Thai Grilled-Beef Salad

Published July 2011

Why This Recipe Works

Flank steak proved to be the best cut of meat for our Thai Grilled-Beef Salad recipe. We grilled the steak over a modified two-level fire, a high-heat grilling method that charred the beef but kept the inside medium-rare. For our Thai Grilled-Beef Salad’s dressing, we used a base of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, and water, and then added a Thai chile and a mix of toasted cayenne and paprika, which added earthy, fruity red pepper flavor. We also made our own toasted rice powder, a traditional ingredient in Thai Grilled-Beef Salad recipes.


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1 teaspoon sweet paprika
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon white rice
3 tablespoons lime juice (2 limes)
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons water
½ teaspoon sugar
1 (1 1/2 pound) flank steak, trimmed
Salt and white pepper, coarsely ground
4 shallots, sliced thin
1 ½ cups fresh mint leaves, torn
1 ½ cups fresh cilantro leaves
1 Thai chile, stemmed and sliced thin into rounds
1 seedless English cucumber, sliced 1/4 inch thick on bias

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Serves 4 to 6

Serve with steamed jasmine rice, if desired, although any style of white rice can be used. Don't skip the toasted rice: It's integral to the texture and flavor of the dish. If a fresh Thai chile is unavailable, substitute half of a serrano chile.

1. Heat paprika and cayenne in 8-inch skillet over medium heat; cook, shaking pan, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Transfer to small bowl. Return now-empty skillet to medium-high heat, add rice, and toast, stirring frequently, until deep golden brown, about 5 minutes. Transfer to second small bowl and cool for 5 minutes. Grind rice with spice grinder, mini food processor, or mortar and pestle until it resembles fine meal, 10 to 30 seconds (you should have about 1 tablespoon rice powder).

2. Whisk lime juice, fish sauce, water, sugar, and 1/4 teaspoon toasted paprika mixture in large bowl and set aside.

3a. FOR A CHARCOAL GRILL: Open bottom vent completely. Light large chimney starter filled with charcoal briquettes (6 quarts). When top coals are partially covered with ash, pour evenly over half of grill. Set cooking grate in place, cover, and open lid vent completely. Heat grill until hot, about 5 minutes.

3b. FOR A GAS GRILL: Turn all burners to high, cover, and heat grill until hot, about 15 minutes. Leave primary burner on high and turn off other burner(s).

4. Clean and oil cooking grate. Season steak with salt and white pepper. Place steak over hot part of grill and cook until beginning to char and beads of moisture appear on outer edges of meat, 5 to 6 minutes. Flip steak and continue to cook on second side until charred and center registers 125 degrees, about 5 minutes longer. Transfer to plate, tent loosely with aluminum foil, and let rest for 5 to 10 minutes (or allow to cool to room temperature, about 1 hour).

5. Slice meat, against grain, on bias into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Transfer sliced steak to bowl with fish sauce mixture. Add shallots, mint, cilantro, chile, and half of rice powder; toss to combine. Transfer to platter lined with cucumber slices. Serve, passing remaining rice powder and toasted paprika mixture separately.


Unbeadable Thai Trick: Knowing When to Flip

This salad’s Thai name, nam tok (literally “water falling”), refers to the beads of moisture that form on the surface of the steak as it cooks—an age-old Thai cookery clue signifying that the meat is ready to be flipped. While this method sounded imprecise, during testing I found it to be a surprisingly accurate gauge of when the flank steak is halfway done. Here’s why: As this steak’s interior gets hotter, its tightly packed fibers contract and release some of their interior moisture, which the fire’s heat then pushes to the meat’s surface. When turned at this point and cooked for an equal amount of time on the second side, the steak emerged deeply charred on the outside and medium-rare within. (Note: We do not recommend this technique across the board for steaks; since the thickness and density of the meat fibers vary from cut to cut, the time it takes for heat to penetrate and for beads of moisture to be pushed to the meat’s surface differs.)

TIME TO FLIP For perfectly cooked meat, flip the steak when beads of moisture appear on its surface.

Recipe Testing

Five Tastes of Thai Grilled Beef—and One More

One of the keys to this salad is balancing the signature flavor elements of Thai cuisine. In addition to achieving this, we added one more complementary flavor: the earthiness of toasted cayenne and sweet paprika.

HOT A fresh Thai bird chile creates bright, fruity heat in the dressing.

SOUR A generous 3 tablespoons of fresh lime juice adds bracing acidity.

SALTY Derived from salted, ¬fermented fish, pungent fish sauce acts as a rich ¬flavor enhancer.

SWEET A half teaspoon of sugar tames the dressing’s salty-sour flavors without becoming cloying.

BITTER Thoroughly charred steak adds both a pleasing ¬textural contrast and a subtle bitter edge.

EARTHY Though nontraditional, ground cayenne and sweet paprika add earthy flavor without too much heat.