The right touch leads to perfection

April 06, 1997|By Rob Kasper

NOW THAT IT IS WARM enough to cook outside without worrying about frostbite, I figure it is time to get serious about improving backyard grilling skills. Recently, I worked on polishing my steak- cooking technique.

I concentrated on determining doneness, which wrestles with the question, "When should you yank the steak off the fire?" In the past, I have relied on the eyeball method to determine doneness. I stared at the grilled steak and guessed that when the meat looked medium rare, it was time to pull it. Sometimes the eyeball method worked, many times it didn't.

When faced with failure -- a piece of meat with a center that was cold and blood-red -- I resorted to cheating. The cheating method of determining doneness involves slicing into the steak, checking its center, and more often than not, tossing it back on the fire.

There are two problems with cheating. One is that it marks you as an amateur. The other problem is that when you slice the steak, its precious, flavorful juices stream out, drying out the meat. That is a bad situation.

An accomplished steak griller works to corral stray juices, keeping them inside the meat. That is the reason that an accomplished griller uses tongs, never a fork, to flip the steak. The tines of a fork pierce the meat, giving juices an excellent chance to escape. Tongs embrace the steak, and don't give the juices an escape hatch.

The other night I grilled a couple of steaks for supper, and switched from the eyeball method to the touch method. This method is touted by William Rice, author of the "Steak Lover's Cookbook" (Workman, 1997).

I had called Rice at the Chicago Tribune, where he is a food and wine columnist. He talked about many meaty matters addressed in his book. For instance, he discussed the various cuts of steak, saying his favorites are the T-bone and its larger cousin, the porterhouse. These cuts, he said, are actually two steaks in one, offering a soft, oval tenderloin on one side of the T-shaped bone, and, on the other side, a firm-textured top loin.

Inspired by Rice, I went grocery shopping and bought a couple of T-bones. At home, I rubbed them lightly with olive oil and fired up the charcoal grill. It took about 30 minutes for the fire to get to the proper "Four Mississippi" temperature. This happened when I held my hand 6 inches over the fire and said "Mississippi" four times, without pulling my hand back from the heat.

Meanwhile, I practiced the touch method of determining doneness. Rice had spoken highly of this technique, which involves pushing the cooking meat with your fingers. The idea is that you can tell by touch whether the meat is rare, medium rare or medium. These, Rice said, are the only acceptable levels of doneness in a steak. To develop this sense of touch, I practiced poking my hand.

Following procedures outlined in Rice's book, I let my left hand hang limp. Then, with the index finger of my right hand, I pushed the soft triangle of flesh between the thumb and index finger of the left hand. The flesh offered very little resistance. This soft, spongy sensation, is, the book said, what the exterior of a rare steak feels like.

To become familiar with the feel of medium-rare steak, I spread the fingers of my left hand and pressed that same triangle of flesh with my right index finger. This time the flesh felt firm, slightly springy and resistant. The way, in other words, that the exterior of a medium rare steak feels.

To approximate the feel of a medium steak, I made a fist with my left hand and again pressed the flesh with my right index finger. The flesh offered only a minimum of give and snapped back quickly.

When my fire was ready I put the steaks on the grill and started poking. First I poked my hand, then I poked the meat. I asked myself: Was that a rare poke? Medium rare? Or medium? I couldn't tell. I poked my hand again, then the meat again. I was still uncertain.

Fortunately, I recalled a backup method for testing doneness, also in Rice's book. This is the teardrop method. It consists of checking the color of the beads of moisture, or tears, that appear on the top of a grilled steak. Red tears mean the meat is rare, and pink tears signal medium-rare, the book said.

When the tears on my T-bones turned pink, I took the meat off the fire and carried it into a kitchen full of hungry boys. I told assembled eaters, my two sons and two of their friends, that they were going to have to work for their steak supper. I taught them the touch method. Then I made them poke their hands and then the meat, and render a verdict on whether the steak felt rare, medium rare or medium.

Most of us thought the meat felt medium rare, but when I cut the steak I saw that it was more rare than medium rare. It was also delicious.

I am still working on fine-tuning my sense of touch. In idle moments at work, for instance, I find myself poking my limp left hand with my right index finger, and saying "rare." It may take a month or two of outdoor cooking before I perfect my touch. In the meantime I'll rely on the teardrop method, and try not to resort to cheating.

Pub Date: 4/06/97

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