Is it me or is it Clairol? Only the BBQer knows for sure.
August 21, 2011 10:23 PM   Subscribe

How do you get a steak brown, not grey, on the grill?

I can easily cook a steak to perfect, uh, lacking a word, level of rarity, with a grill, but the unseared bits (those that weren't touching metal) are always grey, not brown. Is it merely photographic food styling causing me to try for this? Also, if it helps, we're talking specifically about propane or natural gas grills.
posted by converge to Food & Drink (45 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
One idea: Sear on high heat, and then bake. Searing the outside gives a caramelized exterior that seals in more of the juices. Once the outside is seared, the steak can be baked at a lower temperature, to cook the inside without drying out the meat.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:33 PM on August 21, 2011

For the right sear, you need high heat. The grill should be preheated for a good while. If your grill doesn't have heat diffusing rocks or heavy burner diffusers, you might have to position the steak directly over the flame as best you can.

Don't put the steaks onto the grill straight out of the fridge. Let them warm up at room temperature for at least 10 minutes, to get the surface warmer to start with.

Make sure the steaks are dry - pat them with a paper towel.
posted by WasabiFlux at 10:39 PM on August 21, 2011

Yep... I know the basics. Both comments so far describe exactly what I do. I've even gone so far as to slather the things in butter to gain more of that initial sear. Thinking of trying sugar, but that seems stupid on face. I've got no problem getting what I want in the pan/oven, but the grill doesn't seem to co-operate so far.

Maybe the problem is heat, though. Would one of those grills (gas grills are not barbeques), that go up to 1500 degrees F solve the problem? My current only hits 500 in hot weather.

I also know this isn't really a problem: the steaks are perfectly done (finger test works every time). I'd just like that extra bit of presentation. (Yes, I'm that guy, apparently.)
posted by converge at 10:57 PM on August 21, 2011

Also, on a related side question: are all of those perfectly browned, yet grilled steaks you see in photographs a result of food-styling? Restaurants manage it, but they've got tricks, too. Tricks I'd like to learn.
posted by converge at 10:59 PM on August 21, 2011

Agreeing with the above two, you don't have enough heat. Usually with a steak on gas I turn the heat to the highest setting and wait at least 10 minutes until the metal itself has gotten sufficiently hot.

On preview, 1500 seems extreme. What might help is a better grill surface. My brother-in-law has a gas grill that uses much heavier ceramic-coated iron grilling surface instead of the cheap thin steel.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 11:00 PM on August 21, 2011

Even on my puny baby grill (previously), with preheating with the lid down I could get the cast iron grates up past 700. I left the steak on long enough to sear the air-exposed surfaces to brown, then flipped onto a new portion of the grill.

Could the problem be that your steaks aren't thick enough? How long are you leaving the steak before the first turn/flip? I cook ribeyes no thinner than 1 inch, preferably an inch and a half.

Are you oiling the steak itself, and not just the grill grate, especially if the steaks aren't well-marbled or fatty? That could help with getting a more effective sear.

A high direct heat infrared grill will give you a better sear, but AFAIK it doesn't do indirect grilling at all.
posted by WasabiFlux at 11:08 PM on August 21, 2011

The belief that searing meat "seals in the juices" is widespread and still often repeated. This theory was first put forth by Justus von Liebig,[2] a German chemist and food scientist, around 1850. The notion was embraced by contemporary cooks and authors, including Auguste Escoffier.

-- Searing from Wikipedia
posted by devnull at 11:35 PM on August 21, 2011 [5 favorites]

No, steaks always get oiled (buttered sometimes) first. I wasn't necessarily suggesting 1500, but it might be the case. I normally use nothing less than an inch thick, and that's pushing it. When I buy steaks, they are bloody good - marbeled like David. Also, I eat them rare.

But, it does seem that heat is the case. So, then in my hunt for a new grill, I will ask you for suggestions.


1. A variety of foodstuffs will be cooked. At the same times (worry not about cooking times - I can deal with that. They all just need to be served at the same time.).

2. Something that allows for indirect heat.

3. Something propane (no gas hookup and no charcoal smoking on my tiny balcony).

4. Obviously something with a cast iron or porcelain grill, but how close to the flame do you think that grill should be? Are there easily adjustable ones (adjustable while hot?).

