This is hands down my favorite way to cook a steak. Specifically, I love cooking Wagyu ribeyes and tomahawks like this. The sear and flavor cannot be surpassed by a pellet grill, gas grill, sous vide, or a cast iron. Why you ask? A couple reasons.
First, wood/charcoal burns hot. This leads to a perfect sear. One of the key ingredients for the perfect steak.
Second, the smoke adds flavor. When you throw your steak on indirect heat over an oak fire, it will be a game changer. Beef was made to absorb all those delicious flavors in smoke. Don’t do it a disservice by denying it what it was made for.
Downside of cooking over an open flame? It is the hardest method. Especially, with Wagyu beef. The fat in beef is flammable. It is not a leave it and forget kind of method. In fact, I wouldn’t even look away to enjoy a sunset. It requires your complete attention.
I’ll list out my method below. It is relatively the same for charcoal or a fire pit minus a few differences which I will list at the end.
Step 1: Pick out some well marbled steaks. Preferably, from KC Cattle Company.
Step 2: Pull your steaks out of the fridge well before it is time to cook them (if they are frozen, throw them in the fridge the night or two nights before.). Place the steaks on the counter 1 hour before you plan on cooking them. Cover them with Kosher or Sea Salt. If you don’t like salt, wash them off before you cook them. THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT STEP. Salt is going to actively tenderize the meat and pull moisture out.
Step 3: Grab a paper towel and dry the moisture the salt pulled.
Step 4: Start your fire (make sure to use hickory, oak, or some other common wood for grilling) or a charcoal grill. Make sure you have your fuel source on one side of the fire.
Step 5: Once your fire is burning hot, sear your steaks. Yes, there will be a flame. It’s ok. See below for more notes.
My frame of reference is I shouldn’t be able to hold my hand a few inches above the grill grate for more than a few seconds. DON’T BURN YOURSELF. Once you ensure your grill/fire is ready to go, throw the steaks on. Depending on the temperature and thickness of your steak, it may take a few minutes to get a good sear, or it might take 6 minutes/side. Use your eyes and a thermometer. Don’t be in a hurry here. Respect first contact with the grill grate. If the steak is sticking to your grill grate, it needs more time. When you do flip the steak, it should have a dark brown caramelized appearance. Repeat on the other side. I’d keep checking the temperature of the steaks while cooking to ensure you don’t overcook them.
There will be a flame from the fat dripping on the fire. It is ok. This helps caramelize all those delicious sugars on the exterior of the steak. Just keep a VERY close eye on them. You want the appearance to be a dark brown, not black.
Step 6: Check the temperature of your steaks. If they are thin, the steaks might be done. If they aren’t, throw on the other side of the grill grate away from the flame for the steaks to absorb all that smoky goodness and finish cooking.
Step 7: Pull your steaks at 7 degrees less than your desired doneness. Put them on a plate or somewhere you can tent them and let them rest for 10 minutes.
Step 8: Enjoy
Differences between wood and charcoal:
- Charcoal is way more predictable. It is pure energy and relatively the same across different brands. The temp and way it burns will be about the same each time. Wood will not. Sometimes it takes 30 minutes for the fire to get hot and burn down to a nice pit of embers. It might take an hour.
- Be prepared if you use wood over charcoal. Make sure you know what kind of wood you are using. Have water to put out the fire if it is not directly in your backyard. Make sure to have a proper grill grate, gloves, and the additional supplies needed if you are doing this while camping or away from home.
- It can be tough to get a proper sear with wood. Temperatures vary so much with how seasoned the wood is and what kind you are using, it can be tough to have predictable success.
- Wood tastes better. This is a tad controversial, but its true.
I love the challenge of cooking on an open fire like our ancestors did. I’ve done it poorly where I overcook the heck of my steaks. It sucks, but I’ve nailed it a few times and to this day it has produced the best steaks I’ve ever had.