Finish Summer Right with an Authentic Recipe for this St. Louis Specialty
Where has summer gone? Labor Day is almost here — and for many of us this weekend is the last great cookout opportunity of the year.
The holiday’s best festivities involve firing up the Weber and cooking great slabs of meat. I live in St. Louis, and although St. Louis Cut spare ribs are nationally known, the cut of meat most St. Louisians favor for cookouts is the pork steak.
If you haven’t had these for a while – or worse yet, never had them – Labor Day would be a great time to savor their porky succulence.
Barbecue vs. Grilling
OK, when it comes to outdoor cookery there’s grilling and there’s barbecue. To many of us, “barbecue” is what we do whenever we’re cooking outdoors, so that’s what I’m calling it here. But technically, there is a difference between them.
Barbecue is long, slow cooking (we’re talking hours and hours) at low heat. The long cooking tenderizes tough cuts of meat. If you use aromatic woods like hickory (or add water-soaked hickory chips to charcoal briquettes, which produce no aromatic smoke on their own), you also introduce a nice wood flavor to the meat.
What most of us call “barbecue” is actually grilling — which involves cooking at higher heat, and much faster. This is the ideal method for already-tender cuts such as steak or fish fillets. But pork steaks or ribs? Both are relatively tough, and grilling really isn’t the ideal cooking method for them.
Of course, you can just slap some pork steaks on the grill and cook them until they’re done, and they’ll taste good (particularly if you baste with a nice tomato- or mustard-based sauce). But they’ll also be on the chewy side.
To cope with the chewy issue, St. Louisians have developed a clever way of cooking pork steaks: a combination of grilling and braising. And it requires beer as a cooking medium! What could be better?
Recipe: Barbecued Pork Steaks
For authentic St. Louis Barbecued Pork Steaks, you first sear the meat on an outdoor grill. Then you put the pork steaks into one of those disposable aluminum foil pans you can buy in the supermarket. Add barbecue sauce and beer until the meat is nearly covered, put the pan on the grill, bring to a simmer, and cover with aluminum foil. An hour or so later, you have tender pork steaks.
This is a procedure that most St. Louisians seem to learn by osmosis (I have never seen this recipe in a cookbook). There are variants of this method, but they all follow the same general steps.
My recipe simplifies the process a bit: After I sear the pork steaks, I usually bring them indoors and braise them in the oven (it can be a bit tricky controlling the heat on a grill).
Each pork steak is one serving. Buy as many as you need. Well-wrapped leftovers keep in the refrigerator for a couple of days at least. They’re delicious reheated, or just served cold.
- pork steaks (in whatever quantity you need; see notes for definition of a pork steak)
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 bottle commercial barbecue sauce for braising (~14 ounces; Maull’s brand is what most St. Louisians like, but use whatever is available that you find tasty)
- 1 or 2 12-ounce beers for braising (preferably Budweiser or a similar light-flavored lager of your choice)
- 1 teaspoon Liquid Smoke (very optional; I usually don’t do this, but it does add a nice smoky flavor)
- additional barbecue sauce for serving
- Light your gas or charcoal grill. (You can also use your oven to “grill” your pork steaks — see notes). If using charcoal, you want to place the coals on one side of the grill, so that half the grill will have a “cool” zone.
- While the grill is heating, season the pork steaks with salt and pepper and preheat your oven to 275 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Select an oven-proof braising container that will comfortably hold the number of pork steaks you’re cooking (a Dutch oven is good; or you can use a disposable aluminum pan). Pour the bottle of barbecue sauce into the braising container, and add an equal amount or more of beer (when I cook 4 to 6 pork steaks, I use a 14-ounce bottle of Maull’s and about a bottle and half of Budweiser). Add Liquid Smoke if using. Heat to a simmer on top of the stove while you sear the pork steaks.
- If using a gas grill: Once the grill is hot, turn off one burner and lower remaining burner(s) to medium.
- Place pork steaks on the grill over the section without an active flame (the turned-off burner if using gas; the “cool” zone if using charcoal).
- Sear the pork steaks until nicely browned (about 5 to 8 minutes, depending on the heat of your grill). Important! Pork steaks usually contain a lot of fat, so beware of flare-ups!
- When the pork steaks are nicely browned (preferably with good grill marks), turn them over and cook for another 7 minutes (longer if you prefer; see notes).