Thank you in advance and previously.
posted by converge at 11:35 PM on August 21, 2011

Also, on preview, no, I don't believe that searing "seals in juices." But, it does create a nice crust on the meat and looks great.
posted by converge at 11:40 PM on August 21, 2011

What I'm looking for is:


and not

posted by converge at 11:45 PM on August 21, 2011

The only time I've seen steaks achieve that deep brown is when they've been either marinated or had something brushed onto them during grilling. In fact, your first link is to a marinaded steak recipe.
posted by vacapinta at 12:51 AM on August 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

This is odd. I've never had this problem. Are you perhaps using a wet marinade or something like that? Are you letting your steak come to room temp before grilling? It's funny, because the wife made sirloin for a family dinner last night, and even in a cast-iron skillet, she was able to get a great brown char, while still keeping the meat a nice medium pink.
posted by Gilbert at 1:22 AM on August 22, 2011

Hmm, I find it strange you disparage the cast iron skillet ("even using..."). That's easily the best way to do steak in my experience. Well, if you forgo a pan sauce. But, stove/oven is not my problem here.

So, though, on your train of though, vacapinta, should I be brushing on some sort of oil (butter, olive, whatever's available) during the grilling? I tend to shy away from marinades, but that can easily change.
posted by converge at 2:16 AM on August 22, 2011

Heat. My steaks are also inadequately browned on my home gas grill (BBQ is what Aussies call it, but I know calling it that will just add to the confusion). Once in a while I go to a pub with a huge grill where you select your meat and cook it yourself. On this super hot grill I can get it looking great (even little crossed grill marks).
posted by bystander at 2:30 AM on August 22, 2011

I grill over hot charcoal and I get the results you're after. I don't know if other posters are right, but charcoal fires are hotter than gas. I only ever cook thick steaks, too.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:36 AM on August 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Charcoal gets you great, deep color (and taste!)
posted by InsanePenguin at 3:13 AM on August 22, 2011

"... Thinking of trying sugar, but that seems stupid on face. ..."

No, it isn't, unless you apply sugar to your face, instead of the steak's faces. Why would you think so? If you want something colored brown after cooking it, that isn't naturally brown after cooking, then adding something to the surface, that turns brown after it is cooked seems pretty reasonable.

"The only time I've seen steaks achieve that deep brown is when they've been either marinated or had something brushed onto them during grilling. In fact, your first link is to a marinaded steak recipe."
posted by vacapinta at 3:51 AM on August 22

Can't fool vacapinta. If you can get it where you live, try Dale's, for reliably brown, super tasty results on all meats and fowl, every time you grill.
posted by paulsc at 3:14 AM on August 22, 2011

I think that it is a function of heat in some measure, because I use lump charcoal exclusively and I always get that rich brown crust and the old propane grill was always much more grey. Marinades with soy sauce will promote browning, but wet steaks don't brown well, so make sure the surface is dry and the steak is warm before you put it on the grill.
posted by Lame_username at 4:24 AM on August 22, 2011

You do not need to add sugar to get that deep brown color, though it is not necessarily a bad idea depending on the flavor you are going for. But higher heat will do it reliably too. 500 is not high enough.
posted by Nothing at 4:55 AM on August 22, 2011

Yep, heat. You need more Maillard on the exterior before the interior gets overcooked. It's working out where the steak hits the grate because the metal is a much more efficient cooking surface than air. You just have to get the air hotter.

Leaving them on longer would accomplish roughly the same thing, but then they wouldn't be rare.
posted by supercres at 5:08 AM on August 22, 2011

Are you covering your grill while the steaks cook?
posted by mkultra at 5:26 AM on August 22, 2011

It might be worth trying sous vide to cook the interior of the steak, followed by quick searing of the outside. This person seared on a grill pan.
posted by exogenous at 5:42 AM on August 22, 2011

The Maillard reaction is also enhanced by lowering PH, so if you really want to brown that steak you could try dusting it with a bit of baking soda before cooking.
posted by Aizkolari at 5:43 AM on August 22, 2011

There's a guy named Meathead Goldwyn (see google) who writes intelligent, learned, funny commentary on how to grill and BBQ. Check him out. (He also emphasizes heat, and suggests some things called Grill Grates to concentrate it better.) Amusing and very helpful.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 6:04 AM on August 22, 2011

I have a gas grill, and I had a similar issue. My problem was solved by increasing the grill preheating time to 20 minutes (about 700 F in my grill) and not oiling the steaks themselves. The oil on the steak was preventing the steaks from charring in the first minute of grilling.

