Some of my most powerful memories are food related. I think that a lot of the recipes that I develop stem from trying to relive past happy memories in the only way that I can possibly replicate with any sort of precision. People and places change. Smell, taste, and sound are always the same. It’s like playing an old record. Some things stay the same no matter what, and that’s comforting. My Smoke Roasted Ribeye is one of those recipes that arose from the attempted recreation of a memory.
While touring South America a few years ago, my wife and I happened upon what seemed to be a dilapidated warehouse along the oceanfront in Montevideo that had been transformed into what I can only describe as a part farmers market, part incubator for small-scale BBQ eateries.
The whole place smelled like wood smoke and searing beef. It was so intense that a painting of the building that we bought at an artist’s booth outside still smells like that place to this day. We still have that painting rolled up and stored in a plastic sleeve. We’ve been pretty busy with two little ones since those days, but I think the real reason why we have never hung that painting up is that we are afraid the smell of the parrillas on the Montevideo seaside will fade if we do.
I’ve spent a lot of time sitting outside on our patio with a bottle of Malbec or Tannat (as they would drink in Uruguay) thinking about that day and how to recreate it again and again.
Not surprisingly, most about what makes my method special comes down to what might be overlooked as insignificant details about your wood, charcoal, and meat — and not in the ways you might expect. Because I want to focus on those things, I am going to assume you know how to operate a charcoal grill and have grilled some steaks before. If you haven’t, you should check out J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s post on cooking steaks with a technique called the “reverse sear” on Serious Eats.
First of all, you should use it. It’s called “Smoke Roasted Ribeye” for a reason. We are smoke-roasting the meat as part of our method. This isn’t the sort of smoke flavor you would expect at a BBQ joint in the United States. In fact, you shouldn’t really taste it at all as much as you should *smell* it. BBQ writers like Meathead Goldwyn often refer to this as “smoke from a distant fire”. I happen to like it more intense, but the fact remains that you shouldn’t taste the smoke on the meat at all.
The wood smoke smell I remember was more complex than anything I had previously achieved by using wood chips out of a single bag purchased at a big box hardware store. However, much like in music where multiple notes played as a chord yield complexity that is pleasing to the ear, we can accomplish the same thing by using different woods mixed as a blend.
My current favorite blend for beef cuts of all types is a 5:3:1 blend of pecan, oak, and mesquite. The pecan gives the meat a bacony flavor and beautiful red hue, the oak adds intensity, and the mesquite gives a hint of the smell of those Uruguayan grills.
I don’t use more of it because the cheap lump charcoal I use is mesquite, and it is already pretty intense as it is. By all means, play around with your wood blends. I’d love to hear what you come up with and why you like it. There are no wrong answers.
If you’re interested in trying out my wood blend, you can most likely easily find mesquite and oak wood chips at your local big box store. I’ve found pecan chips to be a tougher find in my neck of the woods, so you can find a brand I typically stick to at Amazon.com here (affiliate).
Grocery store and big box hardware store shelves are stocked with an increasing amount of different types of “premium” charcoals. Lump or briquette? Conventional, easy-lighting (yuck), or natural? Wood shavings in the briquettes for smoke flavor? I’m here to simplify things for you.
You need to use the shittiest, cheapest lump charcoal you can possibly find. The more it sparks, moans, and complains when you light it, the better.
Believe it or not, the smell of inexpensive charcoal burning comes the closest to what it would smell like in a South American parrilla — and that makes sense. Professional grill masters are going to spend money on the raw materials that actually matter. Namely, the meat. Speaking of meat…
This is sort of another area where you can get coaxed into buying something that improves the bottom line of a vendor but not really your overall steak-eating experience. I’m a big fan of Costco as a source for any number of keto/low carb diet foods, but steaks are not one of them. If you watch your local grocery circulars, you can do about 50% better on price if you shop what is on sale. Keeping your cost down is important if you are a family on a budget. It’s the difference between having Smoke Roasted Ribeye and Smoke Roasted Ribeye(s).
Here is the key, *DO NOT* buy what is out on the grocery floor. You’re rolling the dice a bit as to how freshly cut it actually is, and will likely be too thin for this application. It is tough to cook a really thick steak appropriately through a conventional method, and so grocery stores cater to customers by selling steaks thinner than we would ideally like.
What you should do is go up to the meat counter, smile, and politely ask the (likely really busy) butcher if they could cut a custom pack for you. Ask for 1 1/2″ thick. They may look at you like you are insane, and that is ok. It’s your Smoke Roasted Ribeye, not theirs.
This will get you meat that freshly and neatly cut. It’s unlikely they will want to slop through cutting the steaks if you are standing right there watching them. In other words, you will get Smoke Roasted Ribeye that is truly cut “steakhouse style”.
So, to review:
- Use smoking wood and blend your woods for added complexity.
- Use the cheapest lump charcoal you can possibly find.
- Get your steaks freshly cut to order and on sale at your local grocery store if you can convince the grumpy butcher to do it for you. Remember to smile, say please and thank you. This is a big pain for them, but it will improve the quality of what you get tremendously.