How I grilled the best steaks I've ever eaten

It's been nearly a year since I moved from London to Burbank, and in that time, I've been slowly iterating through various online tutorials to be better at charcoal grilling, something I had almost no experience with when I got here.

I started by buying a low-cost, well-reviewed kettle grill, a cheap instant-read thermometer, and a pair of silicone mitts (the first pair tore quickly, but the second pair is a keeper).

Suitably armed, I began shopping at my local family-owned grocer for meats. After trying a few different cuts, I settled upon the tri-tip, an iconic, versatile California cut with a lot of character, which comes in big, thick, juicy slabs from my local butcher.

The basic grill techniques were easy enough to master: using a chimney starter, I get my coals up to temperature (I have tried a lot of different charcoal, and am currently mostly using mesquite or oak). I pour the coals out on one half of the grill, leaving the other half empty, and put a smoker box filled with water soaked apple-wood chips on top of them, then put the grill down.

Until Saturday, my basic meat-prep technique was to bring the steaks up to room temperature while crusting them with rock salt. I also had some moderate luck with a simple bourbon marinade (1/3 bourbon, 1/3 soy sauce, 1/3 brown mustard, 1 tsp of crushed garlic, 1 pinch black petter) that I put in a freezer bag with the steak overnight before cooking.

But then Madeline Ashby came for a visit and, having tried my steaks (and enjoyed them!) pointed me to the Serious Eats Food Lab guide to grilled steak, which changed my life.

The key lesson from this guide was to leave the steaks uncovered in the fridge for 4-5 days before cooking them. This dehydrated the outer third, allowing for a quicker cooking time, which left the center pink and juicy while the outside was nicely crusted and blackened. The tri-tip's tapering shape yields a variety of done-nesses, from medium rare to well-done, which was great for serving a large group of people.

I cooked the steaks over the grill's cool zone (opposite the side with the coals), flipping and salting them every 5-10 minutes, until they got up to about 135F, then gave them 2-3 minutes on each side over the hot zone to finish the crust.

The difference was astounding. I literally have never eaten a better piece of meat, neither in a 5-star Vegas steakhouse nor in a down-home favorite Texas grill. I can still taste it.

I'm going to keep playing with this technique. I don't know if 4.5 days was optimal, or if I could get similar results with a shorter drying-out period. I also want to try the marinade in combination with the drying technique, though I worry that adding liquid to the steaks will defeat the purpose of partially dehydrating them.

There are many other grilling tips on Serious Eats (my next experiment will be their dry-rub ribs), and López-Alt has a well-regarded cookbook I want to check out.

In the meantime, here's my gospel for your summer grilling: dry those thick steaks out a little before cooking 'em. You'll thank me.

The Food Lab's Definitive Guide to Grilled Steak
[J Kenji López-Alt/Serious Eats]

(Image: J Kenji López-Alt)