Wow! What a long, complicated, scary title! This food must take forever to prepare! What in the world is sous-vide? Is this stuff safe to eat? Why would I want to use a complicated procedure for making charcoal grilled steaks? Don't you just toss the meat onto the charcoal grill and have at it?
If you didn't ask or take time to think about the above questions then you already know the answers, or, you best not try this recipe as you don't pay enough attention to detail and will somehow ruin the steaks, possibly even making yourself and perhaps your partner ill from eating them. If, however, you are inherently curious about methods used by professional chefs to make superb food, and pretty much kitchen capable, then fasten your belt and get ready for some wonderful surprises, and a bit of work and patience.
Here is an important heads up ... I made the steaks and afterwards realized that I needed to change a few recipe recommendations. The most critical item was maintaining a consistent sous-vide water temperature, specifically not allowing it to climb above 130 degrees F. Live and learn ... Thus, the recipe you will read below reflects five different changes to the original recipe, and I'm not going to bore you with details and results of what didn't work best. So let's get on with what does matter.
Let me begin at the beginning ... This entire recipe is a composite of techniques I learned from reading J. Kenji Lopez-Alt's fantastic book, The Food Lab©. He discussed each of the techniques that will be used in this recipe in detail, but combining all of these techniques into one recipe for Food Nirvana was my decision. I think Kenji wisely avoided doing that as home cooks may not have the necessary equipment or other supplies, and if the meat is not handled properly it could become dangerous to eat. Note that Kenji is in no way responsible for any errors I have made in translating his directions nor for any of the directions I have provided that are my personal recommendations. Okay, you've had the warnings, and if you are still ready for a giant change for the better in how you make charcoal grilled ribeye steaks then read on.
The easiest way to introduce the techniques is by narrative description, taking each technique in sequential order in terms of what you do to make the final wonderful steaks. The best way to proceed now is for you to read the recipe in entirety. Then plan how to acquire/assemble the necessary ingredients, equipment, etc., and how to fit all tasks into a time frame of one day plus about two hours that will guarantee you will serve a great meal without unexpected delays or risky shortcuts. Here we go ...
Purchase two Choice or Prime boneless ribeye steaks of thickness 1 1/2" from a reputable butcher. Avoid buying them at the supermarket or warehouse club as the quality of their displayed meat can vary from excellent to terrible, and you sure don't want to put in a lot of preparation time only to wind up with inferior steaks. Demand that the thickness be 1 1/2" ... Nothing less, nothing more, as directions given in this recipe are specific to steaks of that thickness. They will each weigh approximately one pound, give or take. Keep them packaged and refrigerated briefly prior to use, which should happen within one or two hours or less. Whatever they weigh you will lose some of the weight when you trim off excess exterior fat while leaving a thickness of 1/8" or less of fat.
The fat is essential to having great taste and good grilling, but too much of it typically causes excess flaming on a charcoal grill. In this recipe, too much fat left on the meat could yield yucky undercooked fat because of the very short grilling time. According to Kenji, some chefs will even use a blowtorch to crisp a normal thickness of fat around the perimeter of a steak, particularly if it is pan fried instead of grilled over charcoal.
As for the charcoal grill, we are a long time at the moment from needing it, but when you prepare it and light it you want very high heat to result, so don't be cheap about how many briquettes you use. Think of an area about one foot in diameter with briquettes deep enough (three layers in the center of the grill) that the highest ones are only about two to three inches from the grill surface, in an even layer. The charcoal setup happens to be my recommendation, not Kenji's, though I think he would agree. Specifically, he recommends the use of a chimney for starting the charcoal, which minimizes the likelihood of having uneven heat or briquettes that expel charcoal lighter fumes when you are trying to do the grilling, which is awful. The chimney approach is best if the chimney can contain enough briquettes to create the configuration I described. Otherwise, use a minimum amount of charcoal lighter and give the grill plenty of time to reach maximum temperature and even burning of the hot briquettes. You might even accelerate that process early on by using tongs to move some of the hot briquettes around to low ignition areas to force balanced heating. Note that you don't need a huge charcoal grill to do two steaks. The small, 14" diameter bowl shaped types like those made by Weber® are fine, provided they have vent holes in the bottom to get plenty of air to go through the briquettes during use. And you might want to have a strong steel spatula designed for flipping the steaks during charcoal grilling, right?
So much for the charcoal grilling primer. Well, not quite. I now favor using an electric heating element accessory to ignite charcoal. That totally avoids the use of charcoal lighter or any other ignition accelerant, and it is less work than using a chimney. You simply allow thirty minutes for initial heating time, having covered the heating element with briquettes, and then spread the briquettes around and give the grill another fifteen minutes to have all coals burning evenly. Okay, now let's get to the beef!
