Chef Geoffrey Zakarian’s Guide to Grilling

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How to cook steak on the grill this season, from a chef who spends his free time by the fire.

My favorite summer pastime is, without a doubt, grilling,” says chef Geoffrey Zakarian. “There is something almost primal about it: the fire; the meat; it feels good in your soul.” It may come as a surprise that the Iron Chef, television host, and restaurateur chooses to cook in his leisure time—after all, he spends most of his professional life preparing, talking about, and generally obsessing over food—but Zakarian insists it relaxes him. “When I am at work there are a lot of other pressures that go along with the cooking; at home, it is just a passion and I get to share it with my friends and family in a casual setting,” he says. “There is nothing better than firing up the grill on a warm summer night [with] friends, family and, of course, a delicious glass of wine.”

Zakarian grew up in a family of avid cooks, so it’s hard for him to pinpoint exactly when his love of food began, but he does remember when he started to appreciate grilling: his first time working a restaurant grill as a professional cook. “It gave me a whole new perspective and respect for any cook that works the grill station,” he says. “It is amazingly precise work timing the meat with the rest of the food in the kitchen—not to mention the heat.”

These days, Zakarian mostly grills at home, wherever he can and on whatever he can get his hands on—“inside, outside, in a grill pan, in the fireplace, on a plancha, on a charcoal Weber to a Kamado smoker/grill,” he says. “Even in the winter, we have a special grill that fits in the fireplace and we cook Christmas dinner that way.” But no matter where he’s cooking, he carries what he learned with him, from how to choose a cut of meat to when exactly to pull it off the grill. And his guests know to pay attention: When he starts cooking, it’s never long for everyone gathers around to watch the action, he says. “Everyone is always looking to pick up a few grilling tips.”

Us included. We asked the chef to share with us a few of his essential tricks; read on and use them at your next dinner party this season.

It’s important to have the best products. “That means high-quality beef, seasonal vegetables, and great wine. I think spending a lot of money on your meat is important, regardless of the cut. For steak specifically, go for dry-aged from a high quality butcher. And don't hesitate to ask your butcher to order in something special for you; you may not always see what you want in the case but with a little planning and advance notice, they can get most anything and prep it to your specifications.” 

Look for a high fat-to-meat ratio. “It’s the difference between a tough, chewy piece of meat and a tender, tasty one. When grilling, you should always opt for a fatty steak, with the marbling evenly spread throughout. Look at your meat before you buy it! When I go to the butcher I look for a 20-oz bone-in rib eye, aged about 30 days and around 2.5 inches thick. The thickness is important because it allows enough time to get a good char without overcooking the inside.”

Don’t start cold. “I only cook meat when it’s room temperature. You cannot get a perfect medium rare with a cold slab of beef.”

Season, season, season. “Season all four sides of the steak with only salt and cracked pepper (and some olive oil), and be sure to use plenty of it. You have to remember that you are seasoning a big piece of meat and want the salt and pepper to permeate throughout. I tend to prefer a rub over a sauce when grilling steak; I like to make the steak the star of the meal so I keep the preparation very minimal.”

Flip steak once; touch steak once. “One major mistake that many grillers make is touching the steak too much once it’s gone on the grill. No need to prod and turn every few minutes! Instead, flip only once and leave it alone until it’s at 125 degrees on your digital thermometer, for the perfect, juicy, medium-rare steak. After you take it off the grill, let it sit for about 15 minutes before you cut it.”

Beef should never be hot. “It’s generally assumed beef should be served hot; this is incorrect. Beef that is cooked to a medium rare or medium temperature will never be above 130F. This is just above body temperature. Keeping both wine and beef at the proper temperatures will allow their best qualities to be displayed.”

Take your knives seriously. “Don’t underestimate the power of a good knife. Invest in quality products, keep them sharp, and treat them well—your steak will thank you for it. One great way to keep your best knives safe is to save the cork from a wine bottle and use it to protect the knife tip.”

Don’t forget the extras. “I always pair my grilled steak with a summer vegetable, like corn or zucchini, and let the quality of the seasonal ingredients shine through. And although others may disagree, I believe white wine is never an option for a truly magnificent steak. With a fatty steak, you need a big bold wine to pair with it. When I am grilling for a group of my friends and family I opt for Beringer Vineyards Founders' Estate Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.”