How to Cook a ‘Charcoal Steak’ Directly on the Coals

Looking for a fun new grilling technique? Try making a ‘charcoal steak’ – sometimes called a ‘dirty steak,’ ‘Eisenhower steak,’ or ‘caveman steak’ – by throwing your meat directly on the coals. I know it sounds crazy, but I promise you won’t be disappointed with the results. And if you don’t trust me, know that even Alton Brown approves. In fact, he says skirt steak on coals is his favorite steak for grilling!

Charcoal Steak - Quick Background and Origins

Who popularized this technique of grilling steak directly on coals? It’s hard to tell, but while doing a little research I discovered that Dwight D. Eisenhower preferred this method for his steaks. The 34th president, according to the Eisenhower Library archives, enjoyed extra-thick strip steaks with salt, pepper, and a heavily charred exterior. Hence one of the many names for this style is the “Eisenhower steak.”

I personally found out about this method from Alton Brown, when I came across this video clip on YouTube:

When it comes to food, there’s almost no one I trust more than Alton Brown, so I decided to give his recipe a shot. What struck me more than anything is that it’s just an easy way to get great results. The charcoal flavor, while present and enjoyable, wasn’t overwhelming at all, and you don’t have to worry about cleaning your grill grates after you’re done. Simple.

What You'll Need to Make a Caveman Steak

If you want to cook steak directly on coals, you’ll need a natural hardwood lump charcoal – I typically go with FOGO. You’ll want to avoid typical briquettes from your grocery store for a couple reasons. First, if they are the quick-light variety, they will be covered in a lighter fluid substance, which you don’t want transferred directly to your meat. Second, briquettes are made with binders like sawdust that create considerable ash compared to lump charcoal. So for your health and the taste of your steak, don’t try this method with briquettes.

Other than the charcoal, you’ll just need a place to put it. A simple charcoal grill is the obvious choice, but you could use a fire-pit of some sort if you don’t have a grill.

What Steaks and Meat Can You Cook Directly on Coals?

Cooking directly on coals is one of the most insanely hot cooking environment you can create, so you’ll want a cut of meat that won’t have to stay on for a long time. That makes skirt steak a great choice. Due to its thinness, you can do only a minute or so on each side, and the inside won’t be ridiculously rare. Flank steak is another similar cut.

(Note: if you buy meat online, Porter Road has skirt and flank steaks, and Snake River Farms has both cuts from American Wagyu breeds.)

As far as more expensive cuts go, you can definitely give them a try. But again, due to the heat, the outside will get charred really quickly. Take this video for example, and note the uncharacteristic number of dislikes. In this clip you’ll notice the outside of the steak cooks extremely fast, but the inside is maybe a step below rare, sometimes referred to as “blue rare.” So if you’re doing a thicker piece of meat, you may want to smoke, sous-vide, or roast at a lower temperature first, then throw your meat on the coals as a final sear.

What about pork, poultry, or fish? Any type of meat, and even vegetables, will work. However, you have to make sure they aren’t so delicate that they fall apart. Also remember that bits of ash will be more visible on lighter meat, which may be off-putting to some.

The Charcoal Steak Cooking Process, Step-by-Step

Here are instructions for a skirt steak, but everything other than the cooking times should stay the same for other cuts of meat. 

  1. Let the steak sit at room temperature for 30-60 minutes.
  2. Season the steak liberally with salt and pepper. 
  3. Light your lump charcoal with a chimney starter or air-blowing electric lighter. Don’t use lighter fluid, since you won’t want those chemicals or flavors on your meat.
  4. After your charcoal is evenly and fully lit, add your steak quickly to avoid contact with excess ash buildup. This isn’t a huge concern, but if there does appear to be significant ash on your coals, blow it away before throwing on your steak(s).
  5. Let your skirt steak cook for about a minute on each side for a rare/medium-rare doneness.* If you’re cooking a thicker piece of meat than skirt steak, use a thermometer to check the temp.
  6. Wrap your steak tightly in aluminum foil immediately after grilling and let rest for 15 minutes. This will allow it to continue cooking for a little while.
  7. Slice your meat against the grain before serving. With strip steak, it’s very tempting and almost natural to cut with the grain. Resist the urge and make sure you are cutting against the grain. Reference the Alton Brown video above for a demonstration.

*When you flip your steak, you may notice a couple things. First, small pieces of charcoal may stick to the meat. That’s fine, just use your tongs to get them off. Second, you’ll probably see some ash marks on the surface of your meat, like in the photo directly below. Don’t worry about that either – when you wrap your meat, the steam will get rid of any ashy residue.

ash on caveman steak
See those gray ashy marks? Don't worry, they won't be there for long.

Summing Things Up

If you’ve never cooked a steak directly on the coals, grab some skirt steak from your butcher and give this a go! And if you have made a charcoal steak, I’d love to hear about how it went for you in the comments below. What kind of steak did you cook, and did it meet your expectations? Have you tried cooking any other types of meat on coals? Let me know below!

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