Take the steaks from the refrigerator and trim off the excess fat and discard it, or almost all of it. That includes any large chunk areas within the steak. Some people I know like to take one large piece of fat at grilling time, impale it with a long meat fork, and rub the hot grilling surface with it immediately prior to grilling the steaks. That is not a bad idea for general grilling as the meat is less likely to stick to the metal grill. The choice is yours. That large piece of fat may be a chunk you have to cut away from one end of the meat to avoid having it present at all during the grilling.
Okay, fat removal may result in a steak having a flap or tail of meat attached to the main body of the steak. In the worst case a section of the steak will become completely detached from the main body. We can deal with those possibilities, if necessary, right before grilling by attaching the flap, tail or section of meat to the main part of the steak using either wooden toothpicks or small metal skewers. In the meantime simply proceed per the directions that follow.
Put the steaks on a dinner plate and sprinkle coarse Kosher salt and crushed peppercorns on both sides of the meat. I like to use a Magic Bullet® high speed miniature blender to grind whole peppercorns because it is so easy and effective. Use about two teaspoons of coarse Kosher salt and one and one half teaspoons of crushed peppercorns for each steak, divided evenly to cover both sides. Rub the salt and pepper into the meat before flipping it to do the second side. Rub the salt and pepper into the second side also.
Let the meat rest for one hour at room temperature. You may note, early on, some liquid on the plate. It will mostly be reabsorbed by the end of the hour. That is good as the salt and the moisture have been returned into the meat.
Put the steaks on a cookie cooling rack, a small one is fine, and put the rack onto a cookie tray lined with one or two paper towels. Place the tray into the refrigerator with the steaks uncovered. You can proceed to the next step anytime after the steaks have spent 24 hours in the refrigerator. You will notice the outside of the steaks will appear drier, and that is very good, for ultimately the grilling and formation of the wonderful outside crust on the steaks will be accomplished much faster by already having partially dried the surfaces to be seared/browned/crusted. The salting/refrigeration procedure you used is known as dry brining. Now you understand the second part of the recipe title, also the first and third terms, right? We're making progress!
Soon you will be needing the Compound Butter referenced in the recipe title. Or not. It is your decision, so read the recipe here and decide. Do it, or not. Here is a simple recipe for one type of compound butter (there are numerous types). Put one stick of softened butter into a bowl. Add four ounces of softened bleu cheese of most any type, mix them together and then add one teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce and one small shallot, finely minced. Mix well and form the mixture into a one inch diameter log shape near the end of a sheet of plastic wrap, roll it from that end to the other, twisting the ends, and then refrigerate the mixture until it is needed. When needed you can cut off small slices of about 1 tbsp. each to be used with individual steaks. The idea is that it will melt over the crisp surface of the hot steak and provide even more eating pleasure.
Okay. At this point you could grill the steaks, but there is a far superior way to make them perfectly medium rare throughout. It is called sous-vide cooking, and as you likely guessed it is French in origin and the process is now used by many fine steakhouses in the USA. Next we will learn about sous-vide cooking and why we want it and how to do it. Then you will do it, homestyle. After that, finally, you can actually grill the steaks.
A medium rare steak is one where the meat temperature is raised from what you had in the refrigerator (40 degrees F or lower) to 130 degrees F, evenly, throughout the steak. In sous-vide cooking that is achieved by taking the steaks from the refrigerator and individually vacuum sealing them, letting them come to room temperature (15 to 30 minutes), and then putting them into a water bath maintained at 130 degrees F, where they are kept for one hour to assure the internal steak temperature has risen to 130 degrees F. You can use a sealable bag without vacuum sealing provided you expel all air before sealing it.
Note that the vacuum sealing step prior to sous-vide cooking should be carefully controlled, such that the lowest effective level of vacuum that causes the vacuum sealing bag to cling to the meat is the right amount of vacuum to use, particularly if you dry brined the meat. You can practice a few times with other meat to find out what works best with your vacuum sealer. The idea is that excess vacuum will draw moisture out of the steak to the partially dried surface, which is to be avoided as the steak will not be as moist inside when you eat it if you have used too strong a vacuum.
Now, given that vacuum sealing may not work well with a dry brined steak for the reason given above, and given that you may not own a vacuum sealer, then you simply want to use a sealable plastic bag. The proper way to use a sealable plastic bag, of a type you know will not leak, like a Ziploc® freezer bag, is to put the meat into it, pressing out most of the air, then closing almost all of the seal, and then putting the bag slowly into the sous-vide water described below, except for the tiny unsealed area that you will pinch shut just before completely submerging the bag of meat in the water. That procedure will eliminate the air in the bag well enough that any residual air will not interfere with good heat transmission during the sous-vide process.
