The idea for this article came about at a Labor Day cookout when a neighbor was keeping me company over cold beers on grill duty in the backyard.
I was just about to slap some thick-cut steaks on the grate when she looked at me in disbelief and asked, “Sammy, do you not poke holes in the steaks before you grill them?”
Now, I’ve seen and heard some strange misconceptions about grilling, both in conversations and on forums on the Internet. And barbecue is one of those topics that, like sports and politics, has its own science and lore—with an inexplicable power to stir up a fight among the most amiable of neighbors.
Barbecue is, after all, something that’s deeply personal. My medium-done steak is not the same as your medium-done steak. It’s also fiercely regional, as in, it’s capable of dividing a nation over the presence of tomatoes in the sauce.
But I gotta admit to you all that I was puzzled.
My neighbor, bless her heart, asked me this question in such an obvious fashion that even I thought for a second I had misunderstood the art and craft of grilling steak all these years.
I’m happy to report that the conversation went well, and the fight was skillfully averted. By the time we were done talking, I had converted her to not poking holes in her steaks.
And, in this post, I will tell you how and why.
Should You Poke Holes in Steaks?
To give you the long and the short of it: No, you shouldn’t.
There are two moments when people pierce their steaks: One is before they marinate them, and the other is right before they put them on the grill. As we are about to discuss, neither is really necessary.
In fact, poking holes in your steaks is almost always counterproductive! So let’s spend some time talking about why people poke holes in their steaks—and what they can do instead.
Poking Holes in Steaks When Marinating Them
Let’s talk about marinating meat.
A marinade is an acidic liquid, with wine, vinegar, or citrus juice, that tenderizes tough cuts of meat by breaking down the proteins. Marinades are often flavored with herbs and spices, like garlic and pepper, to give the meat added richness.
If the marinade isn’t penetrating into your steaks, you’re probably not giving it enough time to do so.
Despite lore to the contrary, there’s no need to poke holes in steaks when marinating them. The marinade is capable of penetrating the meat by itself if you give it enough time to work its magic.
The exact time, of course, depends on the recipe. But, as a rule of thumb, steaks should marinate for 6 hours to overnight, and always in the fridge. (Just don’t leave them in the marinade too long, or the acid will make them mushy.)
If you need to marinate steaks but you are short on time, the shortcut isn’t to pierce them but to inject the marinade into their center with the help of a syringe.
Poking Holes in Steaks Before Grilling Them
Some people poke holes in their steaks before putting them on the grill because they believe it promotes even cooking. But if even cooking is the problem, the root cause lies elsewhere.
Poking holes in your steaks will not cook them more evenly. But it will cause all the juices to flow out of the meat during grilling, making it dry and tough. You want to keep those juices in so that the meat turns out fork-tender and melt-in-your-mouth succulent.
If your steaks are overcooked—or unevenly cooked inside and out—consider learning more about direct vs. indirect heat.
Direct heat is when you cook your food directly above the heat source, be it glowing embers or a lit burner. Indirect heat is when you rake the coals over to one side and cook the food over the other, or heat your grill with all burners, then turn half of the burners off.
You sear the steaks lid off with direct heat to give them that crispy, charred crust.
Then you move the steaks over to the other side and cook them to doneness lid on with indirect heat. You keep the juices in the meat—which, may I say, comes out cooked to perfection.
Don’t poke holes in your steaks before marinating or grilling them. Instead, allow enough time for the marinade to penetrate into the meat, and consider using direct and indirect heat for even and thorough cooking.