June 16, 2024

Dirty Grilling the Perfect Steak


Okay, let’s be honest. There is no “perfect” way to make a steak. Grilling, pan-searing, oven broiling, smoking, reverse searing, steak tartare…there are lots of great ways to prepare a steak, and they all can lead to perfectly delicious results.

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But, in honor of Father’s Day, we want to share with you what is perhaps the “manliest” thing you can do with steak: dirty grilling.

Dirty Grilling

What is dirty grilling? It’s the simplest way to cook a steak. You simply slap it down right on top of the hot coals and enjoy hearing your guests gasp.

Okay, it’s not quite that simple. But it’s close.

As grillmaster Adam Perry Lang explains in his grilling guide Charred and Scruffed, grilling “dirty” means cooking your meat directly on your coals or at least so close to the coals that there’s no room for oxygen to get in and start kicking up flames (which we want to avoid, since too much flame can give meat a nasty acrid taste).

It takes a leap of faith the first time you drop that pristine steak directly onto a bed of hot coals, but trust us, your boldness will be rewarded!

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Why should you dirty grill your steaks?

The great thing about dirty grilling steaks (besides the fun of cooking like a caveman), is that (a) it’s super easy to do, (b) the cleanup couldn’t be easier, and (c) slapping a steak directly onto the coals feels like the epitome of "manning" a grill. Plus, (d) dirty grilling gives your steak a fantastic outer crust or “bark” while still leaving the inside juicy and tender.

How important is it to give your steak a nice sear on the outside? Personally, I think that a great crust is what makes steak worth grilling in the first place. If you cook the inside of a steak to juicy, flavorful perfection but you don’t have a good crust on the outside, then you have exactly half of a great steak. So yeah, the sear matters.

And dirty grilling can give you a fantastic sear.

While dirty grilling is, technically, a form of reverse searing, it has one huge advantage over a conventional reverse sear. Dirty grilling doesn’t take hours and hours. It’s just quick and…well…dirty.

And don’t worry: Your steak won’t end up tasting like charcoal. You will fan away any ash before you lay down your steak, and any bits of coal that may get attached to the meat can easily be brushed off. If you follow the steps correctly, you’ll be left with a wonderfully smoky, crispy, succulent steak, plus the pleasure of watching your guests’ jaws drop.

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In earlier articles, we’ve covered the grilling basics including how to choose your grill (e.g. propane versus charcoal/wood) and what tools are worth using. We went over how to plan, build, and maintain your fire . Now it’s time to put your grilling knowledge to work.

Start with the right steak.

If you want to do this up right, you need to start with a good, thick, dry-aged steak, preferably a Porterhouse or bone-in ribeye.

How thick? I’d say at least 1¼ inches, but 1½ – 2 inches would be better. And leave some of that outer fat on there, trimmed back to about ¼ inch.

Why dry-aged? The biggest obstacle to getting a great sear on a steak is surface moisture. If there’s water on the outside of the steak, a lot of heat from your coals will go into evaporating away that water. Instead, we need that heat to be used to activate the Maillard reaction that gives meat that wonderful fragrance and flavor of a good sear. If you're using heat to burn away water, you’ll miss that narrow window of time when your meat should be getting a great crust without overcooking the inside.


Dry-aging is when meat is stored under carefully controlled conditions. This gives time for the surface to dry and for muscles and connective tissues to start breaking down, making the meat more tender and flavorful. I prefer a steak that’s been dry-aged 28-54 days. Although most stores don’t age their meat that long (if at all), you can ask your butcher to let one age for you. (Shout out to Heritage Craft Butchers and the Harmon’s Meat Department in Orem whose butchers have been tremendously helpful to us.) Alternatively, you can order dry-aged wagyu beef online, but that can get unnecessarily pricey.

If the steak you want to grill hasn’t been sufficiently dry-aged, you can salt-dry it instead. Pack the steak on all sides in a covering of course salt. (Any kind of rock salt will do, but don’t use kosher/iodized salt or anything that’s ground too fine.) Leave the salted steak uncovered in your fridge for two hours. The salt should get wet from the moisture it draws from the meat. Rinse the salt off thoroughly and pat the steak dry. (It might seem like washing the salt off with water defeats the purpose but trust us on this.) Allow the steak to air dry in the fridge for two more hours.

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Don’t skip the salt.

Typically, when I grill steak I’m going to use a combination of spices, olive oil, and maybe some butter to baste as I grill. But grilling dirty presents a little bit of a problem. We don’t want anything on our steak that will burn in contact with the coals. Don’t confuse the Maillard process (which gives steak its nice, tasty outer crust) with burning; they are not the same thing. Anything that burns on the steak is just going to taste nasty. So we're not going to put much on the steak before it hits the coals.

But salt is the exception.

We simply can’t have a great steak without salt, and we need to add it before we grill. In fact, the best practice is to salt your steak a full 48 hours before grilling. Paradoxically, the more time the salt has to work its way into the interior of the steak, the less “salty” the finished steak will taste. Steaks that have been salted 48 hours in advance come out tasting well-seasoned, which heightens the flavor of the meat.

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Prepare your fire.

If you’re going to grill your steak dirty, you need to use lump charcoal fire, not briquettes or gas. Briquettes are full of chemicals that you don’t want touching your meat directly, and a gas grill misses the whole point of grilling dirty.

