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A long-time contributor to SeriouslySmoked. Jim has had a lifelong relationship with the art of grilling, passed on from his father and grandfather to him.
Annabelle is an experienced food writer and editor. She focuses on common sense, easy to replicate recipes formulated
to help keep things fresh and exciting while fitting into her day to day life as a wife and mother.
Grilling steak on a charcoal grill is one of the great American pastimes. Outdoor cooking enthusiasts love taking the time to light their grill and infusing their meats with a range of smoky flavors. However, many people struggle to get their desired results, and often it can be a lottery as to whether the steak is rare or well-done.
Using a charcoal grill takes practice, and not all steaks cook at the same rate. Several variables, such as the wind speed and charcoal temperature, as well as the thickness of the meat and the amount of marbling, can affect how long you should leave your steak on the grill.
By following a few simple tips, you can grill the perfect steak every time.
1. Lighting Your Charcoal Grill
One of the most important aspects of grilling steak on a charcoal grill is the charcoal heat and placement. It’s best to cook steak hot and fast, so purchase lump wood charcoal because it burns faster than briquettes. There is also less ash that could block the grill air vents and lower the cooking temperature.
The easiest way to light your fuel is in a charcoal chimney. Place some newspaper in the bottom of the cylinder, and add your coals at the top end. When you light the paper, the fire moves upward to ignite the charcoal. After approximately 10 minutes, you should see a light covering of ash on the coals. The charcoal is now ready to go in the firebox.
Rather than tipping the coals in one spot, spread them evenly so each grill section receives an even amount of heat. This step is essential when grilling steak because it prevents hot and cold spots on the grill that could affect the cooking process.
2. Prepare Your Steak
A good tip when learning how to grill steak on a charcoal grill is to remove your steak from the fridge for around 30 minutes before placing it on the grill. By allowing it to warm to room temperature, it grills faster. You can add seasonings such as salt and pepper, but don’t add too much in case you overpower the steak’s natural flavorings.
This is also an excellent time to ensure you have all your grilling utensils ready for use. If you want to serve your steak with side dishes, use this time to prepare them, ensuring you don’t have to leave your steaks unattended during grilling. It’s easy to overcook a steak if it is on the grill for a couple of minutes too long, so you need to give it your full attention to achieve the best results.
3. Learn Your Steak Grilling Times
You don’t want to lift the grill lid too often during cooking, as this allows heat and smoke to escape. If you know how long it takes to grill the ideal steak, you only need to lift the lid when it is time to turn the meat.
You can use a cooking chart, but as a rough guide, a 1” steak takes between 7-12 minutes to cook to medium-rare. After around 4 minutes, you’ll want to turn the steak and cook the second side.
A meat thermometer is a crucial piece of equipment when learning how to grill steak on a charcoal grill. A steak may look like it is ready to eat from its outside appearance, but the internal temperature is the most crucial aspect. If you purchase a digital meat thermometer, this can provide precise readings that allow you to confirm your meat is ready to serve.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) states that steaks should have an internal cooking temperature of 120-155°F to ensure they are safe to consume. You should also allow extra time as they require a 3-minute rest period before serving. During the rest period, the steak’s juices redistribute so you can enjoy a moist piece of meat.
4. Add a Touch of Flair
If you’re ready to step up and serve steaks that look like they’ve just come from a restaurant kitchen, you can add attractive cross-hatch marks during grilling. Place your steaks at a 45° angle from your grill lines, preferably on the hottest section of your grill.
Pivot your steaks a quarter turn after a couple of minutes. Flip your steaks at the half-way mark, and give them another quarter-turn toward the end. Each time you turn the steaks, move them to another hot spot on the grill. If you have an even coal distribution, the entire grilling surface area should have plenty of heat.
Take Your Steak Grilling to the Next Level
Once you’ve mastered these techniques, you can experiment with different seasonings and steak cuts. Because the charcoal grilling experience is never the same, it's always fun to test your cooking skills with different marinades, rubs, and steaks.