pepper should do the trick.

Before seasoning, lightly brush both sides of the meat with olive, vegetable or grapeseed oil — just enough to lightly coat the meat — which helps the seasoning stick to the steak. It also helps the steak not stick to the grill. Season the steaks on all sides first with kosher salt, and then with pepper.

Perfect steaks on the grill

The grill is hot. The steaks are seasoned. Now, let's put the meat on the fire.

If it's picture-perfect grill marks you're after, find the hottest part of the grill and place the steaks at a diagonal angle. If the grill were a clock, the steaks should start at 10 o’clock. Depending on the thickness of your cut of beef, let the steaks cook for 3-4 minutes. Then turn the steaks 90 degrees so they’re at 2 o’clock on the grill. Cook for another 3 to 4 minutes.

Once you see beautiful grill marks worthy of a food magazine, flip the steaks to cook on the other side, then repeat the turning process to get your grill marks.

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Don't care about perfect grill marks? Fine. What we really want is as much brown on your meat surface as possible, so feel free to turn your steak every which way, as long as it pulls from the grill easily. Never force it. The Maillard reaction, the process by which natural sugars in the proteins caramelize, is triggered by heat. In short, browning equals flavor. The more consistently brown your surface is, the more flavor you'll have. Science. 

Grill your steaks until you’ve reached your desired level of doneness, which could be anywhere from 4 to 10 minutes. It all depends on your preference. 

Finex Filet

You can use a meat thermometer if you'd like; 120 is rare, 130 is medium-rare, 140 is medium and 150 is medium-well. We recommend you take your steak off the grill just short of hitting these temperatures, as the meat will continue to cook a bit even when removed from the heat source. 

Poke at the meat with your finger a bit to feel the springiness of a medium-rare steak, or the firmness of medium-well. Eventually, you'll learn to judge a steak by touch. Just do it before the muscle fibers relax for an accurate read.

Speaking of muscle fibers, it’s crucial to let your steaks rest for at least five minutes after they come off the heat to let them reabsorb and redistribute the juices released during high heat. This keeps steak moist and flavorful.

Perfect steaks in cast iron

If the weather prohibits outdoor cooking, or you'd just prefer to be in your kitchen, a cast-iron skillet is a fabulous alternative to the grill. Many of the principles of cooking a steak on the grill also apply to cast iron; however, there are some additional opportunities for flavor in your trusty skillet.

Much like cooking a steak on the grill, you’ll need to bring your meat to room temperature before cooking. If you fancy a filet mignon, tie a piece of butcher’s twine around the center of the steak. This keeps a uniform shape throughout the cooking process, leading to more consistent doneness.

Cast Iron Seared Rib-Eye Steak

Liberally season the meat with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper while heating your skillet. You’ll want to take this step right before cooking because salt draws the water-soluble proteins to the surface of the meat and creates a damp surface — the enemy of good browning. While you’re at it, make sure to set the oven to 450 degrees.

Heat the skillet over high heat until it begins to lightly smoke. Add a few tablespoons of vegetable oil and evenly space the steaks inside the pan. Do not move them around, as keeping the steaks stationary helps a crust form on the surface. Once the bottom of the meat has a mahogany color, flip the steaks over.

Add five whole cloves of garlic, a few sprigs of fresh thyme and two tablespoons of butter. The butter will aid in further caramelization. Transfer the entire skillet to the preheated oven, where your steak will finish until you reach your desired temperature, then place the pan on the stovetop.

Add more cold butter and baste the steak as the butter melts. The garlic and thyme-flavored butter adds additional flavor and keeps the meat juicy. Finally, remove the steaks from the pan and allow them to rest before slicing.

That's how it's done.