You’re going to want your fire very hot (that’s the main advantage of using a charcoal grill, after all), and the more rare you like your steaks, the hotter your fire needs to be. That may seem counterintuitive, but the hotter your fire, the quicker you can get a good sear on the outside, which means there’s less time for the inside of your steak to overcook.

Once you have your coals glowing hot, you’ll need to spread them out evenly so they lie as flat as possible. You’ll need enough coals so that when it’s time to flip your steak over, you’ll be able to move it onto fresh coals.

How should you arrange the coals?

That depends on which of two approaches you are taking to your dirty grill.

The first approach is to go full cave man and just slap that baby straight onto the coals. This has the advantage of being quick and easy, and it works great for relatively thin steaks.

The second approach (which you’ll need for any steak over about 1¼ inches thickness) is to slow-cook the steak first. Position your steak a few feet above the flames (as we do with our Santa Maria grill). Leave it there until the inside temperature measures 10 degrees below your target temperature, then lower the steak directly onto the coals to start that precious sear. Alternatively, you can zone your coals so that they are all off to one side, then place your steak on the other side of the grill. The steak can cook slowly from the indirect heat inside your covered grill. Again, once it’s 10 degrees below your target doneness (as measured by a meat thermometer), move it directly onto the coals to start your sear.

If you’re going to be pressed for time on the day of your grill, you can prepare your steak sous vide. That way, all you have to do on the day of your party is give it a great sear and enjoy.

Target internal temperatures

As a rule of thumb, here are the target internal temperatures you’ll want to hit with your steak. Remember, this is the highest temperature you want the inside of your steak to hit, not the point at which you take it off the grill. The internal temperature will continue to rise for a little while after you take meat off, so remove it from the heat a few degrees before it hits your target temperature. Otherwise, it will overcook.

  • Rare=120-125°F
  • Medium rare=130-135°F
  • Medium=140-145°F
  • Medium well=150-155°F
  • Well done=160-165°F
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Regardless of whether you slow-cook the inside of your steak first or skip straight to your dirty grilling, you’ll first want to fan away any ash from the coals. Give your steak a good basting in butter, then carefully lower it onto the coals so that it lies as flat as possible. Leave yourself room so that you will later be able to flip your steak onto fresh, unused coals.

Let the steak cook for two minutes undisturbed. Remove it completely from the heat, brush off any ash. Brush it with butter again and let it sit a few minutes so that it bastes and also rests the meat, letting the internal temperature continue to rise. Place it back onto coals with the uncooked side down for another two minutes. Repeat this process until you reach the needed internal temperature. The thicker your steak, the more gradually you’ll need to approach that target temperature, so the more times you may need to take the steak on and off.

All this “on again off again” movement may run counter to what you’ve been told about grilling. Counterintuitive as it may seem, it helps to cook the meat all the way through. The internal meat will continue to rise even after being removed from direct heat, while the outside of the steak will be allowed to cook. The goal is to let the inside reach its target temperature without scorching your outside, and tempering can help the steak gradually get there.

But I’m not supposed to turn the steak too many times!

The old adage that “turning the meat too many times will ruin the steak” is nonsense, especially in the case of dirty grilling.

Turning the meat multiple times allows for a more gradual, consistent cook, which is good. The main rationale behind the “don’t mess with the meat” rule was that multiple flips will mess up your grill marks. Well, with dirty cooking, you’re not going to have any grill marks anyway.

But while we’re on the topic, let’s dispel this pesky myth of grill marks. The reason grill marks are appealing is that they visually signal that the meat has been grilled and thus received a bit of Maillard reaction wherever the meat touched the hot grill. Well, since Maillard browning makes meat more delicious, why confine it to a small area? Why wouldn’t you want that deliciousness all over the surface of your steak?

You would!

So forget about trying to get grill lines onto your meat. When I see a piece of meat with grill lines, that just tells me that the fire wasn’t hot enough to give the whole surface a proper sear.

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Once your steak has reached an internal temperature 10 degrees below your target temperature, take it off the coals and brush away any clinging debris. Wrap it in tinfoil and allow the meat to rest for 10 to 20 minutes so the meat fibers will soak back up all the juices. (If you were to slice the steak open right away, a lot of juice would spill out of the meat, and you would lose a lot of flavor.)

Dressing your Board

As your steak is resting, make a board dressing. Take a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, a little salt and pepper, a few finely-chopped herbs like rosemary and thyme, and maybe some microplaned garlic or shallots. Balsamic vinegar can add a little bite if you like. Mix these together and drizzle them onto the board you’ll be using to cut and serve the meat from.

The idea is that when you are ready to slice into the steak, some residual liquid will inevitably run out onto the board. You want that liquid to ix with your dressing. Then, as you cut into your steak, let each slice get a delightful dip in your dressing. Flavor, flavor, flavor!

Serving suggestions

Nothing beats the taste of a quality, well-grilled steak, but if you were tempted to top it with a special sauce or dressing, we wouldn’t blame you.

Here are a few of our favorite toppers for grilled steak here are Culinary Crafts.

And while you’ve got that grill fired up and running, here are a few of our past grilled recipes.

Happy Father’s Day to all you grillers out there, old and new.

Eat well!

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