The quest to cook the perfect steak has been a challenge since the slices of meat were roasted over the fire. But what constitutes a good steak?
It should take you through a complex stratum of textures and flavors: dark rind, pink meat, tenderness balanced by the lamb’s lettuce. You want a steak you can sink your teeth into. There should be a perfect ratio of meat to fat – and there should be blood. Without those succulent steak juices, a steak would just be a deli roast.
Tri-tip offers it all. A cut popularized in Santa Maria, California, and surrounding areas, this crescent-shaped bottom sirloin steak slices like brisket and is eaten like a steak, with a rich, meaty flavor. But like all thick cuts, it poses a challenge: Grill it directly over high heat like you would a strip loin or skirt steak and you risk burning the outside while leaving the center undercooked. Cook it over a low, slow heat, like you would a brisket of beef, and you lose the caramelized crust..
Enter reverse searing – an ingenious cooking method that combines the low, slow smoking of traditional barbecuing with the high-heat charring practiced in steakhouses. It takes the guesswork out of grilling a steak, rewarding you with a juicy, perfectly cooked slice of beef every time.
With this simple two-step process, you first cook the steak slowly — for about 30 minutes — at 250 F, the temperature pitmasters use for barbecue brisket. Once you’ve warmed the center of the meat to 110 F, you place the steak on a tray and increase the heat of the grill to a searing 600 F. You then char the outside of the steak directly over the fire until until it is sizzling and crispy. and dark brown, bringing the internal temperature of the meat to 125 F (for rare) or 135 F (for medium-rare).
Reverse cooking offers several advantages over traditional direct cooking over high heat, in which the steak goes from undercooked to overcooked in a minute or two, requiring precise timing that inexperienced grillers may find intimidating. During the initial phase of reverse cooking, the internal temperature of the meat gradually increases, so it is easier to monitor and achieve the desired doneness. Also, the meat cooks more evenly this way, ending up with an even color and doneness from top to bottom, not a gray-brown ring of meat just under the crust, and a reddish-blue bull’s eye in the center.
Because the meat rests between the two stages, allowing it to relax and become more juicy, the steak can be served hot right after its final cooking. That means no more lukewarm steak and no more keeping hungry people waiting.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of cooking upside down is the ability to smoke the steak by adding chunks or hardwood chips to your low heat. This step infuses thick cuts like the tri-tip with the haunting flavor of barbecue and adds a dramatic dimension of flavor.
The resulting tri-tip steak is perfectly cooked and intensely flavorful – and the cut, also known as Newport, Santa Maria, triangle and sirloin tip, is thankfully inexpensive. Food prices are rising, and cooking upside down works great for other inexpensive thick cuts, such as top round, sirloin, or picanha. (It can also be applied to gatekeepers and three-finger thick tomahawks.)
If you’re going to splurge on the steak, you definitely want to nail it. Reverse cooking is as close to foolproof as cooking a steak.
UPSIDE DOWN STEAK
Reverse cooking is a steak cooking technique that ensures a dark, sizzling crust and a perfectly cooked pink center to the desired doneness. This brilliant cooking method combines the slow, slow cooking of traditional barbecuing with the high-temperature charring practiced in steakhouses. While it works well with any thick steak, from picanha to porterhouse, this recipe calls for a cut of steak popularized in Santa Maria, California, and is known and loved across the United States today as tri-tip name. As the name suggests, this is a triangular or boomerang-shaped steak cut from the tip of the sirloin with a robust beef flavor.
Yield: 4 servings
Total time: 45 to 55 minutes, plus lighting the grill
For the grill: 1 large or 2 small pieces of wood (such as oak, hickory or mesquite) or 1 1/2 cups wood chips. Rapeseed oil, for greasing the grill grate
1 tri-tip steak (about 2 to 2 1/4 pounds; see tip below)
Coarse kosher or sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Onion or granulated garlic (or both)
If you are using wood chips, soak them in water for 30 minutes. Set up your grill for indirect grilling and heat to 250 F. Clean and oil the grill grate.
Take the tri-tip out of the fridge. Season generously with salt, pepper and onion or granulated garlic (or both) on all sides.
Place the tri-tip, fat side up, on the grill grate away from the heat. Insert a remote thermometer probe, if using, deep into the center of the meat. If you soaked wood chips, drain them. If using a charcoal grill, add the wood chunks or chips to the embers. If you are using a gas grill, place the wood chips under the grate above one of the burners or place the chips in the smoker box of your grill. Close the cover. Indirectly toast the tri-tip to an internal temperature of 110 F, which will take about 30 minutes. Transfer the tri-tip to a dish and let sit for at least 10 minutes, or up to 1 hour.
Just before serving, heat your grill to high heat. On a charcoal grill, rake the coals into a mound in the center of the grill, adding fresh coals as needed. Let the new coals burn until they turn red. On a gas grill, simply set the burners to high.
Return the tri-tip to the rack directly above the heat, fat side up, and reinsert the thermometer probe, if applicable. Grill directly until top and bottom are sizzling, crispy and dark, and internal temperature is 125 F for rare or 135 F for medium-rare, 3 to 6 minutes per side, turning with pliers.
Transfer the tri-tip to a cutting board and thinly slice across the grain. (You don’t need to rest the meat a second time.) Take time to notice the even color and cooking of the meat and enjoy the intoxicating aroma of wood smoke. Serve immediately, while the steak is still warm.
Tips: Tri-tip, the triangular or boomerang-shaped steak cut from the sirloin tip, is also sold as Newport, Santa Maria, triangle, and bottom sirloin tip. This technique also works with any thick steak, such as top round, sirloin, or picanha or three-finger thick porterhouses and tomahawks.