Cowboy Steaks

I got lost for a minute. Or maybe just distracted. Part of me wants to ramble on about loss, and change, and growth, and discovery. The rest, though, says “nah, let’s just talk about the cowboy steaks.”

Cowboy steaks, it is.

For Father’s Day, the hubs wanted cowboy steaks. Have you seen them? They’re ginormous, bone-in, 3-inch-thick, dry-aged rib eye steaks. For carnivores, they’re a luxurious, over-the-top experience. My local Wegmans has them for a few weekends in the summer, and then they’re gone.

These are not everyday steaks. I’m not even going to bother talking about the health aspects because seriously all you have to do is look at them-p0 to have a pretty good idea that this is not health food, but I will warn you that two of these bad boys will deplete your bank account by approximately the GNP of a small island nation. It’s an important disclaimer, considering what happens next.

To do them right, you need a lot of salt, a lot of patience, and some lump (not briquette) charcoal.

Mostly, though, they take a lot of nerve, a touch of chutzpah, and a splash of moxie (the sense of daring, not the soda), because the best way to cook these? Directly on the coals.

Without further rambling on my part:

Cowboy Steaks


  • Steaks
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Lump Charcoal*
  • Fire


Liberally salt and pepper the steaks, place on a rack (be sure to put a plate or pan under the rack to catch the salt and juices) and set aside until they come to room temperature. I put mine in the microwave with the light turned off. I gave them an hour and it was about right.

A half hour or so into the warming time, light your charcoal. I use a Weber chimney because it usually lights cleanly and without needing chemicals. Since these are done directly on the coals, I strongly advise against using any kind of lighter fluid.

Our goal is heat, so your coals are ready when the entire chimney full is glowing red and there are flames shooting out of the top. Please use gloves to empty them into your grill.*

Spread the hot coals evenly across the bottom of the grill, and let them calm down a minute until they just start to become a little ashy. If you’re using an infrared surface thermometer, it should read around 800º.

Blow the ash off of the coals–ideally using some kind of fireplace bellows because somebody in this house didn’t and her eyebrows, while still intact, were worried for a moment.

And now for the moment of truth. Grab your nicely warmed steaks by the bones, lay them directly on top of the coals, put the lid on, and STEP AWAY FROM THE GRILL. Don’t look back. Just go into the kitchen, take a deep breath or two and don’t think about what your accountant is going to say when you admit that you just burned up a week’s salary on an “experiment”.

After about 8 minutes*, carefully flip your steaks over onto a different part of the grill, making sure to flick off the bits of charcoal that will inevitably be stuck to your steak. Let cook for another 5 minutes or so then temp them. A perfect medium rare is 135º; adjust according to taste. Leave on a little longer if you need to, just be sure to give them a good 5-10 minute rest before serving.

When they’re done, flick off an bits of coal, let rest a bit, and serve. We had 2 steaks that served 3 people and 2 dogs, with plenty left over for breakfast tacos.


*A word on grills: whatever kind of charcoal grill you have is fine. We have a 33-year-old Weber kettle grill that keeps bumping along. It’s not fancy, but it works. A fire pit (in-ground or not) would work, as would a hibachi or smoker grill. Really, anything that will hold hot coals without potentially causing an uncontrolled fire will do the trick.

*Lump charcoal differs from briquette in that it is, basically, wood that has been burnt down into coals. It’s clean, burns well, and leaves very little ash. Briquettes, on the other hand, are coals that have been compressed, often with added chemicals, into uniform pieces. They’re the most popular and least expensive option for grilling, but rarely have the same smoky-grill flavor that you get from lump charcoal. For this experience, do yourself a favor and invest in a bag of the lump charcoal.

*Different cooks have different advice on timing these. I will generally err on the side of pulling them too soon because it’s easy to pop them into a 180º oven to finish.


There are a lot of places with more in-depth information about the science and technique of direct-coal cooking. We decided to try it after reading a piece in the NY Times, but that’s just one of many potential sources–if this is something that interests you, there’s a lot to learn.

Chefs and fire crafters generally agree that this works on certain cuts of meat, such as the cowboy steak, for two reasons. First, this method transfers the heat directly into the meat, meaning a faster and more even cook. Second, by eliminating the airspace between the meat and the fire (such as when cooking on grates), you greatly reduce the chance of flare-ups from the melting fat.