The Surprising Reason You Don’t Want to Have Steak with Grill Marks

For years, cross-hatch grill marks have long been considered a signal of a perfect steak...until now.

Beef steaks on the grill over wood fireJulie Vader/Shutterstock

My first day in the kitchen at a steakhouse, my boss showed me how to make perfect grill marks: Place the steak on the hot side of the grill, flip it 90 degrees after a few minutes, turn it over, and repeat the process. In most establishments, getting those perfect, diamond-patterned sear marks is considered a sign of a well-grilled steak, and many home cooks wear the ability to create them like a badge.

Recently, though, a lot of chefs are eschewing grill marks in lieu of something better. What could be better than a perfect-looking steak? One that’s covered in a golden-brown crust over the entire surface. Find out the answers to the other most common questions about grilling, too.

What’s the deal with grill marks?

Those blackened marks on your grill happen because of something called the Maillard reaction, a chemical reaction that occurs between amino acids and carbohydrates when food is exposed to heat. The food’s surface browns and caramelizes, resulting in a dish that not only tastes better but is also more visually appealing.

When your goal is grill marks, you inadvertently halt the Maillard reaction before it has a chance to spread over the surface of the steak. Instead, it creates a superficial reaction, and the only places that get perfectly browned correspond with the location of the grates. The squares in between the marks are under-seared and, well, boring. The resulting diamond-patterned series of cross-hatches does look visually appealing, but it’s not necessarily a sign of a flavorful steak. Here are 9 restaurant secrets for cooking the perfect steak.

So, how should you grill a steak?

The goal should be achieving a golden-brown color on as much surface area of the steak as possible. Grilling a steak this way results in more even cooking and a richer flavor. Not to mention that the resulting crust on the steak is completely life-changing!

To get there, you will have to change the way you cook a steak on a grill. Unlike cooking for hatch marks, you won’t want to cook these steaks directly over a blazing-hot grill. Grill grates are designed to hold a lot of heat, which gives you those grill marks but doesn’t do much for overall browning. If the grill is too hot, the steak can blacken or char before it cooks all the way through—which would create a burnt taste—so you’ll need to watch the grill’s temperature carefully.

The very best way to cook a steak for a crusty, browned overall exterior is to use a preheated cast iron pan or griddle over high heat. Check out our complete guide. You’ll still get some great smoky flavor from the grill, but the flat surface lets you sear the steak all over instead of just the areas that are in contact with the grates. If you really want the grate-grilling experience, use medium-high heat and flip your steak often. When perfect grill marks are desired, you’ll only flip once or twice. But, for overall browning, flip as often as every minute. It feels unnatural, but it will promote even cooking, giving you a steak with a better crust and a perfectly cooked interior. Now that you know the best way to grill a steak, make sure you’re not making any of these other mistakes when cooking steak.

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Lindsay D. Mattison
Lindsay D. Mattison is a professional chef and a food writer. After graduating from Cascade Culinary school, Lindsay became the Executive Chef at Jackson's Corner in Bend, OR, from 2013 to 2016. Her genuine passion for food and sustainable food practices led her to find the farmer in herself. She lives in Durango, CO, where she enjoys the trials and errors of small plot farming. Lindsay is currently working on a cookbook that teaches home cooks how to craft beautiful meals without a recipe, tentatively titled "The Art of Bricolage: Cultivating Confidence and Creativity in the Kitchen."