How Not to Burn Steak on the Grill

When grilling thick-cut steak, high heat and flare-ups are not your friend. Here’s why, and what to do about it.

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“Sammy, how can I keep my steak from burning on the grill?” As someone who writes about grilling for a living, this is one of the steak-specific questions I get asked the most.

Some of my buddies and a few of our readers have told me that this has been their biggest challenge when grilling. “Whenever I grill a steak,” they typically say, “it stays raw on the inside, but burns and gets crusty on the outside!”

If this sounds familiar to you, you’re certainly not alone. The good news is that there is a way to prevent this, and it all depends on how well you set up your grill and control the heat on it.

If you cook thick-cut steak over high, direct heat, it will burn on the outside and not cook through on the inside. Steaks should always be grilled over moderate, indirect heat, whether that’s on a gas or on a charcoal grill.

To get indirect heat on a gas grill, preheat the grill with the leftmost and rightmost burners on medium, leaving the burner (or burners on larger grills) in the middle unlit.

For indirect heat on a charcoal grill, light the coals, wait for them to begin ashing over, and then fill the side baskets of your grill with them. If your grill doesn’t have side baskets, rake the coals on two opposite sides, left and right, and then place a drip pan in the middle.

Thin steaks, or anything thinner than 1½ inches, cook faster, so you can put them closer to the burners or coals. Thick-cut steaks, or anything thicker than 1½ inches, will take more time to cook, so place them away from the coals, above the center zone.

If juicier cuts of meat have fat dripping down and causing flare-ups, move the meat to a flame-free area. Once you’re no longer grilling over a burner, coals or wood, flames are no longer a problem.

The beauty of indirect grilling is that you always have a choice, without exception. This isn’t the case when the charcoal is evenly distributed in the pit or when all the controls are set to the same setting.

I know what your inner skeptic is thinking… “That all sounds good, Sammy. But you know full well that it’s easier said than done!”

The truth is that some aspects of grilling seem much more complicated than they actually are.

My editorial team and I are here to simplify it for all of you. Later in this article, I’ll show you how to set up your gas or charcoal grill to get a perfectly cooked steak every time.

When Grilling on Gas

How to cook steak over indirect heat on a gas grill
How to cook steak over indirect heat on a gas grill

Preheat your gas grill by turning the knobs to medium, then close the lid and wander off for about 15 to 20 minutes. Once the appliance is hot enough, you can begin grilling.

High heat is good for thin cuts of meat and sliced vegetables. It is less suitable for large pieces of meat and thick steaks, whose cooking time is longer and which can easily burn if the temperature is too high.

To regulate the heat of a gas grill, some people set all the knobs to the same position. The problem with this method is that you don’t have any leeway if fail to set the correct cooking temperature.

Also, most gas grills take about 12 minutes to heat up or cool down after you set the controls—it doesn’t happen in real time—so they’re not very useful for instantaneous heat control.

So let me suggest to you an alternative, better approach: 

Setting up your gas grill for indirect heat is easy. Preheat the grill with the left-most and right-most burners on medium, while keeping the center burner off.

Depending on the make and model of your grill—and the number of burners that it has—this is how it should work:

  • For indirect heat on a grill with two burners, preheat the unit with one burner on medium while the other burner is off;
  • For indirect heat on a grill with three burners, preheat the unit with the left and right burners, with the burner in the middle off;
  • For indirect heat on a grill with four burners (or more), light the outer burners and leave the center burner untouched.

No matter how many burners your gas grill has, try this configuration and always start grilling your steaks with indirect heat in the center, unlit burner zone.

With this configuration of direct and indirect heat, you’ve multiple zones to choose from when grilling, so you can move the steaks closer to or farther away from the flame.

If the indirect heat is a little too low to brown the steaks well or provide grill marks, you can easily switch the steaks to the direct heat. Conversely, if the heat on one zone is too high and the meat begins to burn, move it back to the center.

When Grilling on Charcoal

How to cook steak over indirect heat on a charcoal grill
How to cook steak over indirect heat on a charcoal grill

When grilling over charcoal, heat control is critical.

The charcoal cook must acquire good technique and rely on intuition. (This intuition proves especially useful once the technique is mastered).

Each fire is unique and burns at its own temperature and pace. However, there are a few golden rules you need to learn when it comes to configuring kettle grills for direct and indirect heat. Learn them, and you’ll excel at grilling.

Basically, there are three ways to control the heat on a charcoal grill so that a steak doesn’t burn:

  1. Don’t cook over the coals until they start to ash;
  2. Divide the coals between two opposing zones for direct heat and leave the middle zone free for indirect heat;
  3. Place a drip pan in the center and always cook the steak over it.

Let’s start with giving the coals enough time to ash over.

Don’t place a thick steak on the grill until the coals are fully ignited and beginning to turn gray and ashy. This usually takes 20 to 30 minutes from the time you light the charcoal.

Why this length of time? Because once the coals are lit, it takes 15 to 20 minutes for them to become red-hot, and another 5 to 10 minutes for them to begin to ash.

If the charcoal is still glowing and hasn’t turned gray and ashy, it can burn at temperatures as high as 650-700°F. This is way too much for a thick piece of meat; it’ll be burnt and charred on the outside when cooked through on the inside.

As a general rule of thumb, charcoal loses 100°F with each hour of burning time. This means that after lighting your charcoal grill, you should wait 20-30 minutes before placing the steak on it.

By then, the temperature will have reached about 500°F, which is a medium-high temperature on gas and ideal for cooking steaks.

Once the coals begin to ash over, set your charcoal grill to indirect heat by filling the side baskets with coals or piling them up in heaps on the left and right, leaving the center charcoal-free with an aluminum drip pan.

The left and right zones provide intense, direct heat for searing and grill marks. The center zone provides moderate, indirect heat for cooking thicker cuts and larger slices of meat.

Last but not least, we come to the maneuvering of the meat.

A steak that’s closer to the coals will cook and burn faster. Conversely, a steak that’s further away from the coals will cook more slowly.

Let’s assume you heed my advice, wait 20-30 minutes until the coals are ashy, move them left and right, and place a drip pan in the center.

Now all you’ve to do is start grilling. Place the steak in the center and let it cook long enough. When it’s almost done, turn it to the left or right and sear it for 15-20 seconds to get good grill marks.

If the steak is crispy and flavorful on the outside and juicy and delicious in the middle, you’ve mastered this technique.

When Grilling on Wood

Firewood doesn’t get as hot as charcoal, and the temperature isn’t as even.

Still, nothing can add flavor to a steak like burning hardwood (don’t use softwood, it’s not good for you), and every self-respecting griller should learn how to grill over wood.

Regardless of whether you are grilling over chips, chunks, or logs, I would give you the same advice I just gave for those grilling over charcoal.

Just remember that when grilling with wood on the same grill, there are more hot and cold spots than with charcoal, so you need to pay special attention to temperature.

In Summary

Good grilling is a matter of experience and proven technique.

And now that you have read all this, I am sure you understand why indirect heat grilling is one of my favorites. This technique is foolproof and suitable for any type of grill. It helps you control the heat and maneuver the steak as needed.

Now go ahead. Drive your family, grilling friends and neighbors crazy.

By Sammy Steen

Sammy, Barbehow's editor, is a die-hard carnivore, barbecue whisperer, and self-proclaimed master of the grill.

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