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Grilling season is here, and after a long winter of cooking indoors, it can be easy to forget all of the finer points that can make or break a grilled steak. For a refresher, TODAY Food turned to a man who eats, breathes and sleeps meat: chef Tim Love, co-host of CNBC's Restaurant Startup, resident Texan, owner of 10 acclaimed restaurants and all-around grill master. Here, Love's top tips for how to grill a steak, plus his signature grilled steak recipe.
1. In a supermarket, start with the most tender cut and work your way down.
"The most tender cut is always beef tenderloin," Love jokes. That means filet mignon, a cut that's taken from the smaller end of the tenderloin. While filet mignon is the most tender cut, it's also the most expensive. If the price is way too high at your local market, opt for the second (flatiron/New York strip), third (rib steak) or even fourth (strip steak) most tender cut, advises butcher Chris Heyword at Lobel's Prime Meats in New York City. If you're planning to serve steak to a crowd, skirt steak is a great affordable option.
2. Don't overlook the most underrated cut of steak.
Love and Heyword agree that skirt steak is the most underappreciated cut when it comes to grilling. "It's very thin so it cooks quickly, it's easy and it's flavorful," says Love. His insider tip: "Outside cuts" of skirt steak will be more tender than "inside cuts," but they usually aren't clearly labeled, so ask your butcher. Skirt steak is Love's hands down favorite go-to cut for fajitas. It's also delicious simply grilled and served a side of a quick chimichurri sauce.
3. At the butcher, ask for a vacio or bavette cut for the best value.
Super popular in Argentina and in France in steak frites, the vacio or bavette cut is hardly ever served in the U.S. restaurants, so it's pretty budget friendly, according to Love. "It's super flavorful and has a really nice woven texture," he says. "It spreads like the fatty side of brisket, but grills like a steak." This cut can be hard to find in some supermarkets, but if you see it, buy it. You won't be disappointed.
4. Don't try to grill a cut that you would usually stew or roast.
"Short ribs, brisket, shanks, rump roasts — any of the 'working muscle' cuts are ones you want to stay away from when grilling," says Love. These parts don't have as much fat, so they take more cooking time to break down. "You'd be chewing for a while if you try to grill these," he says. Save them for a long stint in the oven or on a smoker, instead.
5. Look for as much marbling as possible.
When picking a steak, closely examine the intermuscular fat, also known as marbling. The fat lines running through the center of the meat and that don't go all the way to the edge are telltale signs that it's a flavorful piece. If you like a rich, velvety steak, as Love does, look for as many of these lines as possible.
6. Look for a deep red color.
"I want the deepest red I can see," Love says. "A lighter color means the meat has been cut for a while and has oxidized."
7. Trust your instincts.
"Don't be afraid to say, 'I want the fifth one back,' to your butcher or store clerk," Love says. Now that you're armed with what to look for, trust your own eye to choose the best pieces of meat.
8. Use peanut oil, not olive oil.
Love rubs his steaks with peanut oil instead of olive oil, because it has a higher smoke point. That means that if you're grilling at a high temperature ("like you're supposed to," he says), the oil won't burn and taste bitter. Love also happens to likes the flavor of peanut oil, but if you're not wild about it, go with grapeseed oil, which has a neutral flavor and a high smoke point.
9. Season before grilling.
Love always adds salt and pepper to a steak before grilling — that's what creates that nice crust, with a lot of crunch and texture on the exterior. "Add it later in the grilling process, and you'll never catch up," he says. Even better, add twice as much salt as you think you need and sprinkle the seasonings from up high so that it distributes more evenly: "Plus, you'll look cool," he says.
10. Flip it only once.
"The more you move meat around, the drier it becomes," he says. "Then again, if you want it well done, you can flip it all you want."
11. Shut the lid.
This tip is one of Love's biggest trade secrets. Even though it's incredibly simple, most home grillers don't want to shut the lid or have a hard time sticking to it. "You have all this beautiful smoke you're creating!" he says. "So, shut the lid. It's going to change the whole flavor of your food, and it keeps the grill hot, which is important."
12. Use a thermometer.
"The best way to tell if a steak is done is by using a meat thermometer," Love says. Here's a quick guide: 130°F for rare, 135°F medium-rare, 145°F medium, 150°F medium well and 160°F for well done. And don't worry if you have to keep stabbing it — you won't lose all the juices. "That's a myth," the chef says.
13. Take it off of the grill early, let it rest — and then do one last quick turn on the grill.
"As soon as meat hits the grill, it starts to seize up, shrink and feel tight," Love says. Since you want your steak to be tender, Love insists that it needs time to "relax" off of the grill. The meat can get cold while it rests, so Love has a trick to make sure it's always served at the perfect temperature:
First, he cooks the meat so it is one level of doneness below his goal.
Then, he flips the steak, pulls it off of the grill, and lets it rest for 15 minutes. It will bleed a little bit, but Love insists that it's OK. "It's not loosing its juices, which is another myth," he says.
To finish, he puts the steak back (with that same side up) on the grill for 3 to 4 additional minutes to bring it up to final temperature. "This way it will be hot when you serve it AND have the exact doneness you want when you put the steak on the plate."
14. Finish with lemon juice.
After the steak comes off the grill, Love adds a squeeze of lemon over the top to add acidity, which brings out the flavor and fat of the meat. For bonus points, use a grilled lemon. Simply slice a lemon open and grill it cut-side-down so that it loosens up and releases its juices more easily.
15. Have some wine at the ready.
Love's last essential when manning the grill: a bottle of chilled rosé or white wine. Not for the meat, but the cook. After all, he says: "You've got to entertain yourself a bit."
This post was originally published May 9, 2017.