Smoking steaks is a great idea. Not only do you get smoky flavor on your steak, but the gentle cooking makes getting the perfect doneness easy—if you pay attention to temperature. Today we’re going to go through what it takes to smoke a steak perfectly—including how to get a killer sear—and we’re doing it by cooking some delicious filet mignons. The thermal principles we’ll cover apply to any steak, but because we had the option, we decided to go with filets this time around. Grab your thermometers, it’s time to cook.
Qualities of a good smoked steak
When it comes to smoked steaks, there are a few things we expect. First, as the name implies, we want them to be smoky—but we don’t want them to taste like an ashtray. Smoke should be treated as a seasoning and applied correctly. Undersalted and oversalted foods are no good, and over-smoked steak isn’t great either.
Second, we want it to be perfectly cooked. A well-cooked (not to be confused with well-done) steak will have the most uniform doneness possible throughout its entire thickness. A grey band around the edge with a perfectly rosy interior is okay, but not as good as a steak that is rosy from edge to edge.
Finally, as with any steak, a smoked steak ought to have a good sear so that those delicious Maillard-reaction flavor compounds can be formed.
How to achieve smoked-steak perfection
Now that we have our parameters set, let’s take a look at how to achieve them.
Smoking temperature for smoky steaks
First, let’s consider smokiness. Here, as everywhere, temperature is king. In general, smokers make the “best smoke” between 225 and 250°F (107 and 121°C). Whether you’re working with a pellet smoker or a kamado-style cooker, keeping your temp in the prime zone for smoke is important. At the very least, you need to be monitoring the temperature with an air probe. Using a dual-channel thermometer like Smoke X2™ to watch your pit temp is a great standard operating procedure, even with a pellet smoker (The temps of which are often off by about 25°F [14°C]). If you are using something less automated, adding Billows™ BBQ Control Fan to the mix is a great idea!
Whatever your cooker, keep the temperature on the low side for optimal smokiness. (If you like extra smoke, toss the steaks in the freezer for 20 minutes before cooking so that they build up a thermal barrier and can sit in the smoke longer before they get to their pull temp.)
Cooking and pull temps for smoking steaks
Edge-to-edge pinkness is best achieved through gentle cooking. Great! Cooking at 225°F (107°C) is a great, slow cook and will not force too much heat into any side of the meat at once. To prevent overcooking when we sear (almost there…) we need to pull the steak at a lower temperature than our desired doneness. Use Smoke X2 to track the internal temperature of your steaks as they cook and set the high-temp alarm for a pull temp that is 15–20°F (8–10°C) below your preferred doneness. For medium rare steaks, that means pulling from the heat at 110–115°F (43–46°C).
This is where you’ll want to bring your Thermapen® ONE into play. Verify the internal temperature of your steak to be sure you don’t find any temperatures below your target for the best result later on.
Searing smoked steaks: how to get a tasty crust
You can sear either on a hot grill or, for maximum crusty-Maillard browning, in a hot pan. A heavy pan over high heat will pump enough heat into the surface of the steak fast enough that it won’t have much time to soak down into the interior of the steak. Heat your pan to at least 375°F (191°C) before you put your steaks in the pan. Even higher is even better!
When the pan is ripping hot, put the steaks in and cook, but don’t let them stay on one side for too long! If we’re trying to get the perfect edge-to-edge doneness we talked about above, then we can’t pump too much heat into one side before flipping it. Flip the steaks every 60 seconds or so. Once a little bit of browning starts to accumulate, add a few tablespoons of butter (and some herbs and garlic) to the pan and start basting the steaks with the sizzling, herbal brown butter. Cook until the lowest temperature you find with your Thermapen is 5°F (3°C) below your desired doneness temperature. The crust that forms from this process is excellent.
And don’t worry, the steak will carryover cook as it rests—and rest it must! Resting helps the steak finish cooking, but it also allows the proteins to relax and the juices to settle in.
To sear on the grill, cook the steaks over direct heat and flip every 60 seconds, just the same as above, but without all the butter!
Seasoning smoked steaks
When it comes to the seasonings for smoked steaks, it’s best to keep it simple. we want the taste of meat and smoke, so I stick to salt and pepper. A sugary BBQ rub can over-caramelize in the searing process, and too many seasonings can overpower the delicious smokiness.
You may be thinking to yourself that this method seems eerily reminiscent of the reverse sear, and you are correct! Smoking then searing your steaks is an excellent way to implement the reverse sear and add extra flavor at the same time. The results are magnificent: beautiful smoke flavor, amazing crust, and perfect doneness throughout. Controlling and monitoring temps, especially at critical points like the two pull temps, are vital for this kind of success. And if you know how they affect the cook, that perfect result becomes super easy to achieve. So grab some steaks—ribeye, filet, NY strip, whatever—and give them a smoke. Sear them as you would any other steak and you’ll be delighted with the results.
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