What better way to celebrate the 4th of July than with a colossal, mouthwatering smoked and seared steak? Reverse searing is the perfect method for cooking thick-cut steaks, like ribeyes, to edge-to-edge beefy perfection. Keep reading for the temperatures you need to cook up these irresistible steaks.
Thick steaks (1-1/2″ to 2″ thick) can be tricky to grill. It takes longer for the heat to penetrate to the center, so by the time the steak reaches your target internal temperature, the outer layers of the steak can become overcooked and the surface can become charred. Cooking thick steaks over a low cooking temperature such as over indirect heat can bring the interior meat to perfection, but without the exterior ever being able to develop a flavorful crust.
What do you do? Cue the reverse sear.
4 Critical Steps in Reverse Searing a Ribeye Steak
Reverse searing is a two-stage cooking process. The first is a low-temperature cook followed by a quick, high-temperature sear. The goal of the two-step operation of reverse searing is to have a steak with both an ideal edge-to-edge pink doneness inside and a rich, brown, crisp crust on the exterior—avoiding the overcooked gray band right beneath the surface of the meat. The following steps are what make this project a winner:
1. Dry Brine
The recipe we used here (from our friend Mary Cressler at Vindulge.com) calls for a quick dry-brining method. The steaks are salted and refrigerated for two hours. The hygroscopic (or water-loving) property of the salt draws moisture from deep inside the steak to the surface over time where it dissolves the salt. The dissolved salt is able to then penetrate the surface of the meat, seasoning it all the way through and actually altering the chemical structure of the protein fibers. After brining, the protein fibers are able to retain their moisture better than without the step of brining, because the salt holds on to the water. So, for consistently moist, flavorful, juicy steak, brining is always a good idea.
2. Low-Temperature Cook
Cooking the steak over a low temperature (160-180°F [71-82°C] in this case) will nearly bring the steak to its doneness temperature (we’ll pull the steaks at 100°F [38°C]), and the quick, high-heat sear will finish bringing the internal temperature to its final pull temp while simultaneously creating a crisp, flavorful crust. In this recipe, we’re doing the first part of this process in a smoker “low and slow” to give the already flavorful meat an additional dimension of smokey flavor. But you can also divide your grill into two zones, an indirect heat zone for the initial cook and a high, direct heat zone for the final sear.
➤ Temperature Tips
Track both the meat and your smoker’s temperatures during this stage of the cook. You’ll want to be sure your smoker is maintaining the proper low temperature so the meat doesn’t cook too quickly. Tracking the internal temperature is critically important to the success of this method. You don’t want to go beyond your initial target pull temperature during the low and slow cook, because it will lead to an overcooked steak after the sear. We’re using a ThermaQ® to track both of the temperatures while smoking the steaks.
3. High-Temperature Sear
This step in the cooking process is meant to be very quick. At temperatures above 400°F (204°C) the sugars in the meat break down and form rich, crispy flavors and textures. But the longer the steaks are cooked at a high temperature, the greater the chances are of overcooking the meat just beneath the surface. High, direct heat is the secret to a quick sear. And this high, direct heat cooking can be done either over a hot grill or in a cast iron pan—the choice is up to you. Many people love the flavor of a grilled steak, and others prefer a pan-seared steak. With pan-searing, the steak has more direct contact with the cooking surface and usually develops a more substantial crust than with grilling, where only the grates actually touch the surface of the steak.
➤ Temperature Tips
Monitor the internal temperature of your steaks frequently (with an instant-read thermometer like a Thermapen® Mk4) during the sear, as well, to avoid ruining the steaks. You’ll want to pull your steaks about 5°F (2°C) lower than your desired final doneness temperature. For a medium-rare steak, we’ll be pulling ours at 125°F (52°C) to achieve a final resting temperature of 130°F (54°C) (see a list of other recommended temperatures here).
Don’t skip this important step! It can be difficult to resist slicing into a beautiful and aromatic piece of meat fresh from the sear, but you must. After the steaks have been removed from the heat source, the latent thermal energy on their exterior will continue moving toward the lower-temperature center of the meat.
In those 5 minutes, your steak’s internal temperature will increase by about 5°F (2°C), but the exterior of the meat will also begin cooling. This process of the evening out of temperatures is called equilibration. No longer exposed to a high heat cooking environment during the rest, the meat’s protein fibers will partially reverse the process of tightening the muscle fibers and reabsorb some of their juices. Our friend Kenji Lopez-Alt explains it well:
Once that meat has cooled slightly, its structure relaxes—the muscle fibers widen up slightly again, and it’s this small change in shape that makes all the difference. —The Importance of Resting Meat, by Kenji Lopez-Alt of SeriousEats.com
The meat’s protein fibers will partially reverse the process of tightening and reabsorb some of the liquid that was expelled during the cook. After resting, your steak will be more tender and juicy, guaranteed. So give it a rest!
