The trick is to smoke the meat and not make the meat smoke

A Lot at Steak

Last Saturday was a special day around here. I was cooking a special meal for 6 for a special occasion and I was going to make some of those 2” (5 cm) thick, 2 1/4 pound (1 Kg) Cowboy Steaks I’d written about here a month ago ( see COWBOY STEAK - NOW THAT’S A STEAK blog entry). It was the best steak I had ever tasted. One of the things making this day special for me was being able to treat my guests to a great meal featuring a steak they normally could only get at a fancy restaurant like Morton’s of Chicago. None of these people would never spend the money, but here was a way to give them the experience. Not to mention it would be at 1/3 to 1/4 the price.

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These pictures plainly show what I missed. The steak at the bottom has a totally different fat pattern from the other two. Also the bones of the two steaks from the same animal are nearly vertical. The steak from the other animal has a twisted bone at a 45 degree angle, which means it came from a different portion of the animal.

I’d decided that the special steaks deserved some special accompaniments. I decide to make a batch of homemade baked beans, which were also called COWBOY BEANS. Everyone that had tried them so far, had dubbed them the best baked beans they’d ever had. Store bought rolls wouldn’t do with a meal like this, so I made some RUSTIC DINNER ROLLS. This was a recipe from America’s Test Kitchen that wasn’t very hard, but did have lots of proofing/rising steps. The rolls took 5 hours from start to eating. The rolls have a crackingly crisp crust on the outside and a tasty chewy inside. These are the kind of rolls you get in the type of restaurant that would carry those big steaks. By the time folks arrived the rolls were cooling and the beans, which I had made a day before, were reheating on the stove. The steaks were sitting at room temperature and had been rubbed with a wonderful rub which gives the steaks a nice charred finish with great flavor. All that was left was to grill the 3 steaks and I was not concerned, since I’d already grilled one of these steaks. As a matter of fact that Cowboy Steak was the best steak I remember having. Since I was lucky enough to have nailed it the first time out, I planned to do everything the same x3.

So it was out to the grill where I expected a relaxing cook, after all: Been there, done that. Perhaps what happened was pay back for my non-chalance. These thick steaks get direct grilled for 12 minutes to sear them and then they get finished off indirectly at around 400 degrees (205 C) for another 20 minutes. I had lit burners 1, 2, 5 & 6 and had them set to medium high. This gave me the 550 degrees (290 C) the recipe called for to direct grill the steaks and the 400 degrees (205 C) over the unlit burners for indirect cooking. I had put some Apple wood chips in the smoker drawer to give the steak some smoke flavor. Right out of the box I ran into the first problem: Turned out the three steaks were a very tight fit over burners 5 & 6. I didn’t want to put a steak over burners 1 & 2 because it would also put the steak directly over the smoker drawer. So with a little creative staggering I was able to arrange the three steaks over burners 5 & 6. My grill has even heat pretty much out to the edges, particularly in warm weather, so I figured I’d be okay. While direct grilling I’d have a total of 3 turns. I decided in addition to making the quarter turn, I would rearrange the steaks on the grill when turning. This way each steak would spend equal time over the front, back and middle of the grill over burners 5 & 6. After the 12 minutes of direct grilling it was time for the twenty minutes of indirect grilling. It was all easy from here.

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Once the meat was rubbed, the only clue one steak is different is the twisted bone seen in the lower portion of the left picture..

Well not exactly. These steaks were thick enough I was able to use my temperature probes from my remote read meat thermometer to monitor the temperatures. Because of all the turning and moving during the direct phase, I had inserted the probes in two of the pieces of meat but had not plugged them into the base station. I didn’t want to accidentally drag the base station into the hot grill or off the side table and onto the ground. Once the steaks were comfortably sitting over unlit burners 3 & 4 and the lid was closed again, it was time to plug in the probes. At this point I expected to spend the next 20 minutes sitting down, relaxing and sipping a cold drink. Imagine my surprise when I plugged in the two probes and found I had a whopping 20 degree temperature difference between the two steaks. That is a huge difference for steaks that had been cooked identically and moved around so they spent equal times at the front & back of the grill. Plus my grill doesn’t have cold zones in the summer. Worse yet I had no idea why this had occurred. I wasn’t sure what to do about it at first. Also running through the back of my mind was the thought of ruining some expensive steaks with multiple witnesses. I quickly put those thoughts aside because I knew I needed to focus on figuring out what was going on. More importantly I had to figure out what to do about it.

The steaks are done searing and ready to finish indirectly. Although I didn’t notice it at the time, the steak in the foreground is thicker than the other two. The twisted bone clearly identifies it as the steak from the different animal.

