Subtle, balanced smoke flavor
An herb-spice rub to complement the smoke
A hit of brightness
More wood chips on gas grills
I ’ve always wondered why there isn’t a tradition of smoking more cuts of beef. We smoke chicken, turkey, pork, and many kinds of fish, but when it comes to beef, not so much. Sure, there are some notable exceptions, such as Texas-style barbecued ribs and brisket. But why don’t we smoke quicker-cooking cuts; for example, steak?
It turns out I’m not the only one to have this thought, as I was able to rustle up a few recipes for smoked steaks. While most called for rib eye or porterhouse, I was more intrigued by those calling for flat-iron steak, a cut we haven’t used much in the test kitchen. It’s a beefy-tasting steak from the shoulder that’s decently marbled and tender and also has the advantage of being relatively inexpensive. Its only drawback is that it can have a slightly mineral flavor. To my mind, that made it a perfect candidate for smoking, as the smoke would camouflage any overly metallic notes and give the steak even more dimension. Since blade steaks are cut from the same part of the cow, I’d make sure my recipe also worked with them for those who can’t find flat iron.
Two Great—and Inexpensive—Steaks to Try
Named for their anvil-like shape, flat-iron steaks are cut from the blade roast at the top of the cow’s shoulder. Once available mainly in restaurants, they have become more popular and thus more widely available in supermarkets. Flat iron is an affordable cut with a beefy flavor and tenderness comparable to that of steaks cut from the prime rib roast. If you can’t find flat iron, blade steak is a great alternative. It comes from the same larger cut, the blade roast. Its only downside is a line of gristle down the middle, which flat iron is cut to avoid.
Most recipes I found for smoked steak, no matter the cut, took a similar approach, essentially treating the steaks like slow-cooked barbecue. They called for setting up the grill with a hotter and a cooler side by arranging the coals over half the grill and putting an aluminum foil packet of soaked wood chips on the coals. They cooked the steak covered (to trap smoke and direct its flow over the meat) on the cooler side of the grill until it neared its target temperature and then moved it to the hotter side, directly over the coals, to give it a good char on the exterior.
I gave this approach a try and immediately hit two snags: First, cooked to the typical medium-rare, the steak was still chewy. It turns out that flat-iron steak needs to be cooked to medium for the muscle fibers to shrink and loosen enough to be tender. Second, tasters were unanimous that the smoke flavor was overwhelming. I realized that while collagen-rich barbecue cuts (such as brisket) that are cooked far beyond well-done benefit from lots of smoke flavor to give them more complexity, steaks cooked to medium-rare or even medium have a more nuanced flavor that is easily lost with too much smoke.
Over the next few tests, I dialed back the smoke, eventually cutting the amount of wood chips to just 1 cup. Since we’ve found that wood chips can pack very differently depending on their shape and size, I switched to using a set weight (2½ ounces) to better control the amount of smoke. I also raised the grill’s temperature by adding more coals so that the steaks would cook through more quickly, thus lessening their exposure to the smoke; they cooked in about 12 minutes per side. And yet, even with these changes, they were too smoky.
Suddenly, the answer seemed obvious. I shouldn’t be following the lead of all those recipes by cooking the steaks over indirect heat like barbecue. I should be cooking them how we normally cook steaks—quickly, over direct heat—but with smoke.
With that in mind, I dusted another batch of steaks with salt and let them sit for an hour to ensure that the seasoning penetrated below the surface. In the meantime, I set up the grill. I used a full chimney of charcoal, spreading the coals evenly across half the grill as before. But this time, I topped them off with a packet of wood chips I hadn’t soaked. Soaking the chips serves only to delay the onset of smoking; now that I would be grilling for such a short period, I needed the chips to begin smoking right away. I dropped the steaks onto the grate and cooked them directly over the coals, covered, until they reached the 130-degree target for medium (our preferred doneness for flat-iron steaks), which took just 5 minutes per side.
These steaks were just what I wanted: juicy and kissed with a hint of smoke that enhanced rather than overwhelmed. To complement the smoke flavor, I put together a dry rub featuring thyme, rosemary, fennel seeds, black peppercorns, and red pepper flakes to apply to the steaks just before grilling. For some tempered brightness, I grilled lemon wedges alongside the steaks to serve with them. When I tried swapping in blade steaks, they worked perfectly (folks just had to cut around the line of gristle that runs down the middle).
Now my recipe was perfect on a charcoal grill, but what about gas? Gas grills are less efficient at smoking foods than charcoal grills since they aren’t as tightly sealed and don’t have vents that can be positioned and adjusted to help draw smoke over the meat. In order to give the steaks comparable exposure to smoke in such a short amount of time, I found that it was necessary to increase the amount of chips to 1½ cups.
Whether I used flat-iron or blade steak, I knew I’d deliver an impressive steak dinner.
Keys to Success
Subtle, balanced smoke flavorMany recipes for smoked steaks call for cooking them the same way you would cook collagen-rich cuts used for barbecue: slowly, over indirect heat. But we found that this overwhelmed the steaks’ flavor. They were better off with just a hint of smoke. To achieve this, we cook the steaks quickly over direct heat and use just 1 cup of wood chips. We also weigh the chips for more control over the quantity of smoke.
Well-seasoned steaksRubbing kosher salt, which distributes more evenly than table salt, over our steaks and letting them sit for an hour before cooking ensures that the salt penetrates the meat.
An herb-spice rub to complement the smokeA mixture of thyme, rosemary, fennel seeds, red pepper flakes, and black pepper, applied just before the steaks go on the grill, provides an earthy complement to the smoke.
A hit of brightnessServing the steaks with halved lemons that we grill alongside them brings brightness to the dish.
More wood chips on gas grillsBecause gas grills aren’t as efficient at smoking as charcoal and these steaks cook so quickly, we found we had to increase the amount of wood chips by 50 percent on a gas grill to achieve comparable smoky flavor.