Marc's Blog

About Me

My name is Marc Brooker. I've been writing code, reading code, and living vicariously through computers for as long as I can remember. I like to build things that work. I also dabble in brewing, cooking and skiing.

I'm currently an engineer at Amazon Web Services (AWS) in Seattle, working on computing without computers and block storage without disks.
All opinions are my own.

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An Open Letter To Jan Braai

On cooking good steak.

Dear Mr Braai

Cooking food on an open fire is one of the world's great pastimes, and nowhere is the correct approach or technique more divisive than in South Africa. Everybody has a different opinion on what to braai, how to braai it, and what to drink while the fire does its work. There are many ways to braai, and no single best way.

But there are bad ways.

Your way of cooking a steak in The Great South African Cookbook is one of those bad ways. Maybe not bad. OK. It's a pretty average way to cook a steak, and if we're going to take braai super seriously we need to do better than average.

I assume you take braai super seriously. I'm basing that assumption on the fact that you own braai.com. And call yourself Jan Braai.

The best way to cook a steak on the braai isn't to cook it on the braai. Before I explain, it's worth talking about what makes a great steak. One is the perfectly cooked interior. How cooked is perfectly cooked is a matter of personal taste, but in my mind South Africa's lean and flavorful beef is best experienced rare. Fattier beef - as is typical in the USA and South America - needs a bit more cooking. Maybe medium rare, or heading to medium.

The second thing that makes a great steak is a great crust. This is the crunchy outside of the steak. It's absorbed the smoke and smell of the braai. It's thin, deeply brown, and crunchy. Some people like grill marks, but I think they get in the way of more crust. Many like their crust salty, or sprinkled with black pepper.

Great steak cooking is all about balancing the interior with the crust. You want the crust to be both brown and thin. You definitely don't want the rest of the outside of the steak to overcook. Hotter, until you get to smelter temperatures, means better crust. At the same time, you want the interior of the steak pretty much evenly cooked throughout. Raw in the middle and grey around the edges is a huge mistake.

Getting both of these things on the braai is super hard. Maybe impossible. You can get close, but never quite perfect. Why shouldn't we go for perfect?

The trick here is to cook the inside of the steak before it hits the braai. Sous vide is the ideal way to do that, but not yet easily or cheaply accessible. The oven is the other great way. Bake the steak till it's nearly cooked. Stop about 5 degrees below where it needs to be. Then let it cool a bit. Twenty minutes is good. The inside will ride up to your chosen temperature, and the whole thing will cool back down. You'll know when it's cooked because you've poked it with a meat thermometer.

The next step is to make that crust. Pat the outside of the steak dry, and rub on a bit of oil. Then make a really hot fire. Really hot. The kind of hot fire that singes the hair off your hands and makes you wish for longer tongs. Throw your steaks on a grid, just above the fire. 10cm is too far. And turn. And turn. And turn.

Ignore that terrible "flip a steak only once" advice.

Keep turning, every 30 seconds or so. The outside of your steak should be browning, and delicious crispy bits forming on the edges. Once it's a beautiful shade of brown, pull it off the braai. Rest. Salt. Enjoy.

Once you've eaten your steak, your guests have finished all the good wine, and everybody has gone home, it'll be time to reflect on some of the myths of the braai.

Flip often. Two things are happening when you form the crust on a steak. One is browning reactions, where the steak is breaking down into different delicious molecules. The fat's also dripping off, sizzling on the coals and coming back transformed into even more flavors. The second one is drying. As you know, nothing wet on the braai can get over 100 degrees, because evaporation keeps cooling it down. To get all the goodness of those delicious browning reactions, you want the meat to dry, just on a thin layer on the outside. When you flip, and flip and flip, the sides alternate between browning and evaporation.

Don't worry about using a fork. A steak is not a balloon. You can't pop it. It's already a thin slice of a large muscle, itself sliced from a large beast. If a couple of pokes made all the juices flow out, that would have happened long ago. Instead, a steak if made up of many small pieces, held together with connective tissue. A misplaced poke may waste a little juice, but will not lead to a dry steak. It's pretty hard to make a steak dry unless you overcook it. We can all agree not to overcook our steaks.

If you find yourself camping, or without an oven, you can still make great steak. Follow the same rules. Start off low and slow until the steak is cooked through. Then pat dry, add some oil, and lots of heat.

There are a thousand little things to do to improve on this recipe. Salting early and leaving the steak to dry out a bit in the fridge works well. Braaing twice, once before and once after the oven, can help prevent overcooking during crust formation. Spending the price of a small car on dry-aged meat can lead to better results. A herbed butter melted on the steak can really bring out the flavor. But you don't need all that stuff. Just remember that cooking the inside and outside of a steak are different tasks, and you'll find happiness.

Kind Regards

Marc

P.S. I recommend checking out Cooking Temperatures and Reverse Sear and Kenji Lopez-Alt's article on cooking steak.