Barbecue guru David Sandusky on cooking the perfect pork steak

David Sandusky cut his teeth at fine-dining establishments, but once he discovered his passion for smoked meat, there was no looking back. At BEAST Craft BBQ, the acclaimed Belleville smokehouse that he owns with his wife, Meggan, Sandusky has set the standard for the form, thanks to his impeccable brisket, ribs, pulled pork, sides, and legendary pork steaks. (He also recently expanded his barbecue empire, with the Smoke & Kettle concept opening in two Illinois locations.) Over the past few years, Sandusky has developed a new obsession: live fire cooking. It’s a style that he believes speaks to our most primal instincts as human beings and is something that anyone with a simple kettle grill and some basic know-how can execute in their own backyards. 

What is it about live-fire cooking that gets you going? I’m really a nerd for human history, anthropology, and genetics, and when I study things, I get a little obsessive and get really deep into them in order to make myself really knowledgeable. The thing about live-fire cooking is that it really is what makes us human. It’s literally the difference between us and evey other animal on this planet; other animals use tools or create art, but the one thing that is exclusively human is that we cook. There is a lot of technology involved in cooking today, but open-pit, open-fire cooking in the ground is really primal for us, and it’s why we became the species we are. When I cook with fire, I’m always in this thought space about how this has been done since the dawn of our time and how it’s been developed over that time, and then I start to think of technology and how it’s changed things. Live-fire cooking is looked at as kind of a new fad, but it’s not a fad; it’s literally what makes us us, and by extension, barbecue makes us who we are. Putting an animal over fire is done worldwide and is a very old way of doing things. You feel very connected to that when you’re cooking over fire. It’s been passed down through generations over time, so it puts me in this place of connection and understanding.

It sounds so elemental, and yet I think a lot of people don’t quite know how to do this at home. Where would one start? The cheapest way to do it is to buy a Weber grill or something similar. Get something that can hold some coals and has air flow. You don’t have to spend a lot of money on it. I think there is value in building your own hearth; you can grab some cinder blocks and fire bricks and build something for a couple of hundred bucks. It’s really easy to get into as long as you are willing to get burned a little bit and ruin some meat. I melted the house once. I got the grill too close to the house and warped the siding. Lesson learned.

What do you think is one of the most important things to understand about cooking over fire? I say this a lot: Physics and chemistry are second to geometry. I think everybody needs to be reminded that flavors are born out of textures and that everything else is a seasoning. What that means is that when you get the right surface area and conditions, you create textures with caramelized sugars and the maillard effect that can create flavors out of the meat based on what textures are present to you. You can then enhance with salt and other spices, but foundational flavors are built in those textures.

How do you achieve that on the most St. Louis of things, the pork steak? Using pork chops as an example, you want to cook it at a lower temperature, away from the fire, in a cooler area of the grill until it reaches about 100 degrees, then do a reverse sear by taking it to the hottest spot and charring the shit out of it. Pork steaks are an extreme example of this. If you are going for the type that we make in the restaurant, then you want it to be very tender, so you’re going to put it on that cooler spot or smoke it low and slow until it’s the temperature you want it to be—190–195 degrees—and then throw it on the grill at its hottest spot and reverse sear to get that char and caramelization.

However, if you are doing the style that is thinner and you want it to be more chewy—this is the way I prefer it—you do it similar to a pork chop in the sense that you put it right away onto the hottest spot of the grill, because you want as much caramelization as possible. Put it on that hot spot, and let ‘er rip. And never walk away from fat over fire.

What I like to do if I’m just cooking out in my backyard, I go to my Weber because I can get it really hot. A gas grill will never get that hot; it has to rely on its lid to contain the heat, so you end up with an oven, and you’re really roasting in there more than grilling—at least on the cheaper ones. I also use a Vortex in there, which is a cone that is wider on the side that goes down over the coals and smaller on the top toward the grate. You put coals in the cone, and it funnels radiation into a very specific spot in the center so you have a really hot spot on the grill. You can take chicken wings, chops, steaks, and cook them slowly around the Vortex and then put them right over the coals at the end to char it. It’s a game-changer for a Weber grill. You have more ability to control heat zones and will get better life out of your coals.

What about sauce? Besides the added caramelization of the sugars in sauce, it also offers moisture and protection during the cooking process. I prefer sauces to be thinner because I don’t want my pork steaks to be overly sauced, and I don’t want my sauce to be overly caramelized and burnt. I want it to soak in and become part of the meat.

I always like to thin it out with a little Busch. It’s a St. Louis thing, and building the sauce a little thinner creates this opportunity for the flavoring to really adhere and become part of the meat instead of just being on top of it. If you are just going to goop it out of the bottle, there is so much there that it’s going to burn and you won’t get the texture you’re looking for on the crust of the meat. The beauty of St. Louis-style [barbecue] is that it creates a thinner sauce, so you can baste it on there and get that charred fat without a sauce barrier.

If you’re looking for something really tender, then you’re either going to bake it in sauce first and then take it to the grill and reverse sear, or you’ll grill it first to get the char, take it off, put it in sauce, and then put in the oven. Personally, I like chewy pork steaks that you have to cut with a steak knife, where the fat hasn’t completely rendered off and that still have natural juices inside. To do that, I go straight to the grill and baste, flipping them and then basting them for a few minutes. If you let it ride on one side for too long, it’s going to overcook, so just keep flipping and basting. In five minutes, you’re going to have an amazing pork steak.

Leave a Reply