To braai the perfect steak at your own home is one of those things you should be able to do with ease. As long as you stick to a few basic guidelines and pay attention to what you are doing, you will master this skill in no time.
Once you can comfortably braai an awesome steak at home, this knowledge, skill and experience will be your foundation for doing it anywhere else, in whatever strange braaing conditions life might throw at you.
To braai the perfect steak, the meat that you are braaing has to be of a certain quality. However well you braai it, a bad piece of meat is never going to turn out great. Later on in this book we go into more detail about that but, first things first: the following foundational principles will equip you with a culture of excellent steak braaing that you can use for the rest of your life.
1. The steak should be at room temperature by the time it goes onto the fire.
- If it’s in the fridge, take the steak out 20 minutes before you want to braai it, and leave it in the shade or indoors. (When you make the effort to buy great steaks, you are probably not going to freeze them, but if the steaks you want to braai are frozen, transfer them from the freezer to the fridge at least a day in advance to allow them to thaw slowly.)
- It’s already 100% protein, so cover it with a cloth to keep the flies and bugs away. If there are dogs or hyenas around, place the steak well outside their reach.
2. You need plenty of extremely hot coals.
- If you are making a real fire with real wood, and this is the best way to braai, make a big fire from the outset. Do not make a medium-sized fire and add more wood later. By the time the second batch of wood has burnt out, the coals from the first batch will be half dead. Once the meat goes onto the fire, the process will be over quickly, so if you want to stand around the fire and discuss life with your guests for a few hours before you eat, make a medium-sized fire by all means. But when you intend to braai, add lots of wood, wait until it’s burnt out, then braai.
- If the petrol station only had wet wood available and you have to use charcoal, light quite a lot of it. For a small braai, consider half a bag. It’s not uncommon for me to use a whole bag of charcoal when braaing steaks for a dinner party.
- If you are wondering whether you have enough heat, then the answer is probably no. For these easy steps to a perfect steak to work, you need peace of mind that your coals are extremely hot. This is essential.
3. The exact height of your grid is not important. Anything between 5 and 15 centimetres is fine.
- When you braai steaks at your own home, always braai them on the same height and know exactly what that height is.
- When you are braaing at a new location, compare the height of the grid to the height of the grid at home, and adjust the braaing time accordingly.
4. Steaks should be done medium rare.
- If you really prefer your steaks rare and aren’t just saying it to one-up everybody else ordering medium rare, then you shouldn’t be ordering rare steaks anyway. There are two great dishes for you to try – steak tartare and beef carpaccio.
- If you prefer your steaks medium, then start buying superior quality steaks, learn how to braai them better, and acquire the taste of enjoying them medium rare.
- If you like your steaks medium well or well done, then why exactly are you reading this? You’re probably quite capable of messing the meat up all by yourself.
- If one of your guests asks for medium, and you have prepared enough extremely hot coals to start with, then there will be quite enough heat to get their steak medium by the time everybody else has sat down and been served. This should not happen too often, as most classy people nowadays are aware that steak should be enjoyed medium rare. If any of your guests wants their steak well done, refuse.
5. Add salt whenever you want to.
- I honestly don’t think it makes any difference to meat tenderness or juiciness whether you add the salt before, during or after the braai.
6. Take note of the time when the steaks go onto the grid and take them off after about 7 minutes.
- Steaks cut to a thickness of 2.5 cm to 3 cm, braaied on extremely hot coals, and at a grid height of 10 cm, take about 7 minutes in total to become medium rare.
- Break up the 7 minutes as follows: After 2 minutes turn the steaks for the first time, then turn them again after another 2 minutes; then turn them after 1 and 1⁄2 minutes, with a final turn another 1 and 1⁄2 minutes later. They are now ready.
- It’s perfectly acceptable to ask someone else to keep the time while you do the work.
7. Use braai tongs, not a fork, to turn the meat. A fork will make holes in the meat, and you might lose some juice.
8. The meat should be dry when it goes onto the fire; do not baste until both sides of the meat have been over the coals for 2 minutes each.
- As the heat from the coals seals the outside of the meat facing downwards, certain chemical reactions occur in the meat which develop part of the flavour. If you baste the meat before those chemical reactions have happened, the basting will boil and steam the side of the meat. Your steak will have less braai taste.
9. If you are using a hinged grid that closes (toeklaprooster) then obviously all the steaks will be turned at the same time. if you are turning the steaks one by one then turn them in the order that they went onto the grid and also remove them from the grid in that order.
10. Meat needs to ‘rest’ a bit after the braai, before you eat it.
- This lets the juices settle down and not all run out when you slice the meat.
- Watch out that the steak does not end up cold by the time you eat it. If you heat up the plates you will be eating from, this should not be a problem.
- By the time everyone has sat down and been served, the meat has rested enough.
- Do not put the steaks in an alu-minium braai bowl with lots of other meat and then into an oven where they will steam for another hour while some fool is braaing his frozen chicken. Your steaks will be ruined.
Once you have followed the above steps, you need to make an honest assessment of whether the steaks were perfect. If they were not, you need to repeat the steps, making slight adjustments until you have fine-tuned your technique to perfection. The most obvious adjustments to make are:
- If the steaks are burnt black on the outside, there is a very good chance that it’s not the meat but the marinade or spices that are burnt. The easiest way to get rid of this problem is not to marinate the meat in future.
- If the steaks are done medium or well, then they were probably cut too thin. In future, braai steaks that are thicker, or braai the same steaks but for a shorter time.
- If the steaks look perfect but are quite tough or tasteless, buy your steaks from a different place in future.
- If the steaks are underdone, then your fire was not hot enough. Repeat the process, and really go all out with that fire next time. You’ll be surprised how much heat a piece of unmarinated meat can withstand for 7 minutes without getting burnt. Alternatively, your steaks are very thick; in that case, increase your braai time slightly.
Once you can braai steaks perfectly at home, you can easily do it anywhere else as well. If there are less-than-ideal coals, try to set the grid very low. If the steaks are cut exceptionally thick, braai them for longer, and vice versa if they are cut especially thin. If the grid only has one setting and that is very high, allow a little extra braaing time.
Extract from Fireworks, by Jan Braai, Bookstorm Macmillan.