Cooking Tips

How to Make an $8 Steak Taste Like an $18 Steak

Get more for your money.

Published Aug. 6, 2021.

Most of us can’t afford to grill a strip steak every night. But we can get a less expensive steak to taste just as good as one.

Here’s the truth: If you want big, meaty flavor from a grilled piece of beef, you’re going to get what you pay for. Expensive cuts—such as strip steaks, rib eyes, and T-bones—are expensive because they come from the middle of the steer. As you go farther down the animal, the price tag decreases—but the potential for dry, chewy meat with gamy, liver-y flavor increases.

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So how do you grill inexpensive grilled steak to ensure that it turns out tender, juicy, and flavorful? Cook’s Illustrated Deputy Food Editor Andrea Geary figured it out. Read the key steps below, or check out her recipe for Grilled Steak with New Mexican Chile Rub for all the details.

The Best Inexpensive Cut to Grill

For the question of cut, Andrea focused on those from the sirloin and the round. After several taste tests, she determined that the shell sirloin steak gave the best taste and texture for the money. (Depending on where in the country you’re shopping, the shell sirloin steak is also called top butt, butt steak, top sirloin butt, top sirloin steak, and center-cut roast.) At the time this article was published, this cut cost $7.99 at my local Whole Foods Market.

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How to Prep the Steak

Expensive cuts need only a simple sprinkle of salt and pepper, but inexpensive ones, including the shell sirloin steak, require a bit more prep. (But don’t worry—it pays off!)

  1. Salt the meat and let it sit at room temperature for at least an hour. Salting the meat draws moisture from inside, which over time is reabsorbed as the meat sits, seasoning it and changing the structure of the muscle fibers so that they hold on to more juices. 
  2. Use glutamate-rich ingredients in the salt mixture. To amp up savory taste, incorporate tomato paste and fish sauce.
  3. Make a spice rub using toasted whole spices and dried chiles. Rubs made mostly with dried herbs lost their flavor, while those based on spices—namely, peppers, chiles, and paprika—fared much better. Toasting the whole spices and chiles before grinding them using a spice grinder or mortar and pestle made for a rub with much deeper flavor.
  4. Score the meat before salting. Scoring the meat with shallow slits helps the salt paste and spice rub adhere to the meat and penetrate more deeply.
  5. Before applying the spice rub, spray the meat with vegetable oil spray or oil from a mister. This helps the steaks keep their rub intact through the grilling process.

How to Grill the Steak

The best way to grill the steak is to keep it straightforward. Use a two-level setup that creates a hotter and a cooler side.

  • If using a charcoal grill, light 7 quarts of charcoal briquettes in a chimney starter. When the top coals are partially covered with ash, pour two-thirds of the briquettes evenly over the grill, then pour the remaining coals over half the grill. Cover the grill and heat until hot, about 5 minutes.
  • If using a gas grill, turn all burners to high; cover; and heat the grill until hot, about 15 minutes. Leave the primary burner on high and turn the other burner(s) to medium.

Grill the steak over the hotter part of the grill until it’s browned and charred and the center registers 120 to 125 degrees (for medium-rare) or 130 to 135 degrees (for medium), 3 to 4 minutes per side. If the steak has not reached the desired temperature by then, move it to the cooler side of the grill and continue to cook. Let the steak rest for 10 minutes before slicing against the grain and serving.

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