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First and foremost, I am a member of a few other Stack Exchange sites, and I haven't been this excited about one for a while. I'm basically a nerd that's trying to get into cooking, and I couldn't be more happy they made this :)

Onto the question,

Growing up, I've always grilled on gas grills. Recently, I've moved into an apartment with my girlfriend and we are only allowed to have a charcoal grill. It's a tiny one (I think), probably about 1.5 - 2 feet in diameter. I use the charcoal that are already covered in flammable material (the black ones), and they work pretty well. I basically follow the directions every single time I go to light the grill. I put about 30-40 bricks in the middle of the grill in a pyramid shape, light them in several places, and then watch it burn. I do this until the flame pretty much dies down and the bricks are about 80-85% covered in grey ash. After that, I put the cage back on the grill, let it heat up so I can clean it off with the brush, and then shake the bricks until they are even across the bottom.

Right after this I put the steak on (right in the middle where there's the most heat from all the bricks burning in the pyramid towards the top before I spread them out). Now at this point, I NEVER have any idea how long it should stay there, when I should flip it, if I should flip it more than once, what I should look for before I flip it, how fast it's cooking - I basically don't know anything. I'm a guy, I hate how I can't grill great! :(

I usually end up either over cooking it so it's tough, or under cooking it and it's still bleeding in the middle. I like my steaks right around medium, and I can never seem to get them perfect. I had a perfect one once, and it was 100% luck. I don't have a thermometer or anything to test the meat with (maybe I need to invest in one?), nor do I have anything that I can test how hot the grill is inside. The grill has a basic black cover with a little vent so I can control the air getting inside, but no thermometer or anything.

Can I get some tips? I'm cooking a steak on the grill for my girlfriend tonight that has been marinating for over 24 hours, and I don't want to mess it up!

P.S. And I almost forgot! The steak I am cooking tonight is a London Broil.

Thanks!

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If you want a fast cook steak use a gas grill, if you want a slow smoky steak use a charcoal grill, with real charcoal or wood (lid optional). Fast cooking on charcoal is basically a waste of effort, as the smoky flavours and the fun of the fire are wasted in a sub-five minute process. Try a whole chicken or lamb roast in your charcoal BBQ to get the real feel of slow fire cooking. Also try some solid wood instead of just plain charcoal –  TFD Jul 19 '11 at 0:11
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Don't worry about the size of your grill. I've been gradually migrating to smaller grills. Currently I use a pair of grills that are each about the size of a mouse mat (6"x12"). The reasons are many: They are easier to light. They take less time and less charcoal to get to temperature. They hold the heat in better. They are cheap. –  Rincewind42 Jul 19 '11 at 3:34
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5 Answers 5

up vote 16 down vote accepted

Here's a couple of hints:

  1. Learn to judge doneness by feel. See this answer for a good guide to temp by feel.

  2. Learn to judge grill temp by hand. Hold your hand palm down about 3-4 inches above the grill. If you can hold it there for a second or two, it's hot; 3-4 seconds is medium; 5-6 seconds is low.

  3. Sear first. Start with a very hot grill. You want about two minutes per side. Do not move the steak while it is searing. Make sure you've given the grill grate at least 5 mins to heat up.

  4. Use a two level fire. Once you've seared your steak, you want to finish cooking over a lower heat. Build a two level fire by putting the coals on one side of the grill rather than the whole thing. Then sear over the coals. Then move it to the other side to finish. If the grill isn't wide enough for a two level fire, you could try quenching the fire by cutting off air flow. That will cool it quickly.

  5. Finish with the lid on. This helps cook by heating the air rather than just using direct heat.

  6. Change your fuel. Stop using lighter fluid. Use a chimney instead. Hard lump charcoal is better than briquettes. It's easier to light, creates less left over, and burns hotter.

  7. Rest your meat for a few minutes before eating. Be aware that it will continue to cook during this time, so you want to pull it off a little early.

  8. Read up on cooking steak. There are a bunch of good questions on this site!

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#6: Light the chimney with a bit of paper soaked in a few teaspoons of vegetable oil. That turns it into a mini torch that really helps light the charcoal faster. –  Tremmors Jul 18 '11 at 23:57
    
This is definitely the most thorough answer I've gotten. On the plus side, I just cooked my steak. Out of these points, I would say the one I didn't perform correctly was #7. I didn't pull the meat off early enough therefore it become medium well instead of medium or medium rare. I had to use lighter fluid because I don't have a chimney, but it worked well for me. Everything else worked well also, thank you! –  slandau Jul 19 '11 at 0:11
    
@tremmors, yeah, I actually don't use a chimney. I find that a paper towel soaked in oil works great. But I'm not sure how that works with briquettes vs hard wood, and I only use the latter, so I thought I'd leave it with the safer advice. –  yossarian Jul 19 '11 at 11:57
    
@slandau, you want to pull the meat off when it's about one doneness less than you want, so pull it at medium rare to end with medium. Switch your fuel when you get a chance. You'll get a better flavor if you quit using lighter fluid. –  yossarian Jul 19 '11 at 11:59
    
Sounds good. I'll look into a chimney. I'm assuming I won't need to already covered coal with a chimney? –  slandau Jul 19 '11 at 13:07
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Does your charcoal grill have a lid? If so, your best bet is to make use of it. The lid allows for convection heat, and also controls the oxygen supply to your coals.