Reverse Sear Ribeye: A 2-Step Process
Reverse sear is the best way to get edge-to-edge even doneness on a thick steak without a thick band of battleship gray meat just under the crust. —The Science of Great BBQ and Grilling, by Meathead Goldwyn
We are using thick cut bone-in ribeye steaks in this recipe. When we say thick-cut, we’re talking 1-1/2″ to 2″ thick. Reverse searing is a method that was developed just for cuts of meat like this.
While the bone won’t add flavor to your meat it does act as an insulator, and there is less exposed surface area with…bone-in [meat], which helps it to retain more moisture as it cooks. —Kenji Lopez-Alt, The Food Lab
➤ For more information on bone-in vs boneless ribeye steaks, see our post Grilled Ribeye: Bone-In or Boneless?
Smoked & Reverse-Seared Ribeye Steak Recipe
This cut of meat is so rich and flavorful on its own that it isn’t necessary to use a strong BBQ dry rub or sauce. Simple salt and pepper paired with smoky flavors transform this already tasty steak into carnivorous decadence.
- 4 ribeye steaks, about 1 pound each
- Salt and pepper for seasoning
Supplies & Equipment
- Wood chips
- Thermapen Mk4
- Sprinkle salt on all edges of each steak.
- Place steaks on a wire cooling rack set over a metal baking sheet to allow air circulation around the steaks. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to overnight (use a TimeStick®!).
Prep Your Smoker or Grill
- Preheat your smoker to maintain a temperature of 160-180°F (71-82°C) for indirect heat cooking and add a handful of wood chips. Allow enough time for smoke to develop.
- Secure your ThermaQ’s air probe with a grate clip to the grill grate surface of your smoker. Set the alarms on the ThermaQ to monitor your smoker:
- High alarm: 185°F (85°C)
- Low alarm: 155°F (68°C)
Prep the Steaks
- Place a Smokehouse Penetration Probe (included with ThermaQ kit) laterally into the thickest part of the center of one of the steaks.
- Set the alarm on the ThermaQ to monitor the steak’s temperature.
- High alarm: 100°F (38°C)
Low-Temperature Cook (Smoking)
- Place the steaks on the smoker. Add wood chips as needed to maintain smoke.
- Close the lid and let the steaks cook. This will take approximately 1 hour, depending on the temperature maintained in your smoker and how thick your steaks are.
- Preheat for High-Heat Cooking
- While the steaks are smoking, prepare your high heat cooking source. You’ll want to be sure your grill or cast iron pan are hot and ready to go once the steaks are pulled from the smoker.
- The grill or cast iron pan should be heated to a surface temperature of about 450-500°F (260°C) for a good sear. Use an infrared thermometer like the IRK-2 to verify the surface temperature. Be sure the grill grate or pan are clean and oiled.
- When the meat’s high alarm sounds, spot-check each steak in multiple areas with a Thermapen Mk4 to verify the internal temperature.
- If a lower temperature is found, replace the meat’s probe to read the lowest temperature found and continue cooking until the high alarm sounds again.
- Pull the steaks from the smoker once an internal temperature of 100°F (38°C) is verified.
High-Temperature Cook (Searing)
- Place the steaks on the grill and cook until the internal temperature reaches 125°F (52°C). Flip the steaks frequently for even cooking.
- A pull temperature of 125°F (52°C) will yield a final resting doneness temperature of 130°F (54°C)—medium-rare doneness.
- Spot-check the internal temperature of the steaks often with a Thermapen Mk4 to be sure they’re pulled at the correct temperature, and not a degree higher.
- Cast Iron Pan Searing
- Cook the steaks one at a time in your oiled, preheated cast iron pan, flipping frequently for even cooking.
- Spot-check the internal temperature of the steaks often with a Thermapen Mk4 to ensure desired doneness (we pulled ours at 125°F [52°C]).
- Be sure to check the surface temperature of the cast iron pan after cooking each steak to be sure it’s hot enough before continuing to cook the next steak. Preheat to 500°F (260°C) between each steak for the best sear.
- Once an internal temperature of 125°F (52°C) has been verified, pull the steaks from the grill or cast iron pan. Place them onto a carving board, cover with aluminum foil, and rest for 5 minutes.
- After the 5 minutes, slice and serve!
These steaks will likely be some of the most flavorful and juiciest you’ve ever tasted. Starting with a touch of smoke takes their already rich flavor to a new level. If you haven’t tried the method of a reverse seared ribeye before, hopefully this gives you the motivation to do it!
Temperature control is critical to this 2-step cooking process. With the right temperatures, your steaks will be perfect every time! The right tools and the right cooking method will make you an Independence Day picnic hero.