Seasoning a SteakThe key to seasoning a steak before grilling it is to use a generous amount of Kosher salt. More than you think you need. One of the most common mistakes home cooks make is undersalting their food — especially meat. (And remember, I'm talking about coarse-grained Kosher salt, NOT ordinary table salt!)
I've had clients get a little nervous when they saw how much salt I was sprinkling on the steaks I was about to grill for them. That's too much salt, they'd aver. My response: Trust me. Invariably they'd report afterward that the steak in question was the best they'd ever had. I say this not to brag but merely to illustrate my point.
Season Generously with Kosher SaltIf you think about a steak, it's pretty thick. An inch and a half thick, if you've followed my guidelines for choosing the right meat for your steak. And you're only seasoning the surface of the steak, which means there's a significant portion of the meat that has no salt on it at all. You want to make sure there's enough salt on the surface to properly season each bite.
That's why we need to salt generously. If you were only eating the surface of the steak, it might be too salty. But you aren't. You're eating the whole steak, and each bite of steak is mostly made up of meat from the interior. Make sense?
When to Salt the Steak?There's another question that crops up as it relates to seasoning a steak, and that has to do with when you apply the salt. Some chefs like to salt a steak well in advance of cooking, while others say salting it right before cooking is best. Believe it or not, there's no right answer. The main drawback to seasoning in advance is that it extends your prep time.
Seasoning your steaks 24 hours in advance of cooking it means you're in the kitchen 24 hours before dinner working with the steaks. And then you need to make room in your fridge for these steaks for an additional 24 hours.
Seasoning Your Steaks in AdvanceIf you're all right with all that and want to give this method a try, here's how: Pat the meat dry with paper towels and sprinkle both sides of the steaks generously with Kosher salt. Be sure to get the salt on the edges of the steaks as well. That's 1½ inches of surface you definitely want to cover. Press the salt crystals into the meat with your hands.
Transfer the steaks to cooling racks with a sheet pan or cookie sheet underneath, cover the whole tray with plastic wrap and stick them in the fridge. Take them out about 30 minutes before cooking, pat dry again with paper towels, season with freshly ground black pepper (press the pepper into the meat as you did with the salt) and then grill as you normally would. We'll talk more about black pepper in a moment.
Seasoning Your Steaks Right Before GrillingIf you're salting right before cooking: Again, let the steaks sit at room temperature for 30 minutes, sprinkle both sides (and the edges) generously with Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Press the salt crystals and pepper granules into the meat. I like to brush my steaks with a little bit of clarified butter right before I grill them. You could use a refined high-heat oil or a mixture of oil and clarified butter.
Anyway, the thing about this debate over when to salt is, it's a debate. The best chefs in the world don't agree on which technique is the best. Both will work fine. One technique is easier. You do the math.
Freshly Ground Black PepperThere's another debate about seasoning steaks, and this one relates to black pepper. To begin with, let's agree that freshly ground black pepper is a must for the perfect steak.
One school of thought suggests that applying the pepper before cooking means that the pepper will actually burn while you cook it, imparting a bitter flavor to the steak. They suggest grinding some black pepper on to the steaks after searing them, or right before serving them. The other school simply seasons their steak with freshly ground black pepper before cooking and is done with it.
Who's right? It's not that the notion of burning pepper is complete nonsense — in theory, yes, black pepper could burn. The problem with seasoning with pepper midway through the cooking is that the pepper granules may not stick to the meat. The solution could be to pass a pepper grinder at the table, but if you're cooking outside and eating in an informal style, this might not be feasible.
So unless you've detected a burnt pepper flavor on your steaks in the past, by all means go ahead and season your steaks with freshly ground black pepper before cooking them.
Next: Prepping Steaks for the Grill