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How to choose and grill the perfect steak

If you don't know the difference between prime cuts and select beef, then you might as well take a shoe sole, add salt, and throw it on the grill

Beef served at a restaurant always seems to taste a little better than steaks served up at home. Even hot off the grill, some cuts of meat just don't, well, cut. They're tough, they're charred, and they don't seem to have the "oomph" for the price.

You have several choices when choosing and cooking steaks, from top loin all the way down to ground. If you want a special meal, avoid the bargain meat bin. Specialty markets will carry the same types of quality meats that you might find in nice restaurants. They'll be proudly marked "prime."


Meats are labeled according to age and judged for the amount of fat that is veined, or marbled, throughout the meat. Prime cuts have higher marbling content. "Choice" is the next level, followed by "select." For both choice and select, flavor and texture are not as fine as prime.

Not all beef is good for grilling. Tougher cuts, such as skirt and flank steaks, should be marinaded and cooked in foil in the oven for added tenderness.

For any cooking method, wait until the steak is done before trimming away the fat - this is flavor you want cooked in. Also, to keep juices in, do not prick the meat with a fork. Use tongs to lift the steak from the grill.

But, first, you must purchase the steak. Your best choices will be from the shoulder, loin, or center of the cow. These parts will have less muscle and nicer marbling, especially if the cow has been raised on a feed lot and not in a pasture. If you're looking for a lean cut, purchase steak that is from the loin or is labeled "round."

Check the meat inside the package - press a finger into the beef to make sure it is firm. Is the package tightly sealed? Is the meat bright red in color? These are keepers. Do you see extra liquid in the bottom? Can you spot a tinge of brown on any part of the steak? If so, put it down and keep looking for a fresher steak. (Note that this does not apply to vacuum-sealed meat.)

If you have purchased meat from a specialty market, do not ruin the flavor of perfectly aged beef by putting it in the freezer. Cook it within a day or so.

These tender cuts of beef still won't taste good off the grill if you don't cook them properly. Charcoal grilling will give your steaks the best flavor, but if you have a gas grill, they'll still be tasty.

Season your steaks at least a couple of hours ahead of time: pepper, a little Worcestershire, whatever suits you, which is what "to taste" means. Do not use salt-this sucks the juices right out of the meat and makes it dry. Put the steaks back in the fridge until one-half hour before cooking time. You want them to be room temperature when they go on the grill; otherwise, the inside might be a little too pink - even bloody - to suit some tastes while the outside is perfectly done.

Pile the coals in the center of the grill. You want to create a hot spot in the center, but will also use the surrounding area after the outside of the steak is seared. Put the steaks in the center and cook until browned and crusty on both sides. Now, set them off to the sides of the grill so the insides can continue cooking. If you're using a gas grill, just turn down the heat. Every grilling expert will have a different method; experiment and practice with what you think will work; success will come.

The steak will continue to cook once it is removed from the grill, so take it off just shy of the 170-degree mark. Here's the hard part: letting it rest for a few minutes so that all the juices can flow around inside. Just enjoy the aroma for those few minutes and try to think about something else. Do not overcook. If you're unsure, stick a meat thermometer in and check; always a good idea in spite of the fact that you'll lose some of that juice. The steak won't dry up with one little prick.

The steaks have rested; everybody's raving about your grill skills. Now you're going to find out what a perfectly grilled steak really tastes like.


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