Perfect Grill Marks Are Actually A Bad Omen For Quality Steaks

You've likely seen them in magazine advertisements and television commercials — juicy cuts of steak with prominent grill marks. Maybe there was a wall of flame behind them or they're shown sizzling on a grill. The platonic idea of steak, the ultimate goal, the hallmark of someone who really knows how to cook a steak: perfectly crisscrossed grill marks.

There are tutorials on how to get those coveted grill marks, and they are so visually ingrained in how we judge grilled food that TV chefs have special tricks for getting them just right. But what if you were told that striking grill marks didn't actually denote proper cooking technique, and in fact might even be a bad omen for quality steaks?

You read that correctly. Perfectly charred hash marks are really nothing more than a clever marketing ploy, and in fact, by focusing on achieving them you risk serving up a subpar steak instead of something that is delicious and properly cooked. The reasoning behind why perfect grill marks don't equal a great steak comes down to science, specifically what is known as the Maillard reaction.

Choose crust over grill marks

The Maillard reaction is the name for the chemical changes that the surface of foods undergo when they are exposed to high heat. It's what gives your steak that coveted crust. It also creates a sort of seal that can help prevent the steak from drying out too much.

Grill marks are the result of the Maillard reaction, but in the quest to get that criss-cross pattern, you need to move and turn the steak, rather than allow it to sit still. Short bursts of time spent on the grill to get grill marks means your steak isn't developing a proper crust and is more prone to drying out and/or overcooking.

The true hallmark of a perfectly cooked steak should be an all-over, burnished crust. This means the steak spent a fair amount of time in direct contact with high heat, rather than being fussed with to achieve a visually aesthetic pattern that doesn't actually translate to better flavor. There are other tips when it comes to grilling steak, like Giada de Laurentiis's trick for oiling your steaks instead of your grill and this great list of mistakes to avoid, but going for a perfect crust should be your number one priority.

As grilling season approaches, do yourself a favor and aim for substance over style when it comes to steak. It might not look picture-perfect, but it's certainly going to taste a heck of a lot better.