Simple salt, pepper bring the best out of steaks

June 25, 2000|By Rob Kasper

Every so often you get a dish right, and the reasons for your success are as simple as the salt and pepper.

The other night I grilled a couple of steaks, and they came out perfectly. I nailed them. They were crisp and brown on the exterior, red and juicy on the interior, and the meat was tender, warm and loaded with flavor.

The two thick sirloins that lapped over the edges of the serving platter were demolished by the four of us. When a meal goes that well, it pays to go back and examine the procedure, to find out exactly what happened, so you can do it again.

In recreating the night of the succulent sirloins, I came up with several findings. First, the fire was very hot.

I rarely cook anything over a fire this hot, but these steaks were thick, about 2 to 3 inches. Moreover, I was not going to place the meat directly above the coals. Instead, the raging coals were off to the side of my kettle grill, and the meat was in the middle. A fire this hot cooked the steaks quickly without drying them out.

Secondly, I relied on science, rather than my senses, to determine when the meat was done. Usually, I use the "eyeball method" to figure out when to pull the steaks. This method consists of looking at the color of the juice that bubbles on top of the meat. Red bubbles indicate the meat is rare, pink indicates medium rare, and clear bubbles are a sign the meat is well-done.

The drawback to the eyeball method is that it requires paying close attention. Pink bubbles quickly turn to clear. When I am grilling, my attention often wanders. I might be a victim of "grilling deficit syndrome." So this time, instead of using my eyeball, I used an instant-read thermometer.

After I had flipped the steaks once, I eased in the thermometer. As soon as the needle hit 130 degrees -- the temperature that beef is medium rare -- I took the steaks off the grill, and let them rest five minutes before carving them.

As I tasted the meat -- a wonderful mingling of juice and muscle -- the third, and major, reason for the success of the dish became apparent to me. It had terrific salt-and-pepper flavors.

Before grilling the meat, I had sprinkled them liberally with coarse sea salt and dotted them with nubs of freshly ground black pepper. When the seasoned steaks hit the hot fire, the juices mingled with the salt and pepper, creating a happy marriage of meat and seasoning.

I used a coarse sea salt and whole black peppercorns, which I pulverized in my pepper grinder. My grilled steak experience was a small step into the brave new world of exotic salts and peppers. It was minor stuff compared to the salt-and-pepper extravaganza I enjoyed a few weeks earlier at Atlantic restaurant. There members of the Baltimore chapter of the American Institute of Wine and Food feasted on a six-course meal, with each course featuring a special salt or pepper.

Chef Spike Gjerde whipped up a salmon dish cured with salt and rockfish with a malt vinegar essence and a salt called fleur de sel. There were brined duck breasts, shrimp served with Sichuan salt and pepper, peppered tuna and an ice cream made with white pepper. It was pure joy, a long way from the ordinary salt-and-pepper-shaker experience. Kevan Vetter, executive chef of McCormick & Co., led us though the various salts and peppers put on our plates. Some were harvested by hand. One was from Hawaii. All were pretty pricey.

Vetter acknowledged that not every home cook is ready to replace everyday table salt with a top-of-the-line $8-a-pound salt that has been harvested by hand from the coast of France.

But after the dinner at Atlantic and the night of the sizzling sirloins, I see the benefit of shelling out a buck or two for better salt and pepper.

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