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.
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.
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.
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)