The quest to cook the perfect steak has been a challenge since slabs of meat were roasted over fire. But what constitutes a great steak?
It should take you through a complex strata of textures and flavors: dark crust, rosy meat, tenderness balanced by chew. You want a steak you can sink your teeth into. There should be a perfect ratio of meat to fat — and there should be blood. Without those luscious steak juices, a steak would be merely delicatessen roast beef.
Tri-tip delivers all of that. A cut popularized in Santa Maria, Calif., and the surrounding Central Valley, this crescent-shaped steak from the bottom of the sirloin slices like brisket and eats like steak, with a rich, beefy flavor. But like all thick cuts, it poses a challenge: Grill it directly over high heat as you would a strip or skirt steak and you risk burning the exterior while leaving the center undercooked. Cook it low and slow, as you would brisket, and you lose the caramelized crust.
Enter reverse-searing — an ingenious grilling method that combines the low and slow smoking of traditional barbecue with the high heat charring practiced at steakhouses. It takes the guesswork out of grilling steak, rewarding you with a juicy, perfectly cooked slab of beef every time.
With this simple two-step process, you first cook the steak slowly — for 30 minutes or so — at 250 degrees, the temperature used by pit masters to barbecue brisket. Once you’ve warmed the center of the meat to 110 degrees, you rest the steak on a platter and raise the grill’s heat to a searing temperature of 600 degrees. You then char the exterior of the steak directly over the fire until sizzling, crusty and dark brown, bringing the meat’s internal temperature to 125 degrees (for rare) or 135 degrees (for medium-rare).
Reverse-searing offers several advantages over traditional direct grilling over high heat, where steak goes from undercooked to overcooked in a minute or two, requiring precise timing that inexperienced grillers may find daunting. During the initial stage of reverse-searing, the internal temperature of the meat rises gradually, so it’s easier to monitor and achieve the doneness you desire. Also, the meat cooks more evenly this way, ending up with uniform color and doneness from top to bottom, not a gray-brown ring of meat just beneath the crust and a reddish-blue bull’s-eye in the center.
Because the meat rests between the two stages, which allows it to relax and become juicier, the steak can be served hot off the grill right after its final sear. That means no more lukewarm steak and not having to keep hungry people waiting.
Perhaps the biggest advantage to reverse-searing is the ability to smoke the steak by adding hardwood chunks or chips to your low fire. That step infuses thick cuts like tri-tip with the haunting flavor of barbecue and adds a spectacular dimension of flavor.
The resulting tri-tip steak is perfectly cooked and intensely flavorful — and the cut, also known as Newport, Santa Maria, triangle and bottom sirloin tip, is mercifully inexpensive. Food prices are rising and reverse-searing works great for other inexpensive thick cuts, such as top round, sirloin or picanha. (It can be applied to three-finger-thick porterhouses and tomahawks, too.)
If you’re going to splurge on steak, you certainly want to nail it. Reverse-searing is as close to foolproof as grilling a steak gets.
Recipe: Reverse-Seared Steak