Don't Turn Off Your Grill Just Yet! This (Science-Approved) Steak Needs Eating

September  7, 2017

Last November, I listened to Ed Levine and J. Kenji Lopez-Alt answer Thanksgiving-cooking questions from their listeners on their podcast, Special Sauce. When I heard Kenji mention to a caller that marinades do not penetrate particularly far into meat even after many hours, I paused. Really?

10 hours? No thanks! Photo by Alexandra Stafford

I needed to learn more. Shortly thereafter, I bought Kenji’s cookbook, The Food Lab, and shortly after that, I found myself reading about glutamates and inosinates, studying charts on weight loss in cooked chicken, adding umami-loaded Marmite to my pantry and a Thermapen (a fancy instant-read thermometer) to my arsenal of gadgets. (What can I say? Five years ago, I followed Kenji to the Baking Steel and to homemade pizza I had only dreamed about—surely these investments would pay off similarly.)

Take me off the grill already! Photo by Alexandra Stafford

The Thermapen, in particular, has been a welcomed addition to my toolbox, the pal standing by my side all summer long, ensuring me over and over again: The meat is done. Take it off the grill. And The Food Lab itself has been my summer bible, answering once and for all the questions that arise and linger every grilling season: Is marinating really necessary? And if so, for how long? Is salt in the marinade a no-no or a must? What about acid?

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I finally have a foolproof system down: Rub meat with aromatics (minced garlic, ginger, shallots, scallions, dried spices, herbs, and chiles); marinate with a mix of acid (citrus or vinegar) or salty liquid (Worcestershire or soy) and olive oil; pat dry, then season liberally with salt and pepper before grilling over burning hot coals. This hanger steak seasoned with garlic, thyme, and Worcestershire sauce is one of my favorites. It marinates for one hour—during which time you can slice up some tomatoes, toss together a raw corn salad with herbs and feta, or cut cucumbers into spears—but cooks in five minutes.

That didn't take too long. Photo by Alexandra Stafford

In his Labor Day Weekend Cooking newsletter, Sam Sifton encouraged his readers to keep their grills out a little bit longer, noting “this is the start of the very best time of the year for cooking and eating." I couldn’t agree more. With so much produce needing nothing more than a pinch of salt and a drizzle of oil, half the dinner battle is done. Let a screaming hot grill take care of the rest.

A few tips for simple, fast grilling:

Note: I am no Meathead. I like grilling skewers of chicken thighs, cedar planks topped with salmon, and thin cuts of beef like skirt or hanger. In other words, I don’t like standing at the grill for more than 8 minutes tops. These are the grilling principles I follow, most of which I learned directly from The Food Lab.

Marinate for at least 1 hour but no more than 12. Kenji writes: “Even after the course of a night, a marinade will penetrate no farther than a millimeter or two,” concluding that, “a marinade’s effects are largely limited to the surface of the meat.” Marinating more than 12 hours, moreover, will cause the meat to get mushy and chalky around the edges.

It should look like this when it's ready. Photo by Alexandra Stafford

Marinate with a mixture that includes oil, acid, a salty liquid, and aromatics. Let's break it down:

Why oil? It emulsifies a marinade, making it tackier, which allows it to more effectively stick to the meat. Also, because many flavorful compounds (onions, garlic, many spices) are oil soluble, a fat-based medium will allow for better and more even flavor distribution. Oil also helps the meat cook evenly, providing a buffer between the heat of the grill and the surface of the meat.

Why acid? It’s a tenderizer. Note, however, excessive acid can “cook” meat and cause it to firm up. When using acid in a marinade, use no more than equal parts acid and oil and limit exposure time to under 10 hours to prevent meat from turning chalky.

Why a salty liquid? The muscle protein myosin will dissolve in a salty liquid, leaving the meat with a looser texture and a better ability to retain moisture. Soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce, moreover, contain protease, an enzyme that breaks down proteins.

Why aromatics? Though ingredients such as garlic, ginger, shallots, scallions, dried spices, herbs, and chiles are primarily for seasoning the surfaces of meat, they still impart significant flavor.

Summer, don't go! Photo by Alexandra Stafford

The marinade here adheres to these principles. First, a paste made with minced garlic, thyme, and salt is rubbed over the meat, then a mix of olive oil and Worcestershire is poured over the meat. In one hour, it’s ready for the grill.

Chimney starters remove the hassle from lighting coals. Invest in two. They look large, but after 30 minutes of heating, the coals shrink, and even for a small amount of food, one chimney-full of coals is rarely enough. When the coals have turned white, dump them into the grill, replace the grate, and let the grate heat for at least five minutes before grilling.

Photo by Alexandra Stafford

Hanger steak is my favorite cut but it’s hard to find. If you are so lucky enough to find hanger steak, ask the butcher to remove the membrane running down its center and, if possible, to butterfly the two remaining loins—this will ensure quick and even cooking. Skirt steak, which is more readily available, is a great alternative.

What will be the last thing you make on your grill before you pack it away?

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  • PHIL
  • Alexandra Stafford
    Alexandra Stafford
I write the blog alexandra's kitchen, a place for mostly simple, sometimes fussy, and always seasonal recipes. My cookbook, Bread Toast Crumbs is available everywhere books are sold.


PHIL September 8, 2017
Who packs their grill away?! I keep a snow shovel on my deck and stand by the grill for warmth. I like hangers the best, cook quickly and the deep crevices and thinness mean more marinade flavor per square inch.
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Alexandra S. September 8, 2017
I love it. I am going to try for once NOT to be a wimp this winter and to keep the grill going. Hangers are so good—wish they were easier to find!