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For the Perfectly Charred Steak, Go Direct-to-Charcoal

Why the “Eisenhower steak” should be a backyard staple.

As Americans, we tend to remember our presidents à la carte. Over time, we forget our leaders’ politics — their failures and achievements too — in favor of their habits. Washington, for example, was a stoic, and wore emotions on his sleeve; George W. a bookworm and an artist; Johnson wore loose pants, let out by his “bunghole;” in time, Obama will be a man who smoked the occasional cigarette and sunk threes off-duty. Eisenhower, one of our most decorated leaders, signed the Civil Rights Act, founded NASA and established the Interstate Highway system; but really, “Ike” was just a guy who liked his steak. And he liked it big, cooked directly on top of charcoal for a deep, dark char.

The “Eisenhower steak” didn’t start, nor end, with Eisenhower. Cowboys have been doing it for years, while haute chefs, such as Francis Mallmann, have made careers on like-rustic cooking. The direct-to-charcoal method, apart from being refreshingly informal, imparts a delicious earthiness to meat, along with a beautifully burnt crust, all the while leaving the inside medium-rare. Cooking atop charcoals is also incredibly versatile, suitable for a gamut of cuts — from sirloins (Eisenhower’s favorite) to skirt steaks — and also works with other proteins, like lamb and pork. It’s not an exact science, so don’t treat it like one; this is cooking stripped down to its most caveman-like essentials: meat plus fire equals a grand ol’ time. But before you do like Ike, know the basics.

Ed. Note: The following recipe is our adaption of Eisenhower’s personal steak recipe, taken from the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, Kansas. If you’d rather do it exactly as he did, here are his words:

Build a charcoal fire on the ground and let it burn until it is a bed of red-hot coal. Get a sirloin steak 2.5 to 3 inches thick. Roll the steak in a mixture of fine salt, black pepper and garlic powder. Throw the steak in the fire. After about 10 minutes nudge it over once and let it stay in the fire for a total of about 20 minutes. Take it out, brush off, and slice on the diagonal. – Dwight Eisenhower

1. Season with equal parts salt, pepper and garlic powder, or your preferred dry rub (pro tip: equal parts coffee, chile powder and brown sugar, with pinches of salt, cumin and paprika). Let meat rest until room temperature.

2. Ignite lump charcoal in a chimney starter ($15). Don’t use briquettes, as they often have added organic matter, such as seeds and pits. You want only natural wood touching your steak.

3. Once your charcoals are scorching red, pour them into a charcoal grill ($30). Use spatulas to evenly distribute the charcoal lumps and use a manual fan, or old newspaper, to disperse of any excess ash. Careful, charcoal will be upwards of 1,000 degrees. For those bad at numbers, that’s hot.

4. Place your steaks directly onto the bed of charcoals. For thinner cuts, such as skirt steak, cook each side for roughly three to five minutes. For thicker cuts, like T-bones and sirloins, cook each side for 10-12 minutes.

5. Let the steaks rest for 10 minutes, then slice half-inch pieces across the grain, which makes steak more tender to the tongue.

6. Serve with your favorite salad. Pressed for time? Just toss a bed of fresh arugula with olive oil, lemon and salt.

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