A perfectly cooked interior
A well-browned exterior
Good flavor, minimal work
I recently watched in disbelief as a fellow test cook took a rock-hard steak from the freezer and clunked it into a screaming-hot skillet. I’m all for questioning conventional wisdom, but really—could this possibly end well?
He seared the steak until it was well browned, about 90 seconds on each side, and then transferred it to the oven for 20 minutes to finish cooking. After letting it rest briefly, he sliced it. It was perfect. The exterior had developed an impressive sear while the superchilled interior was resistant to overcooking, so the meat within was juicy and rosy from edge to edge.
The approach is a clever one, and skipping the thawing step is certainly appealing for those of us who like to keep steaks on hand in the freezer. But the prospect of a perfectly cooked steak, even one that is really convenient to make, isn’t quite enough to induce me to fire up both an oven and a stovetop skillet on a hot summer evening. So what about adapting the technique for the grill?
I knew from the outset that I’d use a two-level fire. The hotter side of the grill would stand in for the skillet; I’d cook my steak there until it was deeply browned all over. The cooler side of the grill would play the part of the oven, where the interior of the steak would come up to temperature more slowly. If I could make it work, I’d happily stock my freezer with steaks so I could grill them on the spur of the moment—with no forethought about thawing them—all summer long.
Thin Doesn’t Win
But before I focused on perfecting my grilling method, I’d have to decide what kind of steak to use. My colleague had done his indoor testing with thick-cut steaks (think rib-eye and strip), so I’d certainly test those. But thin, quick-cooking flank and skirt steaks are favorites on the grill, so I wanted to give them a try, too. I froze my assortment of steaks overnight until they were solid.
I started by grilling the flank and skirt steaks, and I quickly learned an important lesson: Searing in a hot skillet is very different from cooking on a grill. The browning step took three times longer on the grill than it had in my colleague’s skillet. That’s because the radiant energy of the average grill isn’t nearly as focused or efficient as the conductive energy of a heated skillet.
Discovery: Frozen Steaks Cook up Just as Juicy as Thawed
Grilling a frozen steak sounds like a bad idea. Given the longer cooking time, it couldn’t possibly turn out as juicy as a thawed steak, right? In fact, we found that thick-cut steaks we grilled straight from the freezer were just as juicy as steaks we grilled after thawing, despite needing more than double the time on the grill. The moisture loss averaged about 17 percent in each steak.
The longer period over high heat on the grill meant that these thinner steaks thawed quickly, and the interiors overcooked by the time the exteriors were properly charred. The flavor was also a bit lackluster. I usually apply a spice rub to a flank steak before grilling, but applying a rub or even just salt and pepper to a frozen steak is like seasoning a brick: Everything bounces right off.
In the Thick of It
Though somewhat discouraging, these initial results actually made me hopeful about my chances with the thicker steaks. Rib-eye and strip steaks taste great with very little embellishment—there’s no need for a spice-heavy rub—so a bit of salt and pepper sprinkled on as the steaks thawed on the grill would probably be sufficient. And at about 1½ inches thick, these steaks would be less vulnerable to overcooking.
I put my frozen rib-eye and strip steaks on the grill, first cooking them over the hotter side until they were nicely charred, about 7 minutes per side, and then sliding them over to the cooler side. At that point the internal temperature was a reassuring 70 degrees—no overcooking here.
After about 12 minutes over indirect heat, the temperature had risen to 115 degrees, so I took the steaks off the grill and let them rest; then I sliced them. These steaks were perfect: crusty and charred on the outside yet still pink and juicy inside, with a big beefy flavor that needed nothing else. Best of all, they had taken less than 30 minutes to go from freezer to serving platter.
How Far From the Heat Is “Indirect”?
The heat-generating burner tubes of our former winning gas grill and of other older grills run horizontally beneath the cooking grate, but the burners on newer gas grills—including our winning Weber Spirit E-310—are positioned vertically. When cooking with indirect heat on a grill with horizontal burners, there isn’t much variation in the distance food can be placed from the primary (lit) burner, meaning that food will cook pretty consistently from recipe to recipe and from grill to grill. But there’s more real estate beside a primary vertical burner (especially if your grill has a large cooking surface), so where, exactly, the food should be placed is open to much greater interpretation. Placed far from the primary (lit) burner, the food will cook at a temperature that’s too low.
Our solution? Specify in our recipes how far the food should be from the primary burner. The size of the food being grilled and the temperature determine the spacing. We found that 6 inches was the sweet spot for our grilled steaks.
On older grills like our former winner, food can be no more than 10 inches from the primary burner, so it will still cook efficiently even when placed at the farthest point.
On newer grills like our current winner, the burners run vertically, so food can be placed more than 15 inches from the primary burner—too far away for it to cook efficiently.
To make the most of my summery grilled steak, I re-created a simple dinner salad I had eaten once in Italy. I sliced the steaks, shingled the slices on a platter, and topped them with a big tangle of arugula dressed with lemony vinaigrette and studded with small shards of salty Parmesan. I sprinkled a bit more Parmesan on top, and I was done: a company-worthy dinner salad, made with straight-from-the-freezer steaks and only four other ingredients, in less than 40 minutes. From now on, I’ll definitely be stocking my freezer so I can grill a steak whenever the urge strikes.