Published September 1, 2011. From Cook's Illustrated.
In the hands of American cooks, satay often comes out thick and chewy or overly marinated and mealy. To return this dish to its streetwise roots, we sliced beefy-flavored flank steak thinly across the grain and threaded it onto bamboo skewers. To add flavor, we used an aromatic basting sauce consisting of authentic Thai ingredients, rather than the overtenderizing marinade used in many recipes. And to ensure that the quick-cooking beef achieved a burnished exterior, we corralled the coals in an aluminum pan in the center of the grill to bring them closer to the meat.
See below for tips on prepping lemon grass. Bamboo skewers soaked in water for 30 minutes can be substituted for metal skewers. The aluminum pan used for charcoal grilling should be at least 2 3/4 inches deep; you will not need the pan for a gas grill. Note: unless you have a very high-powered gas grill, these skewers will not be as well seared as they would be with charcoal.
How to Prep Lemon Grass
The tender heart of the lemon grass stalk is used to flavor many Southeast Asian dishes, including our Grilled Beef Satay. While lemon grass is often steeped in soups and stews and removed before serving, it can also be minced and left in the dish. When buying lemon grass, look for green (not brown) stalks that are firm and fragrant.
1. Trim dry leafy top (this part is usually green) and tough bottom of each stalk.
2. Peel and discard dry outer layer until moist, tender inner stalk is exposed.
3. Smash peeled stalk with bottom of heavy saucepan to release maximum flavor from fibrous stalk.
4. Cut smashed stalk into long, thin strips; cut crosswise to mince.
Grill Setup for Satay: East Meets West
THAI WAY The trough-shaped grills used by Thai street-food vendors concentrate the firepower but recquire flipping the skewered meat constantly so it doesn't burn.
OUR WAY We corralled the coals in an aluminium pan in the center of the grill to bring them closer to the meat, but not so close that we needed to flip it more than once.
Rooting Out Mealiness
We find that acidic ingredients and certain juices, like papaya and pineapple, often added to marinades to tenderize meat, actually turn the exterior mushy. We avoided these in our marinades- but the meat still turned mealy. Could fresh ginger be the culprit?
We soaked beef in three different marinades for 30 minutes and then grilled each sample. The first marinade contained 2 tablespoons of ginger (per our recpe), the second contained 4 tablespoons, and the third contained no ginger.
The beef marinated in 2 tablespons of ginger was markedly mealy, 4 tablespoons was even worse. Only the beef without ginger in its marinade had the proper tender- but not mushy- texture.
Fresh ginger contains and enzyme known as zingibain that, if left too long on meat, breaks down collagen on the meat's surface, producing the same mealy effect as acids and some juices. We expunged ginger from the marinde, saving it for the basting sauce instead.
DON'T MARINATE WITH GINGER