Open Fire Cooking: How To Grill A Steak Over Charcoal or Wood

Heat and smoke from cooking steaks over an open fire produce a rich, robust flavor that can’t be beat. The smoky taste produced by wood or charcoal enhances the flavor. With this four-step technique, you can cook a steak to perfection and achieve a flavorful sear. We will walk you through the best cuts of steak to grill, how long to cook steak on a grill, the best grilling temperatures for steak, and help you decide on grilling over charcoal or wood. Use these guidelines to grill any cut of steak over charcoal or wood on the Sea Island Forge Grilling System, or on any other grill, you might have. 

Step One: Choose Your Steak 

The first step is to choose a high-quality steak to obtain optimal flavor and texture. Choose steak that’s on the fattier side, not leaner: Ribeye, Beef Tenderloin, or Porterhouse. Look for grass-fed beef; this will give you the best cut of steak for grilling.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) assigns grades to beef according to tenderness, juiciness, and flavor potential. Prime, Choice, and Select are the top three grades for grilling.  All of the grades can be found in grocery stores.

Prime is the highest grade of the three for its tenderness, taste, and juiciness. It can be cooked longer for something more than medium rare.  

Choice is the next best grade of steak for grilling. It has less marbling but still maintains great flavor, tenderness, and juiciness. Be careful not to overcook.  

Select is the third best grade, it’s the leanest, has less juice, and is fairly tender. This grade cooks the quickest and is best prepared with a marinade. Cooking it too long will produce a tough and tasteless steak.   

No matter what grade and cut you prefer, we recommend that with any kind of dry-heat grilling, roasting, or searing, Prime or Choice grade steaks are the way to go. 

For best results, we recommend a minimum thickness of 1.25”. A thicker steak enables a longer cook time per side which will allow more time to build the sear.

Step Two: Prep Your Steak

Once you’ve chosen your steak, and you’re ready to begin preparation (about an hour before grilling), bring it to room temperature. Meanwhile, prepare and light your fire. While the fire is burning to coals, brush the steak with olive oil  (or any oil that has a high smoke point) and season with coarse sea salt and cracked pepper. 

Now you’re ready to grill these babies! 

Step Three: Prepare Your Charcoal or Firewood For Grilling

You have a decision to make before you can begin grilling your steak; ‘Should I use charcoal or wood to grill?’

Charcoal and wood are both ideal for cooking steaks due to the high heat and flavoring they add. Here are a few features of each to consider:

Steak Blog Comparison Table

We use a charcoal base combined with wood for smoky flavoring. Overall, our go-to is hardwood lump charcoal because it has both ease of heat control and flavor as it’s made from real chunks of charred wood. We use Royal Oak 100% Natural Hardwood Lump Charcoal because it is sustainably sourced, ready to cook food in 45 minutes, and still adds a savory, smoky flavor as wood does. You may choose to add flavor to the fire with Aromatic Smoking Shells from The Art of Pecan. These are made from harvested Texas pecan shells mixed with premium dried botanicals offering a unique flavor profile that works well with a broad range of foods. 

Of course, when grilling over an open fire, you’ll want the hardwood to burn, not your steak. You don’t have to worry about this with the Sea Island Forge Grilling System, as its patented ratchet system allows precise temperature control. You can effortlessly raise and lower the grilling surface to adjust the cooking temperature or rotate it off the heat while you season your meat or adjust your fire and easily move it back over the fire quickly. Perfectly grilled steak, and sides, every single time; you have full control.

How Do I Stack My Coals?

There are a few different ways to stage your charcoal or wood for grilling. Our preferred method is the two-zone fire or two-zone grilling method. One side of the grill has flames (for searing), and the other side doesn’t (for longer cooking times). Feed new wood into the high temp side as needed to supply more heat. 

Begin by lighting your wood or charcoal. We use Tumbleweeds Firestarters.

It’s an easy and natural way to start charcoal without lighter fluid.  Light your charcoal/wood 30-45 mins prior to putting your steaks on. You can add flavored Pecan Shells to provide the desired flavor.  If you’re grilling with firewood, we prefer the log cabin style of stacking (a crisscross pattern).

Step Four: Grill Steak over Lump Charcoal or a Wood Fire

First, sear your steak. Use your tongs to set your steak over the flames or hottest part of the fire. We recommend 3-4 minutes on each side (depending on the thickness) for the sear, then move it to an area on the grill with indirect heat and cover it with the Grill DomeA little science behind steak searing; the Malliard reaction is what happens during the searing process, leading to the wonderful flavor, aroma, and colors that we identify with delicious steaks.

Second, cook your steak. Raise the grill to lower the heat without having to move the steak. By using the Sea Island Forge patented Grilling Systemyou have the ability to control the cooking temp by easily raising or lowering the grilling surface. This is also key when adding additional wood or charcoal to keep the fire and heat consistent without disturbing the food during its cooking process. 

If you don’t own one of our Cooking Systems, carefully move the steak to a cooler temperature zone, away from the direct heat of the coals. At this point, it’s important to cover the steak to aid the cooking process. 

How Long Do I Grill The Steak?

The time to cook your steak will depend on how you like it cooked; rare, medium rare, well done, etc. Cook your steak to your desired temperature (guidelines listed below) for about 5-8 additional minutes under the grill/Heat Dome away from direct heat, in the cooler zone. It’s important to use a good meat thermometer to track your progress and check for your desired temperature/doneness. Steak cuts vary in thickness, and so will cooking temps and times.

Our friends at Royal Oak Charcoal outline these temps really well:

130 degrees - Rare

135 degrees - Medium Rare

140 degrees - Medium

150 degrees - Medium Well

160 degrees - Well Done

*The meat will continue to cook after it’s removed from the grill, so remove it at least 10 degrees before reaching the desired temperature. 

Once you remove your grilled steak from the heat, allow the steak to rest for 10-15 minutes (or a third of its cooking time, thank you, Michael Symon). This helps create a more tender steak allowing the juices to remain in the meat and not on the cutting board. We loosely tent ours with tin foil.

Now it’s time to eat- Buon Appetito!  

If you’re interested in an amazing steak recipe, take a look at our Ribeye Steak With Chimichurri Rojo recipe created by Chef Rob McDaniel.

You can’t go wrong with this four-step, outdoor, open-fire cooking method for grilling the perfect steak. Later this evening, as you cut into and savor your steak, stay cozy around the Sea Island Forge Kettle for an evening around the fire filled with great flavors and even greater company.

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