We’ve never been the kind of guys to worship outdoor grilling gear and technology. When we were growing up, Dad set the tone, making do with a rusty hardware store hibachi and a metal chimney. We’ve written about the ascetic thrill of using government-issue grills in state parks.
But recently we picked up a trick from a Dallas chef that has rocked our minimalist approach to its foundation: We cook meats directly on the coals.
No, the precious porterhouses do not incinerate, even though the heat is consistently 800 to 1,000 degrees. The char is robust and earthy, but never too ashy or excessive, even when we use thinner cuts like hanger and skirt.
In fact, the method promises to reduce anxiety at our outdoor parties this summer by making the grilling speedier and more consistent, with far less sooty flare-up than when we raise our steaks a few inches onto a grate above the coals. (That air space between the meat and the heat provides oxygen for combustion.)
The producers were secretly hoping for an Icarus moment, some kind of spectacular calamity on the restaurant’s 10-foot-long open fire pit, but the only pyrotechnics were in our brains; this simple act demolished everything we thought we knew about cooking proteins.
Even Mr. Byres’s richly marbled five-pound “Eisenhower steak” (a Brobdingnagian rib-eye with short rib attached, about two feet long), when cooked 10 minutes on each side, emerged with just a couple of silver dollars’ width of char.
The sugary, spicy dry rub he had patted into the beef before it hit the fire caramelized into a nice crust with that crave-worthy wisp of smoky bitterness that is the objective of outdoor cooking, and so welcome against the sweet richness of luscious protein and browned fat.
He credits President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a native of Denison, Tex., with turning him on to this technique.
“I heard a rumor of Ike grilling these really thick four-inch sirloins,” said Mr. Byres, who tracked down a 1953 article in The Miami Daily News that confirmed his hunch: Eisenhower, it said, “rubs the steak with oil and garlic and then, as the horrified guests look on, casually flings the steak into the midst of the red and glowing coals.”
It should be noted that only natural chunk charcoal (not briquettes) ignited in a chimney is recommended, so that wood is the only ingredient touching the meat.