Instead, I now wipe the grill grates at the last possible moment with a towel and some neutral oil with a high smoke point (grapeseed). This removes any soot that may have built up during preheat.

I was so serious about learning how to get a good sear that I bought the cheapest pieces of meat I could find and ran a few tests over the course of a weekend. I went through 2 bottles of propane and 10 cheap steaks before I hit on the method that worked best for me.
posted by foggy out there now at 6:09 AM on August 22, 2011

Agree with the charcoal people. My husband is a bit of a steak genius and his steaks always have that brown color. He uses charcoal (and wood smoke) exclusively for steaks.
posted by mckenney at 6:20 AM on August 22, 2011

To get good grill marks like the photos in the links you posted it helps to have a clean, oiled grill grate and have heat zones. This is advocated by America's Test Kitchen and Real Simple (I think Alton Brown too). Set half the grill area to max heat and the other half to low. Close the lid and wait 10 minutes. Scrub or scrape the grill grate after it has heated up and wipe it down with a kitchen towel or paper towel dipped in vegetable or olive oil. Sear the steaks on the high heat zone and equal amount of time per side (depending on thickness and doneness preference), then move them to the cooler part of the grill to finish cooking. An instant read meat thermometer invaluable until you have the feel for doneness.
posted by jwwarren at 6:24 AM on August 22, 2011

What you do is pull the steaks out of the fridge, pat them dry, and then season them with a 10:1:1 salt:pepper:sugar mixture, and then let them set for a few minutes. You'll see meat juices begin to form. That's when to start cooking. Those meat juices are what brown up and give that nice dark color.
posted by gjc at 6:44 AM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

For grills, we have a Weber Genesis, a mid-range model, which reliably gives good stripey grill marks.

But, getting grill marks on meat is possible even with the cheapest of grills. As all the other have said, you need to preheat your grill until it's in the 350-400 range before cooking. Leave the cooking elements on high. For roughly 3 cm/1" steaks, on the hot grill, one side gets 8 min, turn (the only time you touch the steak at all), then 5 min. That's close to medium-rare. For rare tending to blue, it's closer to 5 min and 3 min. Check for doneness and adjust times, of course, but stakes can be done reproducibly with a timer when you figure out your grill temperate.

This is important because, the most common issue I've seen with developing a good sear is moving the meat around. Maybe it's obvious, but don't play with your meat. The stakes go on, they get turned once, they come off. Any more than that one turn is too much handling.

Hot grill, stationary meat. That's all I've found necessary. It's entirely possible to get a good sear on even a blue steak this way.
posted by bonehead at 6:52 AM on August 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Half an hour before cooking, I take the steak out of the fridge and sprinkle salt liberally to marinade and "sweat" it like gjc says above.

15 minutes later I heat the cast iron grill pan on low heat. For 10 - 15 minutes. until it's smoking.

Then oil the grill pan. Wait another 2 minutes for more smoke.

Throw steak on. Listen to that thing sizzle and sear.
posted by shazzam! at 7:40 AM on August 22, 2011

Is it possible that you're overcrowding the grill? That's one of the only things left I can think of that would affect your grill temperature, as you're already doing what others are suggesting. Also seconding bonehead's comment about not moving the meat.
posted by Room 641-A at 8:10 AM on August 22, 2011

A few things:
1. Using a cheap-o aluminum cookie sheet placed directly on the grill grates (and removed with tongs later and set on a heat-safe surface) will help heat the grills themselves faster and hotter in a shorter period of time. Remove right before the steaks go on. The grey indicates that air is cool between the burner and the meat, despite the grill grates being hot. Check to see if the burners themselves are rusting out. I avoid this by using a charcoal grill and getting my coals screaming hot (and consistent) before starting my steak; however during the dark years with a gas grill this happened frequently (thank god it finally rusted out).

2. Use meat with more fat - not on the edge but riddled in the meat itself. The key word you are looking for is "Choice" not "Prime". I don't do tenderloin* on a grill because it does not have enough fat.

3a. Marinades for beef - 8 hour min, 12 hour max - keep a low acid content to avoid chemically cooking your meat. Sugar should be a minimal component. Wipe marinade off meat and pat dry, let sit 5-10 minutes before putting on a grill.