- Remove pork steaks from grill (they’re not fully cooked) and bring them into your kitchen. Place them in the braising container with the barbecue sauce/beer mixture. The pork steaks may be only half-covered. This is OK, but make sure the top pork steaks have a thin layer of sauce on them.
- Place the braising container with the pork steaks on a stove burner. Turn up heat to bring the sauce back to a simmer. Cover the container (I usually place a piece of aluminum foil just over the top of the pork steaks, then drape the edges over the container and cover with a lid — this helps produce a nice seal), and place in the oven. Set timer for 30 minutes.
- At the 30-minute mark, rotate the pork steaks so the tops ones are now underneath (and well covered with sauce). You want the sauce to be just simmering, so adjust your oven heat up or down at this time if necessary. Set timer for 30 minutes.
- At the 30 minute mark, repeat. The pork steaks are now done, but not yet falling-off-the-bone-tender. I usually braise them for another 30 minutes or so.
- After an hour and a half total braising time (2 hours if you prefer, though the pork steaks will be falling apart because they’re so tender) remove and serve.
- Traditionally, pork steaks are served with a healthy dose of sauce (fresh sauce, not the sauce you used to cook them; see notes).
|Pork steaks in braising pan
- The reason I suggest you don’t use the braising sauce at table is that a lot of pork fat gets rendered into the mixture. Although the sauce produces delicious-tasting pork, some people won’t like its flavor when used as “topping” sauce. Instead, use a fresh bottle of sauce (or your own homemade recipe) to serve with the pork steaks.
- Any brand of tomato-based barbecue sauce that you like will work well in this recipe. I use Maull’s for the braising sauce, and sometimes use it at table too (Maull’s has a slightly sweet taste with just a bit of spiciness to it). But Maull’s is not distributed nationwide, so you may not be able to find it in your market.
- For table purposes, I usually prefer Stubb’s, which is widely available (their spicy is particularly good). When I can get it, I also like Gate’s Barbecue Sauce, which is produced by chain of barbecue restaurants in Kansas City.
- Pork steaks come from the pork shoulder (or Boston Butt), and technically are a blade steak (a pork shoulder steak). At one time, they were little known outside the Midwest, but they've now spread across much of the country. They still may not be available everywhere, though. I could never find them in supermarkets when we lived in the Northeast. If your supermarket doesn't carry them, ask your butcher to cut some pork blade steaks (½-inch is the most common cut; they’re good in any thickness up to 1-inch). If your butcher doesn't know how to do that — well, then you really need to find a different butcher.
- “Country style ribs” (the rib end of the pork loin) work well in this recipe if you can’t find pork steaks or you just want to use a different cut of meat for a change.
- If you don’t have an outdoor grill (or it’s raining), you can still prepare this recipe. Instead of grilling the pork steaks, run them under the broiler for 5 – 7 minutes or so per side, then proceed with braising them.
- Although I suggest cooking the pork steaks on the grill for only about 15 minutes, you can fully cook them, then braise them to tenderize. Partially cooking is a little easier, though, and in my opinion produces a better pork steak.
- As mentioned above, you don’t need to braise the pork steaks. You can cook them fully on the grill until done (30 minutes or more). Because the meat has a high fat content, there will be flare-ups — so be prepared to handle those. I always begin basting with barbecue sauce about halfway through the cooking time. Turn frequently to avoid over-caramelizing the sauce. Because time is often scarce, I frequently prepare pork steaks this way.
- Once the pork steaks are braised, some people like to put them on the grill again for another minute or so per side. I don’t do this because I braise in the oven, and have already extinguished my grill fire by the time the braising is done. Also, I often cook my pork steaks to the point where they’re almost falling apart, so transferring them to the grill would be problematic.
Any traditional picnic fare goes well with pork steaks: Corn on the cob, American Potato Salad, German Potato Salad, baked beans, coleslaw, or pineapple, coconut, and carrot salad are all fine accompaniments.
To drink? If you usually enjoy wine, I suggest substituting sangria.
But the best beverage is beer — especially that other St Louis original, Budweiser. I know it’s become fashionable to belittle the self-proclaimed “King of Beers” in favor of microbrews (and usually I prefer a microbrew, too). But on a hot summer day, the yeasty light flavor of a Bud is actually quite refreshing.
And when you mix it with barbecue sauce as a braising medium, it turns St. Louis’s finest export — the pork steak — into something magical. It must be the beechwood aging.
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