A CHEAP STEAK CAN BE A GREAT STEAK, WITH SOME HELP
It’s easy enough to grill an expensive steak. With their tender texture and big-time beef flavor, pricey cuts like rib eyes and T-bones need little more than salt and pepper to make them taste great. After paying $15 or even $20 per pound, the cooking should be easy, right?
But try this minimalist approach on cheaper cuts from the sirloin and the round and you end up with chewy, dry steaks. And the flavors often veer toward liver-y and gamy. It’s probably these flavor challenges that inspire cooks to apply spice rubs to these inexpensive steaks. But this approach often fails; because cheap steaks exude little fat to bond with the spices, the rub falls off.
So what’s the key to grilling steaks on a budget? First off, you must shop carefully. We think boneless shell sirloin steaks, which retail for about $6 per pound in most supermarkets, are the best of the cheap choices. Although shell sirloin steak isn’t as beefy as premium cuts, it doesn’t have the liver-y notes that ruin other budget options.
At home, your first task is to amp up the beef flavor. Salting meat is the easiest way to make any cut taste better. And if you let the salt penetrate—a process that takes an hour with a relatively thin steak—it can really work wonders. Adding flavor boosters to the salt is even better.
Next, use the salting time to make a really good rub. That means starting with dried chiles and whole spices and toasting them to unlock their full potential. And that sticking problem? It’s easily solved with a knife and a spritz of oil. Yes, it takes some finesse to cook a cheap steak well, but think of all the money in your pocket.
WHY THIS RECIPE WORKS
A Salty Glutamate Wet Rub
Most flavor compounds in spices are oil-soluble rather than water-soluble, so they can’t penetrate below the surface of the meat. Other than salt, the only flavor compounds that can travel deep into meat are glutamates. Two of the most potent sources of glutamates are tomato paste and fish sauce. A wet paste made from these two pantry items plus kosher salt gives the steaks a noticeably richer, beefier flavor. Onion powder and garlic powder are also added to this paste—their water-soluble compounds are potent enough (especially in concentrated dry form) to flavor the exterior of the steak.
A Spicy Dry Rub
Dried herbs and other delicate spices can lose their flavor in the intense heat of the grill, but potent spices containing capsaicin, such as chiles, peppers, and paprika, fare well. Toasting and then grinding dried chiles and whole spices leads to a more substantial crust with complex flavor. Adding some sugar to the mix helps the crust to caramelize.
Score the Meat for Sticking Power
Cutting shallow slits in a crosshatch pattern into the steak helps the salt paste and spice rub adhere to the meat and penetrate more deeply. The slits increase the surface area for the initial wet rub to get into the meat and the crosshatches give the dry spice rub something to hold on to.
Oil the Grate and the Rub
Since the steaks are thin, you need a superhot fire to get a good crust. Slicking down the grill grate with oil helps protect against sticking. Eliminate the raw spice flavors of the rub by lightly misting the steaks with vegetable oil; this allows the spices to bloom and release their flavor right on the grill. The vegetable oil spray also helps the rub cling to the steaks, not the grill, for a crisp, crunchy crust.
Steaks are smeared with a savory paste followed by a mix of toasted chiles and spices.
Grilled Steak with New Mexican Chile Rub
SERVES 6 TO 8
- 5 minutes to prepare salt mixture and coat steaks
- 1 hour to rest salted steaks (also prepare spice rub and set up grill)
- 10 minutes to coat steaks with spice rub and grill them
- 10 minutes to rest steaks before serving
- Wire rack set in rimmed baking sheet for holding steak
- 10-inch skillet for toasting chiles and spices
- Spice grinder or mortar and pestle
Substitutions & Variations
- Chile-based rubs work especially well with this technique. Here are two other variations you can use with this steak recipe:
- Ancho Chile-Coffee Rub: Substitute 1 dried ancho chile for New Mexican chiles, 2 teaspoons ground coffee for paprika, and 1 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder for ground cloves.
- Spicy Chipotle Chile Rub: Substitute 2 dried chipotle chiles for New Mexican chiles, 1 teaspoon dried oregano for paprika, and ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon for ground cloves.
Shell sirloin steak is also known as round-bone steak or New York sirloin steak. Spraying the rubbed steaks with oil helps the spices bloom, preventing a raw flavor.
- 2 teaspoons tomato paste
- 2 teaspoons fish sauce
- 1½ teaspoons kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon onion powder
- ½ teaspoon garlic powder
- 2 (1½- to 1¾-pound) boneless shell sirloin steaks, 1 to 1¼ inches thick, trimmed
- 2 dried New Mexican chiles, stemmed, seeded, and torn into ½-inch pieces
- 4 teaspoons cumin seeds
- 4 teaspoons coriander seeds
- ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
- ½ teaspoon black peppercorns
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon paprika
- ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
- Vegetable oil spray
- For the Steak : Combine tomato paste, fish sauce, salt, onion powder, and garlic powder in bowl. Pat steaks dry with paper towels. With sharp knife, cut 1/16-inch-deep slits on both sides of steaks, spaced ½ inch apart, in crosshatch pattern. Rub salt mixture evenly on both sides of steaks. Place steaks on wire rack set in rimmed baking sheet; let stand at room temperature for at least 1 hour. After 30 minutes, prepare grill.
- For the Spice Rub : Toast chiles, cumin, coriander, pepper flakes, and peppercorns in 10-inch skillet over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until just beginning to smoke, 3 to 4 minutes.
- Transfer to plate to cool, about 5 minutes. Grind spices in spice grinder or in mortar with pestle until coarsely ground. Transfer spices to bowl and stir in sugar, paprika, and cloves.
- 3A. For a Charcoal Grill: Open bottom vent completely. Light large chimney starter mounded with charcoal briquettes (7 quarts). When top coals are partially covered with ash, pour two-thirds evenly over grill, then pour remaining coals over half of grill. Set cooking grate in place, cover, and open lid vent completely. Heat grill until hot, about 5 minutes.
- 3B. For a Gas Grill: Turn all burners to high, cover, and heat grill until hot, about 15 minutes. Leave primary burner on high and turn other burner(s) to medium.
- Clean and oil cooking grate. Sprinkle half of spice rub evenly over 1 side of steaks and press to adhere until spice rub is fully moistened. Lightly spray rubbed side of steak with oil spray, about 3 seconds. Flip steaks and repeat process of sprinkling with spice rub and coating with oil spray on second side.
- Place steaks over hotter part of grill and cook until browned and charred on both sides and center registers 125 degrees (for medium-rare) or 130 degrees (for medium), 3 to 4 minutes per side. If steaks have not reached desired temperature, move to cooler side of grill and continue to cook. Transfer steaks to clean wire rack set in rimmed baking sheet, tent loosely with aluminum foil, and let rest for 10 minutes. Slice meat thin against grain and serve.
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