I am often asked my favourite thing to cook, and in a cringe-worthy cliche moment I always say “the last thing out of my kitchen.”
I’ll dance around mushrooms and the satisfaction that comes with cleaning, chopping and sauteing — the sounds of squeaking fungi in a hot pan. I’ll mention the joy of cooking the first asparagus of the year or the tense but satisfying moment of flipping wild-caught whitefish in a pan and realizing I nailed the crispy skin.
Lots of steps in lots of dishes will bring great joy to any chef’s day, but if I’m being honest nothing excites me more than one specific dish.
One dish will always bring me to a moment of peace and tranquillity. While that may sound fairly mundane and boring, I can tell you my excitement level climbs to levels only comparable to a grizzly bear fishing for salmon on Canada’s remarkable western coast.
That dish is beef over fire. I’ve been in love with cooking over a wood fire ever since my time as a bagel and pizza cook at a local wood-fired bakery. Anytime I can cook over an open fire, I’m a happy boy.
From the first spark, I am dialled in and my attention is focused like a laser. Working the coals, establishing a plan, creating a cooking surface —everything about cooking over fire is unique and changes on the fly. It is a true return to our roots as human beings, and it brings out the best of me as a chef.
Add, amazing pastured Canadian beef, dry-aged in our own coolers by our master butcher, and well — it doesn’t get much better than that! Wood, salt, beef, herbs and garlic for good measure. This recipe will always change a little based on what’s coming out of our garden or foraged from around the campsite, but either way, it’s simple and beautiful in its honesty.
I love anything with integrity. Want to lose me? Try and engage me in something that’s not genuine and true. Nothing is more genuine than the process I put this steak and myself through as a chef. Nothing brings me more pride than sharing a dish like this. Please enjoy it as much as I do, and take inspiration in the simple yet honest things this amazing and young culinary country has to offer!
Go online for the full recipe, tips on how to select the perfect cut, and instructions on how to cook this big salt-crusted steak with garlic, chillies and a few fist fulls of fresh herbs.
One Big Steak: Roughly two pounds and for my money, it’s gotta be dry-aged, pasture-raised is best, and get something fatty! There are several butcher shops in town that know exactly what I want when I show up, that’s how predictable I’ve become. A bone-in rib chop with all the fat left on, I like to do the trimming post-cooking to get all that glorious flavour.
Salt: Coarse salt is good, sea salt is best, wonderful products coming off both coasts these days so don’t be shy and spend a few bucks on the good stuff. We aren’t cooking like this every day, this is special so break out the primo stash.
Oil: Let’s keep it Canadian here and go with cold-pressed canola oil or good old tempered butter. Anything you can rub on that baby will do.
Herbs: Basil, mint, parsley, chives, dill anything really. These are gonna be going up against a smokey, salty and rich cut of beef so I love to really toss a lot at it and I’m always amazed how different combinations come together. Most times I’m running through my garden and grabbing fists full of everything!
Garlic: local Ontario garlic is a must, I’d say about 7-8 cloves smashed up with the flat of a chef’s knife will do for one steak.
Chillies: I like to use dried chillies for this as they have a certain flavour I just don’t get with fresh, that deeper almost fruity resin type flavour. I grow my own at home in the summer and dry most of them out letting me draw on that supply all year long.
Start a fire and let it burn, it takes about 2 hours to get the kinda coals needed for this. I have also used charcoal to do it indoors and that works too, just make sure you have commercial hood fans to suck up all the smoke you will create. Hardwood is best if using foraged deadfall avoid mouldy wood or wood covered in moss as this can have a negative impact on the end result and frankly isn’t very healthy.
In the meantime that steak is massive so we need to get it out at room temperature and warming up, this will take the full two hours but be mindful to keep it out of the sun. During this stage, it’s smart to crust the steak in salt and I do mean crust it, it’s a huge steak and only has so much surface area so as much as you can make stick is what we want. Add a little oil to the meat to help adhere to the salt, this will also help us brown the meat when cooking.
Once the coals are set and ready to cook on, it’s time to put the steak on, level out some coals and set the steak directly on it, using a shovel or tongs top the steak with more coals and let it go. The real challenge here is keeping the steak from lighting on fire, the fat will melt and want to do that, but keep an eye and move it about as needed to prevent flare-ups. It may be necessary to pull it off from time to time and let it sit in a less hot space, say the rocks around a campfire or an upside-down cast iron pan next to the fire. I only do this if I’m getting flare-ups as an effort to slow the rendering of the fat and cut down on flare-ups. Fat on fire tastes terrible, so we never want that to happen, however, the bittersweet flavour accomplished when properly charring foods, especially beef, is incredible and balanced by the creamy fresh fleshy interior once you cut into it.
Cook the steak to your liking, for me a fatty steak like this I want medium rare-medium. If it’s undercooked or rare then the fat hasn’t melted and that’s the crux of the biscuit with this dish so let it go past medium-rare at least.
Once you pull it off the grill, let it rest at least 15 minutes, after that, we will flash it back on the coals just to get the temperature hot again before digging in.
To make the garnish simply fry the smashed garlic in oil or butter and plenty of salt, as the garlic browns add the dried chillies, as soon as those puff up and get fragrant remove from the heat, add a few fist fulls of fresh herbs and with all the drama of the Cirque du Soleil pour that over our beautifully sliced steak and dig in!
Nick Benninger is a local chef and restaurant owner.