What is the mistake made when charcoal grilling steaks that makes the meat taste like the lighter fluid? What, if anything, can be done to camoflage that taste once cooked?
Your mistake is likely putting the steaks on the fire too soon. Whether you're using a match-lighting charcoal, or regular charcoal lit with fluid, you need to let the fluid burn thoroughly out. The easiest way to be sure you've done this is to make sure ALL the coals have burnt till the outside of each is totally gray. You shouldn't be seeing any black.
I would suggest using a good quality, non-match-lighting charcoal, and starting it without fluid. You can buy chimneys that you fill the top with charcoal, and the bottoms with crumpled newspapers which you light. They do a marvelous job and no fluid taste. (Also safer than fluid, for you and the environment!) You can also get electric lighters; but the chimneys are so easy and once you've bought one, cheap to use!
best solution is prevention, but good ol' steak sauce, BBQ sauce and onions come to mind to mask the taste.
The chimney starters are great, and have another advantage over electric: they work anywhere there is dry newspaper available. Jilson's other suggestions are good too. I have made the mistake of putting the food on too soon, and it's hard to resist if I'm really hungry, but don't let your hunger ruin your food. Here are a couple of tips:
First, or course, is to start the fire earlier and give yourself plenty of time to prepare the meal.. "Haste Makes Waste", and that fact is never more evident than when preparing food.
Second, if time slips up on you and you (or your guests) are too hungry to wait, go to "plan B"... skip the grill and cook the steaks on the stove. My trick for this is to rub the meat with freshly crushed garlic and black pepper. Then get an ungreased cast iron griddle or skillet really hot and sprinkle table salt liberally on it. Throw the steaks on and sear one side, then lift them, re-salt the skillet, and sear the other side. I like my steaks just barely dead so if I'm just cooking for myself, they are done. If cooking for someone who likes their steaks cooked past 'Rare', turn the heat down to med. just before searing the second side. Once seared, flip steaks and finish cooking side one, then flip again and finish side two. (Salt is not needed once they are seared.) Searing the steaks in this manner seals in the juices and they come out nice and tender and juicy. Note that I did not salt the steaks, only the griddle. This is because salt dries and toughens meat. The hot salt and heat on the griddle toughens only a very thin layer on the outside of the meat, sealing it well, and the salt helps keep the meat from sticking to the iron.
This won't match the flavor of charcoal cooking but if you're too hungry to wait or grilling is impractical for whatever reason, it's a pretty good alternative. It also works well for burgers and other meats.
Wait for your briquets to be covered with white ash before cooking. Even better, use one of those chimney starters to get the coals going with a couple of sheets of newspaper in the bottom to help speed things along.
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