The sizzle is the sound the steak makes on a very hot grill and indicates the outside of the meat is being seared to hold in the juices and being caramelized with flavour, says Toronto-based Naz Cavallaro, resident chef for Weber-Stephen Products, maker of Weber grills.
Joyce Parslow of Canada Beef Inc., a Mississauga-based marketing firm for the beef industry, agrees searing is vital for a juicy, tender steak. She's no slouch with a barbecue either — she and a partner recently cooked 700 steaks in one weekend at a Steaks for Soldiers event at CFB Petawawa.
Where they differ somewhat is in the process each uses.
Cavallaro starts with his grill at 260 to 315 C (500 to 600 F). He lightly oils the steak (not the grill) before spicing it, then methodically sears the steak to get perfect cross-hatch grill marks on each side. For a 2.5-centimetre (one-inch) medium-rare steak, the meat can be moved onto a plate to finish cooking as soon as it is seared. If medium is preferred, he leaves the burners on high on half the grill but moves the steak to the other half, where the burners are on low or off, and uses indirect heat to finish cooking.
"You preheat your grill on high and you sear on high. You don't cook on high," he says.
Parslow heats her grill to medium-high, around 200 C (400 F), and oils the grill grids, not the steak. She also sears both sides of the seasoned steak but then continues to cook it at the same temperature until it is done to her liking.
Despite this contrast, the two agree more than they disagree about steak. Both say their favourite way to season a good steak is simply with kosher or sea salt and pepper.
Canada Beef divides steaks into three classifications.
"Grilling" steaks, usually the most expensive, are nicely marbled with fat and can be put directly on the grill or in a pan with no preparation except seasoning. These include T-bone, porterhouse, top sirloin, strip loin, tenderloin and rib-eye.
"Marinating" steaks, usually less expensive cuts from the more muscular areas of the animal, are equally or even more flavourful but less tender with less marbling, so they should be marinated. These include sirloin tip, inside round, eye of round, outside round, flank and skirt steaks.
"Simmering" steaks are cuts such as blade or brisket. These are the most sinewy and should be simmered or braised in liquid for a long time over low heat to break down the muscle and make them tender.
When marinating steaks, Parslow says, the most important step is to first use a fork to pierce the meat all over.
"Marinating steak adds flavour to the meat and some moisture and it will help to break down some of the collagen fibres. But the piercing itself is almost as big a tenderizer as the marinating."
She uses a self-sealing plastic bag to keep the meat immersed and less exposed to air. The marinade should include some acidic element — vinegar or citrus juice, for example — to help tenderize the meat, but not too much or it will almost cook the meat from the inside. She says fruit such as pineapple and kiwi contain an enzyme that breaks down the protein so effectively it can become mushy or mealy.
Marinating time can vary from one hour to 24.
Even with marinated steak, Parslow uses paper towelling to pat it dry before adding salt and pepper prior to cooking. You don't need much salt, she says, especially if you've used a soy-based marinade. But it's better to salt the meat before cooking than at the table because it's the combination of the salt and meat juice that creates the caramelization.
Cavallaro puts his salt on five to 10 minutes before cooking to draw some of the juices out of the meat.
If using barbecue sauce, it should not be brushed on until a couple of minutes before the meat is cooked, partly because most sauces contain sugar that will burn if on the heat too long. Cavallaro suggests heating sauce on a side burner so you're putting hot sauce on a hot steak.
"You have a short window of overcooking your food, so if I brush on a cold barbecue sauce, by the time it goes from cold to warm, warm to hot and hot to a nice crust, your food's overcooked. That's the biggest mistake people make with sauce."
The two agree that when the meat is almost cooked to the desired level, it should be removed from the barbecue and allowed to "rest" for three to five minutes. It will continue to cook a little and this time allows the juices to redistribute throughout the meat from the centre to ensure every bite is juicy.
Never cut into a steak to see if it is cooked as the juices will bubble out, leaving the meat dry. Use an instant-read thermometer.
After less expensive cuts have rested, thinly slice across the grain before serving. This shortens the fibres and makes the meat easier to chew.
Canada Beef, www.beefinfo.org
To contact Susan Greer, email her at susan.greer(at)rogers.com.