How long to grill a steak on a charcoal grill – The rule of threes

An In Depth Analysis
On How To Grill A Steak on a Charcoal or Gas Grill

For a long time I’ve preached the “Rule of Threes” for explaining how long to grill a steak on a charcoal grill. The method is basically “3-3-3-3.” That means:

3 min of grilling steak side 1 over direct heat,
3 min of grilling steak side 2 over direct heat,
3 min of grilling steak side 1 over indirect heat,
and 3 min of grilling steak side 2 over indirect heat.
How to grill a steak - the rule of threes - Grilling24x7
I’ve gotten a lot of positive comments about the method but I’ve also caused a bit of confusion. Let’s re-examine the method.

How long to grill a steak? Let’s see:

The rule of threes is pretty simple. This method is based on direct and then indirect grilling so I’ll start here. Direct heat grilling is when the steak is placed directly on the grates directly over top of the heat source. The dome is normally closed. Indirect heat is grilling on the side of the grill opposite of the heat source. The dome is always closed for indirect heat grilling. Sometimes direct heat and then indirect heat grilling is referred to as “two zone grilling.” See the picture below:

How to grill a steak - the rule of threes - Grilling24x7

When cooking with direct heat for the rule of threes the dome should be closed.

How to grill a steak - the rule of threes - Grilling24x7

There are a few variables that need to be considered when using the rule of threes for cooking your steak. The variables are:

1. Thickness of steak
2. Temperature of grill
3. Temperature of steak before grilling
4. Time
5. How done you like your steak

These variables are dependent on one another. For example, if the grill temperature is not hot enough, then the time needs to be increased. If the steaks are really thick then the grilling time needs to be increased. If you want a steak rare you need to decrease the grilling time and perhaps reduce the temperature of the steak before grilling.

How to grill a steak - the rule of threes - Grilling24x7

The steaks above are about 1 inch thick. This is perfect for the rule of threes. Beware: Most grocery stores sell steaks that are a bit smaller than 1 inch. These came from Costco and are routinely 1 inch thick. The rule of threes is meant for 1 inch thick steaks.

Temperature of the grill is the next important variable to evaluate. I find it essential to be able to use your hand to evaluate the temperature of your grill. I use the method where you hold you hand 1 inch over the grate and start counting. The amount of seconds that pass before you need to remove your hand is the value you’ll use to assess your grill temperature. For example if you can hold your hand 1 inch over the grate (directly over the heat source) for 2-3 seconds you have a perfect high heat for grilling a steak. If you can only hold your hand there for 1 second or less you have a way too hot high heat and I advise not cooking just yet. Holding your hand for 3-4 seconds is about a medium heat and 4-5 seconds is a medium low-low heat. These are all estimates but the key here is that once you get a feel for your own grill setup you will be able to know how long YOUR hand can stay over top of YOUR heat source to grill a perfect steak. Essentially you’ll be calibrating your own temperature measurement system. The numbers that I give above are relative to MY hand over top of MY heat source.

Next, the temperature of the steak before grilling will also have a huge effect on how well done the steak is. Imagine pulling a cold steak right from the fridge and tossing it on the grill. The center of this steak will be colder and will stay colder than the exterior of the steak while you are cooking. Using a steak directly from the fridge will lead to a more undercooked steak. I prefer to let my steaks sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes before grilling. This lets the steak uniformly reach room temperature. Again, the choice is up to you but it will directly affect how long you will need to grill. If your steak is colder to start you will need to cook it for a bit longer.

How to grill a steak - the rule of threes - Grilling24x7

Finally it is important to note that steak doneness is also an important variable. The rule of threes as I discuss is tuned to give you a medium rare steak. Note that in the above cell phone picture that this ribeye is what I consider medium rare. Red almost pink throughout with no sign of gray.

So let’s put all these variables together and learn how to modify them as we need to. How does this apply to cooking a really thick steak? Well the best example I can think of is a thick filet mignon medallion. These steaks are normally 2-3 inches thick. Will the rule of threes work? The answer is YES! But it is a “modified rule of threes.” The one rule that I think should not be altered with the rule of threes is the three minutes of direct heat on each side of the steak. When I cook over a high heat (holding my hand for 2-3 seconds over the heat) any more than 3 minutes on each side looks too burnt to me. Three minutes is just right for nice grill marks and a good char. So if the direct heat variables are locked this means that only the indirect times can be extended. So for a 2-3 inch steak the rule of threes will be modified to 3-3-4-4 (remember, this means minutes of direct-direct-indirect-indirect cooking) or maybe even 3-3-5-5. The extended indirect grilling time cooks the inside of the steak while not burning the surface of the steak.

Let’s go through one more hypothetical grilling problem. Let’s say Mrs. Grilling 24×7 finds a fantastic sale on porterhouses at the local grocery store but they are 1/2 inch thick steaks. She means well and by no means will I force her to return the steaks. So my plan of attack would be to leave the steaks in the fridge right up until they are ready to be grilled. I would have a high heat (2-3 seconds of hand holding over the grate) and I would grill the steaks for 3-3-0-0. Yup, I would toss out the indirect cooking times. I most certainly would keep the 3 minutes of direct heat for each side because the nice char would still be necessary. The steak, however, is much thinner so the cooking time is reduced dramatically. Compare this to the really thick 3 inch filet mignon where I would let the steak rest for at least 30 minutes at room temperature and then use approximately 5 minutes of indirect cooking time per side after the standard 3 minute direct heat grilling.

How to grill a steak - the rule of threes - Grilling24x7

If I recall correctly the above HUGE steaks required 3-3-7-7. They spent quite a bit of time on the indirect side of the grill! Understandable, they are gigantic t-bones (the top two steaks in the above picture)!

My general way to do steaks is to purchase a 1 inch thick steak. I will then sit the steak out at room temperature for 30 minutes. My grilling plan is then 3-3-3-3. This results in a perfectly cooked medium rare steak. If you want to mess around with this method start here and then make modifications as you see fit.

I hope that the above re-examination of the “rule of threes” will give you more control over your steak cooking. Remember that each variable is not locked. You can control each variable to better suite your grilling style and taste.

Now that you’ve mastered how to grill a big juicy steak, check out this article on how to grill juicy boneless skinless chicken breasts. Once you master that you’ll be set for life. 🙂


7 thoughts on “How long to grill a steak on a charcoal grill – The rule of threes

  1. Best article about cooking steak hands down!!! Definately worth a read, i have read soooo many and never got the result i wanted 🙂 Thanx!!

  2. I am using a small portable charcoal grill and doing one 1in. thick ribeye steak. The grill has two vents on the bottom, should I open them both, close them both, open on one side or the other? This is my first time grilling anything.

  3. excellent article, particularly enjoyed the info relating to estimating the temperature of the grill…( hand over coals 2-3 seconds )

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