Flare-Ups Are the Key to Steaks with Great Grill Flavor

Exposed to big, long-lasting flames, your steak will burn. But quick, controlled bursts will imbue the meat with that elusive savory, smoky essence.

Published June 11, 2021.

Flames shooting up from the coals when you’re grilling might seem like a reason to run for the squirt bottle. But if you handle them right, flare-ups are actually a perk. They’re the result of fatty juices dripping onto the fire and igniting, which causes their proteins and sugars to transform into the smoky, savory, deeply browned compounds that we associate with grill flavor. At the same time, their water turns to steam that carries the flames and these flavors to the meat. 

Capturing that flavor can be tricky, though. Larger, prolonged flames will burn the food and deposit a layer of soot, while conservative exposure to the fire won’t net you an appreciable flavor boost. The key is to encourage small, quick flare-ups while avoiding larger ones. Trimming fat from the steak before cooking will help; and if you’re marinating or basting with a fat-laden liquid, be sure to let excess liquid drip off before cooking. If big flare-ups do occur, move the steaks away from the flames. Eventually, the fat will burn off and the fire will die down.

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