Note: Once you complete the sous-vide cooking you only have a minute or two of grilling actions per side and it will be time to eat. I recommend putting all dishes and plates that will be used at your meal for hot food into a 180 degrees F warming oven, as that practice really improves eating enjoyment. I also strongly recommend that you prepare all the remaining items for your meal during the sous-vide cooking, to avoid delay in enjoying the grilled steaks.
Here is how you do sous-vide cooking at home (with the help of a quick read or instant digital thermometer) ... Use a two and one half to five gallon cooler and put in 2 gallons to 4 gallons of hot tap water at a temperature in excess of 130 degrees F, ideally 132 to 135 degrees F. If your tap water isn't hot enough then boil a gallon of water in a pot on your cooktop. Use some of that boiling water as necessary, such that the mixture of tap water and boiling water creates a 130 degrees F environment. Just the act of partially filling the cooler will start to reduce the water temperature, so starting with a temperature of 132 degrees F is perfectly okay. When the water temperature has dropped to 130 degrees F put in the vacuum sealed steaks, close the lid and wait for about 15 minutes. Open the cooler lid, check the temperature, and if necessary adjust the temperature back up to 130 degrees F by adding more boiling water and stirring with a large spoon. Repeat this process until the meat has had one hour to come to the proper internal temperature. If (Ugh!) you want medium instead of medium rare steaks the sous-vide water temperature should be 135 to 140 degrees F.
At the end of the sous-vide process the steaks are ready to be removed from the vacuum sealed bags and grilled. Note that the meat is already cooked to the proper temperature before it is grilled, so grilling is intended only to create the crisp browned exterior to the steaks and partial crisping of any thin fat layer around each steak.
My initial recomendation for grilling time differed from Kenji's for multiple reasons, but I was wrong. 30 seconds per side is quite sufficient on a really hot charcoal grill to create a browned/crisp surface on the steaks under normal weather and grilling conditions. You can vary the grilling time to get the browning you want but at the risk of undoing the sous-vide advantage of consistent doneness throughout the steak. Ambient temperature and delayed grilling could be negative factors in cooling the steaks before grilling. Simply think about the difference between grilling on a calm hot summer day versus grilling when the outside temperature is only 40 degrees F in windy conditions. In any event, transfer the steaks from the 130 degrees F sous-vide environment directly onto the hot charcoal grill after removing the vacuum sealing bags. To my knowledge, Kenji never discussed variable weather conditions or delay in grilling the steaks as these considerations probably would not be present inside a commercial restaurant kitchen, but which could be important for the home chef using an outside portable charcoal grill.
Now you understand why it was important to eliminate most of the fat prior to grilling, for large areas of fat will never have enough time on the grill to melt away, burn, or become edible, as in crisp. But a very thin layer of fat on the perimeter does have the needed time exposed to very high heat to become tasty.
Now, suppose the early removal of internal chunks of fat caused the steak to have a loose flap or tail or complete section of disconnected meat. Prior to grilling, you can fasten that flap, tail or section in three or more places, if needed, to the main body of the steak using either wooden toothpicks or small steel skewers. What I actually experienced was the tail created when I removed fat did not require any action to fasten it later because the vacuum sealing and sous-vide cooking, in combination, caused the tail to hold tightly against the rest of the meat, even during grilling.
Okay, now do the grilling. Oops! Did you remember to rub a piece of beef fat on the grill surface first? Okay, now grill on ...
Remove the grilled steaks to a pre-heated dinner plate. You might offer access to your barely used hot charcoal grill to less fortunate neighbors for them to do their hamburgers and hot dogs!
Now it is time (optionally) to put a dollop (about one tbsp.) of the compound butter, prepared earlier, on the top side of each steak. Brush it around with a pastry brush to coat the surface. If you want, you can flip the steak over and do the same thing on the second side. Note: It is perfectly okay to skip the addition of the compound butter. Your choice.
Okay, folks ... If you prepared the rest of the meal during the sous-vide period you are now ready to eat. If you didn't prepare the other meal items then you are about to become very unpopular. People want steaks with a crisp exterior not a soft one from sitting around too long after grilling.
Typically, steaks should be "rested" under an aluminum foil tent for up to ten minutes after grilling. That keeps the juices from running out of the steak and all over your plate when you cut it. The resting period only needs to be about "one" minute for steaks done sous-vide. That is very good as they remain crisp on the outside, and if you applied some compound butter they already had that very short resting period.
Time to chow down ... Life is wonderful, isn't it? If you happened to use toothpicks or skewers do let your guests know to remove them. Now you can tell your friends about sous-vide cooking and all the other fancy but important preparations described in this recipe, leading to perfect grilled ribeye steaks ... Crisp on the outside and perfectly medium rare throughout, not to mention a lovely intense beefy flavor.
Note: Due to the application of salt and pepper done earlier, prior to dry brining, DO NOT SALT, PEPPER or otherwise season the steaks until you have tasted them or you may ruin the entire experience.