That’s a fair question when it comes to taking the time to get a nice grid of grill marks on properly cooked steak, chops, fowl or veggies. While it is partially to show off the skill – we are geeks after all – it also sets the stage for your meal. The old adage ‘you eat with your eyes first’ has never fit better. Getting those classic markings just right, tells your dining companions that you put the time into cooking their food to the best of your ability. And yeah, they are cool, on that we agree.
I’m not sure what it is about perfect grill marks, but they make for a steak sexy. Let’s take a second to unwrap this elusive art.
A commercial grill is generally built up more than yours at home. What we mean by that is they have lots of metal, heavier grill racks and such. By prime time dinner hour, let’s say 7:00 that grill has been up to temp for a couple hours so it is heated throughout. This, and similar concepts will help you get the professional look to your steaks. That is what we want to explore here.
How to Get Grill Marks
Yep, the 101 of everything food and kitchen. We all know that you can have well-seasoned parts of your grill, and that you can have them clean at the same time. So do that. Scrape, brush, and keep the contact areas of your grill clean of debris. Make sure any additional fragments are gone so that you don’t get flare ups when they burn out. Those flames can put too much color to the surface of your food, hiding the grill marks.
Heat and oil
These two factors are the biggest considerations to help you get great grill marks. We are basing our approach on thinner food items which cook faster. Searing and marking larger cuts is actually easier because you get to apply heat for a longer period of time.
Heat is interesting because what you really want is for the metal parts that contact the food to be superheated. Then you want good heat coming up through the grill to cook the food promptly. That means a pre-heat stage is necessary. If possible, cover the grill area while preheating. You don’t want to cook with a lid on, but this will get the grill pieces hotter than an open surface.
Now it is time to oil things up. Using a paper towel or piece of an old towel you don’t care about, is the easiest way. Dip it in the oil of your choice with tongs and give a good smear on the grill pieces that will contact the food. This does two things. It will keep you food form sticking, which is a very real risk when you have properly heated the metal of the grill. Secondly, oil transfers heat well – think deep frying – while helping food color up from the heat, so you will get better markings from the grill.
Hurry up and wait
With your hot grill shining with a light oil coat, it is now time to place the food and get cooking. Do that, then stop.
The best way to get grill marks is to place the food on your hot spot and just let it chill, or grill in this case. Leave it alone, at least 60 seconds even with an extremely hot grill. Checking every 20 seconds or such will only move the item, possibly causing multiple contact points and less marking.
Here’s the thought process. The professional grill men will tell you that a two inch steak cooked at high heat for 5 minutes per side will give you a good medium rare doneness. Obviously many factors can affect that, but with that premise, the longer you can leave it in one place the better your grill marks will show up while you give it time to cook properly.
But what we really want is the cross hash grid look from our grill marks right? Basics of broiling say that you need enough room for good air flow between pieces of food. Use that space for good marking. Let’s talk a NY strip because the geometry is easier with a longer narrow item. Place the steak perpendicular to the grill direction. After two minutes flip the steak along the grill to the unused section, still perpendicular. After two more minutes rotate the steak 90 degrees as you turn it, now running parallel along the grill when you set it down. After three minutes flip again, still parallel, for 3 minutes until cooked.
Additional tips and thoughts
There’s a ton of information on times temps and doneness for food, so you need to do your diligence on the doneness of the food you are cooking. Obviously thin slices will come up very quickly so they need to be timed differently. For thick cuts, try having a section of your grill that is cooler than the main hot spot. That way you can shift the food over to finish cooking without carbonizing the outer layer.
Some folks like to think of the pattern as a diamond versus a square. Thinking a T-bone for the example, which has that straight edge of bone for reference. Start that on a 45 degree bias to the grill direction, follow the same procedure as above, maintaining a 45 degree cant, and you will switch from square to diamond shaped marks. You’re your own if you are cooking a round filet or such.
There is something to be said for cooking only one side at a time. If that is your preference, place the food for the first interval, again dividing your time into four segments. After the first period, rotate the food 45 degrees. After the second interval, flip it and repeat the process.
Lastly, you can brush or spray the food with a light coat of oil as opposed to oiling the metal parts of the grill. Obviously this will leave a light coat of oil one the unmarked pars of the food. For some food that may be a good thing. Other foods perhaps not.
Now you know though, and you’re ready mark your food like a pro.