3b. Dry rub for beef - 15 minutes min, 30 min preferred, 1 hour max - Avoid using sugar in dry rubs.

4a. Scrub the grates and oil the grill grates right before you put on the protien.

5. For a steak, I usually go about 6 units, flip, 8 units, flip, turn, 6 units, flip, 6 units. Alternate 3 units and turns as necessary to keep juices and cooking even. My time is measured in units instead of minutes because it will vary by what final doneness I am looking for for the meat, as well as the thickness of the product. The second time is longer than the first because the first had the additional radiant heat from the alumninum pan that has dissipated. The second set of flips can be shorter because - well, the surface of the meat should already be hot... it is now prone to taking marks.

5a. Wet basting - wet basting starts after the meat has been seared slightly on each side. My wet basting generally includes a little sugar.

My marinade (quantities not listed - its a little of this and a little of that). I make 3/4 C marinade for 4 steaks.
Dry: Cumin, corriander, turmeric, cloves, peppercorns, salt, chili powder, cayenne, thyme
Possible additions: curry, sage, nutmeg
Solid: 1/2 onion, 1/2 head of garlic.
Wet: 1 part worcestershire, 3 parts oil, 1 tsp of mustard, ketchup, 1 tablespoons cider vinegar. Water as necessary

Spices go through a coffee grinder, and get dumped into my immersion blender, Onion and garlic get rough cut and put in the blender. Wet ingredients get added and then I blend until smooth. Note - I pour the oil in as I blend, and water to thin to consistency.

I generally create 2C of this, pour off the marinade, and then add 2tbsp of molases and/or brown sugar for a wet baste. (1 1/4 C for the wet marinade)

*tenderloin: I marinade, dry, roll in S&P and sear on the stove, shape in plastic and freeze... before turning into carpaccio.
posted by Nanukthedog at 8:14 AM on August 22, 2011

Steak ain't quite right unless you can get the grill hotter than the fires of hell. My big green egg's temperature gauge no longer works because I've wrapped it around way past 800F a few too many times.

Hairdryer somehow attached to air inlet of grill, lid closed, top vent open. Dryer vent and metal tape work fine for rigging this up. The hairdryer should be a foot or two from the grill so it doesn't melt. Run it for a few minutes, turn it off, and cook the (salted) steak for 2-4 minutes per side. You want to turn off the hairdryer because otherwise you'll be blowing ash all over it from beneath. You should be looking at 800-1000 degrees F even with the hairdryer off. Just BE CAREFUL when you open the lid (gloves and long sleeves) because once you turn off the hairdryer it'll be starved for oxygen and you risk a bit of a fireball if the grill is well sealed. After searing, pop it in the oven at 350 until it hits rare/medium rare.

The other option for high heat is a cast iron skillet over one of those big propane burners they sell for making gumbo. Mine gets hot enough that oil instantly bursts into flame when I pour it on. Great for stir fry, too!
posted by pjaust at 9:08 AM on August 22, 2011

Pat the steak dry. Moisture will delay browning. Do you have a thermometer for the grill? They're useful. Nice high heat, and the nearer the steak is to the heat, the browner it will get. I like marinated steak, esp. sirloin tips, but it doesn't always brown as well.
posted by theora55 at 9:46 AM on August 22, 2011

Pre-heat the gas grill for 10 minutes on high with the lid closed. Scrub the grill rack clean. Lay your steaks on for a couple minutes with the lid open, rotate them 90 degrees and cook for another couple of minutes. They should be brown on one side by now. Flip them and repeat. It they're thick steaks, I turn the heat off and close the lid for a couple of minutes more.

It this doesn't work, you probably have a problem with your grill.
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:04 AM on August 22, 2011

f you really want it browned, you need to abandon the grill (at least in part) because a cast-iron pan is your answer. There are two big issues with browning on a grill: enough heat and direct contact with the meat. The grates heat up nicely - hence the stripes - but the air in most gas grills just doesn't get hot enough to properly brown the meat not directly in contact with the grates.

