How to Grill the Perfect Steak

grill a perfect steak
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Making the perfect steak on the grill is easier than you think, but it requires a little practice and good timing. 

Given the differences between grills, cooking surfaces, and cuts of steak, there aren't specific cook times for grilling steak. Meat changes in texture and density as it cooks, so it helps to know how each steak feels before it hits the grill. A meat thermometer is also helpful when checking doneness.

Take note of the thickness of the steak since it will affect the cooking time. 

You'll need:

  • Steak
  • Salt and pepper (or your preferred seasoning)
  • Very hot grill
  • Reliable meat thermometer (optional)
  • Timer that shows seconds (clock, watch, phone app, timer)

Season the Steaks

Seasoning steak
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A good steak doesn't need a lot of seasoning, so it's important not to overdo it. Salt and pepper will enhance the flavor and small amounts of herbs and spices can go a long way. Make sure that you get an even application of whatever you use. Remember that some of these seasonings will come off during cooking. You can apply the seasonings early to let the flavors sink in a little, but the effect isn't very noticeable.

Prepare the Barbecue Grill

Oiling the cooking grate
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The cooking surface must be clean and oiled so your steaks will have good contact with the grill without sticking. Prepare the grill while it's finishing heating up.

The easiest way to oil the cooking grate is with an oil-soaked paper towel and the metal brush used to clean the grill. Fold a paper towel in half until it is the size of your grill cleaning brush. Soak it with oil that has a high smoke point, like canola or grapeseed oil. Brush this over the cooking grates evenly. It will smoke some, but enough oil will remain on the grates as long as you don't let the grill sit at its highest temperature for too long before grilling.

Turn up the Heat

Hot charcoal grill
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To barbecue a good steak, you need to grill it hot and fast. Searing the steak gives it a crisp, caramelized surface and lots of flavor.

Get your grill as hot as it will go. If you are using charcoal, you need a heavy layer of burning, white-hot charcoal. If using a gas grill, you need to let the grill heat up as hot as it will go. Put the steaks on as soon as your barbecue grill reaches its peak temperature.

For a steak that is rare, medium-rare, or medium, leave the temperature as high as it can go. If you want your steak cooked past medium (medium well or well), let the grill heat up to its highest temperature, then turn the heat down a little. If you don't, the surface of the steak can burn and dry out before the center hits these higher temperatures.

Cooking Times and First Position

Grilling steak - the first position
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Have everything at hand before you put the steaks on so that the grill has your full attention. Keep the grill closed as much as possible to hold in the heat. Before putting on the steaks, take a good look at them. Decide which side you are going to call the "top." You will cook the steaks in four positions, timing each change in position.

Medium Rare:

  • 1-inch thick steak: 1 minute per position
  • Between 1 and 2-inch steak: 1 1/2 minutes per position
  • Less than 3/4-inch steak: 45 seconds per position

Medium Well or Well Done (start at high heat and turn down to medium-high after adding the steaks):

  • 1-inch thick steak: 2 minutes per position
  • Between 1 and 2-inch steak: 3 minutes per position
  • Less than 3/4-inch steak: 1 minute per position

For the best results, it's important to know your grill. Some grills comfortably hit temperatures over 700 F, while others have trouble mustering 500 F. If your grill runs at a lower temperature, you might need to increase these times by as much as double.

To start, open the grill and position the steaks on the grate farthest from you—meaning the top of the steak is to the back of the grill or at the 12 o'clock position.

With the steaks on the grill, close the lid and start counting the time as indicated above.

Second Position

Grilling steak - the second position
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After the first minute (for a medium-rare, 1-inch steak), it's time to rotate. You are not turning the steak over, you are going to rotate the steak 45 degrees from the 12 o'clock position to the 1:30 position. This will give you a professional-looking diamond pattern of grill marks on the steaks.

Turn the steaks quickly and close the lid. Start the timer.

Third Position

Grilling steak - the third position
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Now you're halfway through the cooking time. When you lift the lid of the grill, the steak should appear gray on the top (uncooked side). The heat of the grill is cooking the steak around the surface. If the steak appears raw on the top, put the lid down without flipping it and let it go for another minute.

If the steak is gray, flip the steak over (uncooked side is now down), returning the top to the 12 o'clock position. Close the lid and start the timer again.

Fourth Position and Testing for Doneness

Grilling steak - the fourth position
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As you prepare to turn the steak for the last time, it's time to start checking for doneness. The steak should show no red around the side and the top side should have a rich brown color. As you pick the steak up to rotate it 45 degrees (not flip), feel the density of the steak. A medium-rare steak should be firm but still have a good amount of give. Close the lid of the barbecue and continue grilling.

After this last position, turn down the heat on your grill and, if needed, test the temperature of the steak. The internal temperatures for different levels of doneness are:

  • Rare: 120 to 130 F
  • Medium Rare: 130 to 135 F
  • Medium: 140 to 150 F
  • Medium Well: 155 to 165 F
  • Well: 170 F or higher

If your steak needs more cook time, leave it where it is and continue grilling on medium heat until done.

Rest the Steak

Grilled steak
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With your steak grilled, it's time to get it off the grill and onto a plate. The plate should be room temperature or warm, not cold. Resting meat is one of the most important steps when grilling. Let your steak rest for five minutes before serving, allowing the meat to relax and the heat and juices to redistribute.

Once you've eaten the steak, it's time to record your findings. Keep track of the thickness and cut of the steak, the grilling temperature on your grill, and the time spent cooking it. Then consider how it was done. If your steak was undercooked by the end and needed more time, make a note to increase the four cooking times. If it was overdone, then decrease the four cooking times. Practice and observation are the keys to becoming a steak grillmaster.