Cooking Tips
For the Ultimate Char, Sear Your Steaks Over Your Chimney Starter
Coals are at their hottest not in the grill but in the chimney. So why not cook over that?
06-21-2021
Mari Levine

What do you see when you look at your chimney starter? A single-use tool? A one-trick pony? If so, it’s time for you to think outside the grill.

Most of us have used a chimney starter only for lighting coals and getting them good and hot before we pour them into the grill. But the coals are actually at their hottest in the chimney—not in the grill, where airflow is far more restricted. With all of its openings and perforations, a chimney starter is designed to house ultrahot, radiant heat. So why not leave the coals in the chimney and cook over that?

That’s the question Cook’s Illustrated Editor in Chief Dan Souza set out to answer when he developed his Ultimate Char-Grilled Steaks recipe a few years ago. If it worked, he would have a reliable technique that produced that killer crust and rosy meat that you only find in steakhouses with superhot, restaurant-caliber broilers.

Dan’s a smart guy, but he didn’t come up with the idea himself. The idea of cooking steaks using a chimney starter was popularized by Alton Brown, who cooked a dry-aged T-bone under a lit chimney starter on an episode of his food science show Good Eats:

The idea was brilliant (and that T-bone did come out looking quite charred and tasty), but the technique needed some finessing. Cooking the steak underneath the chimney starter made it difficult to monitor doneness and resulted in some ash falling onto the meat. Other cooks have flipped the equation—placing a grill grate on top of a lit chimney starter and searing the steak on the grate—but that resulted in uneven cooking and created a balancing act that was precarious, to say the least.

Dan has developed some of America’s Test Kitchen’s most popular meat-cooking techniques and recipes (see Carne Asada, Garlic-Lime Grilled Pork Tenderloin Steaks, and Tacos al Pastor). By the end of his experimentation, he’d salted, scored, sliced, and seared dozens of steaks—and achieved the ultimate char-grilled steak. Watch the video below to learn more about his technique, and check out the list of key takeaways.

  • Remove excess fat. Use thick steaks (1¾-inch-thick boneless strips or rib-eyes) and trim their fat caps before grilling to limit flare-ups.
  • Score the surface. Ever notice how edges char best? That’s because they have more exposed surface and are thinner, making it easier for water to evaporate, which is a key factor for browning to occur. Scoring the surface of the steaks in a crosshatch pattern before cooking provides additional edges to brown and char.
  • Cook before you sear. The heat from the chimney starter is so hot that it only takes a minute on each side for the crust to form. That’s not enough time to cook through the interior of the meat. To address this, Dan cooked the interior of the steaks in a low-temperature oven—200 degrees until they registered 120 degrees—before searing them for the perfect crust.
  • Light your chimney starter and sear. After your steaks’ interiors are cooked, it’s time for the fun part. Light a large chimney starter filled halfway with charcoal briquettes. When the top coals are completely covered in ash, place the skewered steaks over the chimney and cook until well browned and charred, about 1 minute per side.

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