A cast iron pan holds heat really well and will transfer the heat evenly. Here is a fairly good guide for using one for steaks. I don't bother heating the pan in the oven, just let it heat up for a while on the burner, and I am a big fan of a lot of salt on the steak for a good 45 minutes before cooking, but those are quibbles. I don't use the grill at all with this method because there is just not enough time for it to make any difference.
posted by rtimmel at 10:38 AM on August 22, 2011

Perhaps an approach similar to a creme brulee might work? Cook the steak on the grill to the desired temperature and brown the unseared bits with a blowtorch. Probably use one with MAPP gas (900F) as propane will burn at about the same temperature as your grill (600F). However, I'm always looking for an excuse to use a blowtorch in the kitchen.

These instructions for grilling steak are pretty similar to many of the recommendations above, except for a dry brining stage where the heavily salted steak rests for an hour at room temperature. I've tired this once and it worked on my gas grill, but this is my first steak from this year's cow so I can't compare like-to-like yet.
posted by stet at 11:22 AM on August 22, 2011

So, though, on your train of though, vacapinta, should I be brushing on some sort of oil (butter, olive, whatever's available) during the grilling? I tend to shy away from marinades, but that can easily change.

Fats are not the same as marinades. I would not bother with any fat on the steak if I wanted more browning- what you're trying to get is the Maillard Rection, and it happens at high heat from naturally occurring amino acids and sugars in the meat. You can use a slightly sugary marinade to jumpstart the reaction, but my feeling is that your grill is not hot/staying hot enough. Make sure you keep the lid closed and use a grilling thermometer. You want it between 350-425 inside. If the temperature is dropping too much when the steaks are put on that is contributing to the problem.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:30 AM on August 22, 2011

(This is via Cook's Illustrated) The reason charcoal browns better is that it gives off tons of radiant heat. A gas grill in fact burns hotter, but doesn't radiate - which is why gas grills use ceramic rods or plates or rocks.

From personal experience I can attest that a lowly weber or even a hibachi will get a full brown crust on a steak. The only other trick I've used is salting the meat beforehand. I have not grilled meat on a gas grill.
posted by O9scar at 1:02 PM on August 22, 2011

You're right -- it's heat. You need lots of fire. On preview, what 09scar says -- gas doesn't seem to radiate as much as charcoal, unless the grill has lava rocks. Also, make sure that you're not putting cold steaks on the grill -- if you do that, you'll almost certainly have that gray problem. Let it warm up a bit. In fact, I like the Cook's Illustrated method of baking first at 275 then searing -- I bet that will help.
posted by odin53 at 2:39 PM on August 22, 2011

I am now inspired by this thread to see what I can achieve with a paint-stripping heat gun. Mine produces 550 C air and can set things on fire with ease. Should be good for a reasonable sear.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:00 PM on August 22, 2011

Don't oil or butter the steaks - the oil is essentially acting as an insulator, especially during the short cooking time required for rare/medium rare. Have the steaks at room temperature and wipe their surfaces dry before throwing them on the hottest grill that is as close to the heat source as possible.
posted by dchase at 3:16 PM on August 22, 2011

Simple enough answer. You need:

1) High heat. Smoke that cast iron pan.

2) Steak at room temperature. So take it out of the fridge well ahead of time.

3) Dry meat surface for better Maillard reaction browning. So don't bathe it in fats or other liquid marinades. Or at least shake off all excess marinade before tossing them on the cast iron pan.

That's it.

But... if your steak is very thick, the high heat will overcook some part of the steak even if the core is nicely medium-rare. In that case, sear both sides for colour and flavour, then transfer to a pan in the oven on medium heat so it cooks more evenly.

As someone pointed out above, you should have a hot and a warm zone if you're using a charcoal or other grill. Sear on hot zone, transfer to warm zone and cook the rest of the way.

Use your butter (flavoured or otherwise) only after you've got a nice sear on both sides. Fat slows down the spread of heat.

PS: Food photos are often post-processed or manipulated. Don't always believe what you see.
posted by madman at 2:13 PM on August 24, 2011

So, as far as Grilling goes: incredibly hot charcoal, or, very close to the flames on a gas one. Thanks for the pan advice, too, though. I've never had a problem with that, but, maybe someone reading this thread in the future will use that.
posted by converge at 3:10 AM on August 25, 2011

There was some great information in this thread. Thank you all.
posted by converge at 12:56 AM on August 26, 2011

« Older Maple. Bacon. Vodka. and then...   |   Getting back into shape... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.