When we talk steak, we’re talking red American beef in fine steak form. Let’s not get fancy, this is camping and camping is not rolling meat up in bark and pine needles to give it that fresh camping bite. Pine needles are for burning, not cooking. Bark is generally awful to a steak. Don’t toss the bark into your fire until after you’re done cooking.
SELECT YOUR STEAK
Pick out the right steak for what you want to cook. If you’re frying steak for the purpose of eating that delicious hunk of beef on its own with a few choice sides, you’ll need a thick cut. Bone in or bone out only matters in terms of cooking time. Sirloin is good, but if you want something sturdy and easy to handle get a bone-in such as a T-bone or rib eye. The standard cut will feed two people, so plan accordingly.
Your best bet is to buy from a bona fide butcher shop where they’ll know the source of their meat. Grass fed or corn fed (or a combination), whatever you like is fine. You’ll want it well marbled, and do tell your butcher what you are planning to do. They’re sure to pick out good thick cuts, somewhere around an inch-and-a-quarter to an inch-and-a-half works well.
PREP YOUR STEAK
Season your meat with salt and pepper. You can go more exotic and add garlic butter, but that’s finishing stuff to drop in the skillet a half-minute before you take the steak off the fire. Salt and pepper is really all you need, however don’t do it until right before you drop those babies into the skillet. Salt draws out moisture, so having your steak sitting out on the counter salted and waiting for an hour is unnecessary. However, do take your steaks out at least a half-hour before cooking. Ideally the meat should be room temperature before it hits the skillet so the heat doesn’t sizzle the steak’s exterior while still trying to get the interior warm.
SIZZLE YOUR STEAK
The key to a good sizzle is lots of heat. Get your fire piping hot, hot enough a drop of water will evaporate the millisecond it slaps the skillet.
For cooking perfection, you need to pan-sear your steak using a cast iron skillet. Cast iron spreads heat uniformly and can stand up to a campfire. Yes, you can use other flat surfaces, but to require you to run around and try and find a flat rock to heat up just seems like a colossal waste of time. Use a seasoned cast iron skillet or borrow one from a fellow camper and cook a steak for them as a thank you.
It’s best for your hair and the rest of your body to cook on a campfire on the down side of its existence. The embers should be a good 2 inches deep and red. Use a stick to stir the embers around to spread the heat evenly. A few pieces of wood aren’t going to ruin the experience as long as flames aren’t reaching up and over the pan to get at you.
Put the skillet above the fire with enough space that you can totally feel the heat with your bare hand, but not so close that it’s sitting in the embers. For this, you should get some gloves. You don’t want gardening gloves, you’ll want work gloves—welder’s gloves—if possible. Your skillet’s handle is going to get hot.
3 to 4 minutes a side in your skillet (a minute or so less if you go boneless with sirloin) should be perfect for medium rare or around 145F—and yes, do get a meat thermometer, but don’t continually poke holes in your steak, because every hole becomes an escape route for those gorgeous salty meat juices. If you want your steak well-done, buy a thinner steak and a cheaper cut of meat. It’s a sad sight watching a person spend their hard-earned money on a fine cut of meat only to char it until the steak is drier than the Arizona desert in August.
When it’s cooked, take your steak out of the skillet and let it sit. Around 3 minutes of rest and it’ll be ready. Keep the fire hot and this is the best time to flash-cook your veggies. Asparagus, onions, mushrooms and corn off the cob can cook up pretty fast over a hot fire. But let’s not forget, the steak is your key to a fine campfire meal. Frankly, a burnt potato is far more tragic than a burnt steak. The rest are called sides for a reason.