Step 1 was to see if this was an error or was real. I put on some gloves and removed and reinserted the probes. The new readings were within a degree of before and still 20 degrees apart. The next step was to check the readings with my instant read thermometer. This told me the readings in the two steaks were accurate since I got readings identical to the probes. Lastly there was that third steak that I didn’t have a probe in - where did it stand? Turns out it was on the high end of 20 degree temperature difference. Hmmmmm. The next step was to try to slow the two steaks down while letting the other steak catch up. I put the two steaks up on the warming rack where the temps would be lower than at the grate level. This did make a small difference and got the temperatures spread down to 15 degrees (8 C). Having two not one steak running high made my life a bit easier. The plan had been to use one of these two pound steaks per two people. So when the two steaks were done, I would bring them in and 4 folks could start. I’d run back out and stay with the straggler at the grill while it finished up. I went in and got the remote unit for my thermometer and synched it. Where I was going to be out at the grill the whole time, I didn’t need the remote unit in the house. Where I was going to bring the two steaks in while the last steak cooked, I wanted to be able to keep an eye on that third steak so it didn’t finish up on me while I was inside. After 25 minutes the two steaks were done. I pulled them at 127 (53 C) and brought them inside. The 5 minute rest brought them to 135 degrees (57 C), which was the carving temp I wanted. The remote unit I’d just set up in the Kitchen told me there was still some time to go on the third steak, but I wanted to get back out to the grill. I asked my dad to carve up the two steaks. My plan was to cut off the bone, then divide the remaining meat in half. My dad actually cut each steak into 3 pieces each about 2 1/2” (6 cm) wide x 6” (15 cm) long and 2” (5 cm) thick. This worked out well because all 5 people were able to join.

Back out at the grill, it took an additional 7 minutes for the last steak to hit 127 (53 C). This meant with the 5 minute rest time for the other steaks added in, there was a 12 minute total time difference between the two steaks. I brought the third steak in and let it rest. At this point I had no idea what had just happened. I did notice that the third steak was about 1/2” (1.25 cm) thicker than the other two. Happily I had some very contented guests who were raving about the food. That was a relief and was really all I cared about. My big disappointment in all of this was: I really wanted to get a picture of the 3 huge steaks together on a serving platter. That was a sight I’d probably never see again. The best I could do was a quick picture of two steaks. But like I said, I wanted this to be a special meal for my guests and there was every appearance it was. I cut into a piece from the third steak and it was perfectly cooked and was amazing. I was so relieved because the other steaks would have been just like this one. The beans and rolls had turned out great and I could relax and enjoy good food and good company. All the while I was trying to figure out what the heck had happened.

I didn’t get my picture of all three steaks on the same platter, but the two steaks and later the third were all cooked perfectly. The remote read thermometers proved their worth once again.

It wasn’t until Saturday evening when I downloaded the photos off my camera, that the answer became apparent. I originally didn’t plan on taking more pictures of this cook because I’d already gotten some great pictures the first time I made it. I had plenty of other things to do to get ready for this meal. My plan was to get a couple quick pictures of the three finished steaks on the serving platter. As I started prepping the steaks I was ahead of schedule. So I took some pictures of the raw meat setting out and also after being rubbed. I also brought the camera out to the grill and took some pictures of the steaks being direct grilled. The pictures I took just before starting the indirect portion of the cook confirmed one steak had indeed shrunken from side to side and had gotten thicker in the process. Looking at the pictures of the raw steaks before rubbing confirmed what had happened. When I bought the steaks there were two identically sized steaks from the same piece of meat that had just been cut. I needed a third steak and the butcher took great pains to get me a steak that was the same size, weight and thickness. But as the pictures of the raw meat showed, the fat pattern was different between this steak and the other two. Also the bone on this steak was twisted at a different angle from the other two. So not only had it come from a different animal, it had come from a different portion of that different animal. One or both of those items could have caused the difference in cooking. When I look at the picture of the steaks on the grill the thicker steak in the foreground also has the angled bone proving it was the steak from the different animal. I never suspected this would have made that big a difference, but the proof was in the cooking. The third steak shrunk such that it’s footprint got smaller and it’s thickness grew 1/2” (1.25 cm). This easily explains the extra 12 minutes of cooking required.

The meal was a great success and our guests loved it. That is what is most important to me.

So I’ve learned several valuable lessons here for next time. First if I want to get three of these steaks and have them cook up the same, they need to be adjacent ribs from the same animal. Secondly I realized after the fact I really lucked out big time. I never expected this cooking difference and it was a happy accident that I happened to get the probes into one steak from each animal. If I had put the two probes into the two similar steaks, I wouldn’t have know I had a third steak that would have been way too rare. In the future if I am doing more pieces of meat than I have temperature probes, I will always use an instant read thermometer to check the other pieces. Despite some confusing moments for me, the day was a great success. The guests had a great time and a great meal. One told me he was somewhat surprised just how good the meal was. He knew I had gotten good at grilling, but he felt there was nothing I could have done to improve on any of the things I made. I am not mentioning this to toot my own horn, but because I was trying to make a special meal for this special occasion. It pleased me that I had succeeded, not for me, but for my guests. Being able to share great food with others is perhaps the most satisfying aspect of this hobby.

Here are links for the Picture Entries for the two grilled items which were discussed here, plus a link for the blog entry on the Cowboy Steaks.

  COWBOY STEAKS Beef Picture Entry
  COWBOY BEANS Sides Picture Entry
  RUSTIC DINNER ROLLS Baking Picture Entry


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