Your biggest enemy is flareups. So you will want to make use of a two-zone fire. Even in a smaller grill, this is possible. Keep the coals to one half of your charcoal grate, leaving the other half as a "cool" zone. Get your cooking grate nice and hot, and put your steaks on the hot side. Wait about 15-30 seconds, then spin your grate 180 degrees and put the lid on. This will let your steaks cook with indirect heat, and will also heat the other side of the cooking grate. After 2-4 minutes, flip the steaks back onto the hot side, wait 15-30 seconds, spin the grate, and put the lid back in place. After about another 2-4 minutes, your steak should be done. If your steak is thicker than an inch, add some time. If it's thinner, subtract some time. Use an instant read thermometer to be certain of the temperature you have achieved.

Also, don't forget to let your meat rest for 5-10 minutes, or nearly every drop of fluid will run out of your steak and onto your plate.

If you are doing a London Broil, you don't want to cook it much, probably to the low end of medium at the most. Otherwise, you will have a marinated piece of shoe.

I hope this gives you some guidance. It will take a little trial and error to get the hang of it, but this is a good basis with which to start.

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Thanks for the advice, particularly with the shout-out to the London Broil. Not a great piece of meat, but cheap :) –  slandau Jul 18 '11 at 21:04
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I actually really like a London Broil, and not just because of the attractive price point. It has a nice, strongly beefy flavor, and is very lean. Unfortunately, the lack of fat and collagen just limits your cooking options. –  Sean Hart Jul 18 '11 at 21:08
    
Got you. Well I'll give everything a shot. Thanks again! –  slandau Jul 18 '11 at 21:10
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Small grills are like small fish tanks... Less is not more... They leave less room for error and allow you fewer options that a nice big charcoal (or gas) grill would offer (for instance the ability to raise or lower the charcoal bed to adjust heat)

So with a small grill I would approach it this way:

if (you can't get the coals at least 6 inches from the coals)

{

1) Bake the steak @ 400 for about 5 minutes per inch
2) Use the grill to get a nice pretty sear and that "grill" taste
3) Only leave the steak on the grill for about 2 minutes per side

// Not having enough room between the coals will make it very tough to
// cook it through without burning the outside

} else {

1) Cook the steak over a moderately hot area of the grill... Cooking over the
   hottest spot will cause problems w/ burning (see above) and will put a bit of suit on
   your steak.
2) Flip every 3 minutes until steak has a lot of give (med-rare), little give (medium), 
   or very little give (med-well).
3) Note that feeling the "give" of the steak **with your fingers** is going to be more 
   accurate than poking it w/ tongs

}

Also 2 more tips:

1) The baking thing: This is a cheat, but it works WONDERFULLY w/ things like ribs as well... It's easier to control an oven then a cheap grill

2) If you want to err on the side of under done, you can heat some nice oven-safe ceramic plates in the oven and serve the under-done steak on that... Ruth's Chris does this and they charge a lot for it.

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The last few times I've done tri-tip has been with a mix of oven and the grill - the method is absolutely sound. –  overslacked Jul 18 '11 at 20:46
    
Thanks! Only problem is, I have nothing to determine how hot the grill is :( –  slandau Jul 18 '11 at 20:50
    
Then I'd definately go w/ oven/grill combo... And I think w/ that method i'd amend my original post to only stay on the grill 1 min per side... You're just adding flavor and grill marks :) –  Rikon Jul 18 '11 at 21:03
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I think this is one of those things that's really just about practice. In my experience, the thermometer isn't very useful: I like my steaks rare, and the fine line between rare and raw is thin enough that the thermometer just doesn't cut it.

For me, for steak, I use the finger test. The doneness can be determined pretty reliably by how firm the meat is. If its squishy, it's raw, if its hard as a brick, it's well done. If you routinely check, you'll see that the difference in firmness is noticeable, even just from raw to rare.

With practice, this is useful even for chicken, though, for bone-in breasts, I'll use a thermometer, or I'll pre-cook them and then finish them on the grill.

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Thanks man. Gives me a little more confidence without a thermometer. –  slandau Jul 18 '11 at 20:57
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Although I can't answer all of your questions, one of the tips that seems to have made a big difference in the evenness of the steaks I grill is from Alton Brown: turn the steak a quarter turn (90 degrees) halfway between flips.

I can honestly say that nothing has made a bigger difference in the quality, or the consistency, of my grilling than a dirt-cheap instant read thermometer. There's nothing more important than knowing your food's temperature. I would recommend a better-quality thermometer though, so you don't have to replace it once you realize what a tremendous difference it makes. You simply must have one before you start grilling tonight!

After you know (because of the thermometer) what a perfect steak looks and feels like, you'll naturally start to depend less on it. But until then, there's just no substitute.

Good luck!

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That makes sense. I definitely want to get a food thermometer. I've heard you can tell how well a steak is done by feeling the firmness of it, but I'm not sure if that would be a great tell or not. I will keep the rotation in mind as well. Thanks! –  slandau Jul 18 '11 at 20:36
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@slandau - you absolutely can, although I wasn't able to use/intuit that consistently until after I'd used a thermometer to be able to (re)produce a well-grilled steak. –  overslacked Jul 18 '11 at 20:43
    
Good point. Sort of like setting your own even point. –  slandau Jul 18 '11 at 20:48
    
Agree 100% with using a thermometer. Different types of meat feel different to the touch. A rump steak will never be as tender as a perfect piece of tenderloin and they will not feel the same when you touch them, raw or cooked. If you get your hands on a dry aged, really tender piece of filet mignon it will actually be possible to poke your finger right through the raw steak without much effort. A steak like that, when cooked perfectly, is not going to feel the same as a piece of rump steak from the supermarket cooked to the same temperature. With a thermometer you do not have to guess. –  Henrik Söderlund Jul 20 '11 at 7:56
    
What temperature would I look for on the thermometer to determine different types of doneness? –  slandau Jul 20 '11 at 15:03
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