This 3-ingredient rub is pure magic on grilled skirt steak
Summer is the laziest season in the kitchen for me. I don’t know if it’s the heat or my kid being out of school that makes me so unmotivated, but I have absolutely zero desire to cook. Even chopping ingredients feels onerous. In an ideal world, I’d be eating a bottomless bowl of cut-up watermelon for my meals. But in the real world, dinner still has to be made. Motivated by this laziness — yes, I am aware that’s an oxymoron — I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking of dishes that require minimum effort and deliver maximum flavor.
Which brings me to this brown sugar grilled skirt steak recipe. Besides the meat, it contains just three ingredients: salt, pepper and brown sugar. I bet you have them in your kitchen at this moment.
The preparation is so simple it’s embarrassing. Were it not extremely delicious, I wouldn’t have even bothered sharing it. I wouldn’t be surprised if you were to roll your eyes upon reading the recipe, but before you discount it, know that it’s become our family’s favorite grilling recipe and one that’s requested whenever we host a cookout.
I use skirt steak below because it’s more affordable, and its thinness means it cooks fast. If skirt is unavailable, other similar steak cuts, such as flank (sometimes labeled as “bavette”) or hanger sub in nicely.
The process couldn’t be easier: Mix together the seasoning ingredients, then sprinkle them all over the steak, rubbing the mixture into the meat so it adheres. If you plan ahead, you can refrigerate the meat for a few hours and up to overnight, and be rewarded with deeper flavor. Otherwise, just set the steak aside to take the chill off and let the seasoning permeate the meat.
Then, throw the meat on the grill and watch the magic happen. The high heat will caramelize the sugar and the sweet-salty combination complements the floral notes of black pepper. Additionally, the sugars and proteins in the meat undergo the Maillard reaction. As my colleague Becky Krystal wrote, “In Maillard, sugars ... interact with the amino acids of proteins, creating a cascade of new flavors and aroma compounds, with several hundred possibilities.”
It’s truly mind-blowing that so few ingredients deliver such depth of flavor.
While the steak is undergoing its transformation on the grill, I like to add a bunch or two of garlic scapes or scallions, and give them a light char. The lick of heat softens the alliums into silky, sweet stalks, and in addition to complementary flavors, the deep green color offers a dramatic contrast to the dark red of the meat.
The recipe is delightfully adaptable and the amounts for brown sugar, salt and pepper are suggestions. Change up the proportions to whatever suits you. Add other spices such as cumin or coriander, a bump of heat with something like cayenne or gochujang.
Or keep it simple and do the bare minimum. You won’t regret it.
Grilled Brown Sugar Skirt Steak
Active time: 15 minutes | Total time: 25 minutes, plus marinating time
Assistant recipes editor Olga Massov came up with this recipe when she challenged herself to produce the most flavorful steak with the fewest, simplest ingredients. As brown sugar caramelizes and mingles with salt and black pepper, you get a savory flavor, accented with a mild, earthy sweetness of burnt sugar. It’s her family and friends’ favorite grilling recipe, one she’s asked to make at every cookout. The steak pairs well with a crunchy slaw or a green salad.
Make Ahead: The steak can be seasoned up to 24 hours in advance of grilling.
Storage Notes: Refrigerate leftovers for up to 3 days.
2 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon fine salt, plus more as needed
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 pound skirt steak (may substitute with flank, a.k.a. bavette, or hanger steak)
1 teaspoon neutral oil, such as canola, plus more for brushing the grill
1 bunch scallions or garlic scapes (about 8 scallions/scapes), trimmed and left whole
In a small bowl, whisk together the sugar, salt and pepper until combined. Pat the steak dry and rub the seasoning all over the meat. Transfer to a shallow container or a zip-top bag (squeeze out any excess air if using the latter) and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 24 hours. (If you’re short on time, you can marinate the steak at room temperature for about 1 hour, flipping it a few times.)
When ready to cook, prepare the grill for direct heat: If using a gas grill, preheat to medium-high (375 to 400 degrees) with the lid closed. If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or wood briquettes; when the briquettes are white hot and covered with ash, distribute them evenly over the cooking area. For a medium heat, you should be able to hold your hand about 4 inches above the coals for 5 to 7 seconds. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames. Brush the grill grate with oil, if desired.
On a small, rimmed baking sheet or in a large bowl, toss the scallions with the oil and a pinch of salt until coated.
Place the meat and scallions on the grill and grill until the steak registers 125 degrees on an instant-read thermometer for medium-rare, about 3 minutes per side, though the time will vary depending on the cut and thickness of your meat. (If in doubt, take the steak off the heat and make a small incision to check on the level of doneness.) For the scallions or garlic scapes, grill them until they have grill marks and start to wilt, turning them as needed, about 5 minutes total.
Transfer the steak to a cutting board, loosely tent with foil and let sit for 10 minutes before slicing against the grain. Serve with the scallions or scapes.
NOTE: To make this steak on the stove, set a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. When a drop of water balls up and dances on the surface of the skillet, it’s hot enough. Add a thin slick of oil, then the steak and sear until richly browned, about 4 minutes per side for medium-rare; the meat should register 125 degrees on an instant-read thermometer.
From Washington Post assistant recipes editor Olga Massov.