From mistake to can’t-miss steak: LongHorn grilling expert answers your burning questions

You there, with the knife and the fork and a steak sizzling on the grill.

Put down your weapons, and step away from the Weber.

Grillmaster Leeann Pulliam sees you, novice griller, tines and blade poised to pierce a section of sirloin to see if it’s done. She knows you’re making a mistake. But give her two minutes on the phone, and she can help you serve up a can’t-miss steak this Labor Day.

Pulliam, managing partner at the LongHorn Steakhouse in Cleveland, Tenn., is among seven experts with the national restaurant chain who’ll answer questions from home cooks about their grilled goods over the holiday weekend. The hotline will be operational from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. EDT Sunday.

For advice

The LongHorn Labor Day Grill Us Hotline will be open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. EDT Sunday. Call 1-855-LH-GRILL.

“I think the No. 1 issue, as far as checking steak [for doneness], is cutting into it,” she says. “That’s the worst thing you could do.”

Elizabeth Brown, a publicist with Linda Costa Communications Group, says calls will be assigned at random to the seven grill masters working the hotline, so a Chattanooga caller, for instance, wouldn’t necessarily be connected to Pulliam in Cleveland. But all have extensive experience in what makes a great steak.

Pulliam, 48, a 1987 Ringgold High School graduate who started in the restaurant business as a hostess when she was 15, has been with LongHorn for the past 15 years. She has staffed the grill hotline for the last couple of years and says she enjoys the interaction with callers.

“Usually we get: What is the best cut of meat to grill? How do you know what temperature to heat your grill at? How do you know when your steak is done?”

That last one, she says, is the biggest bugaboo most home grillers face. Because no matter how succinct the slice, cutting into the steak releases its inner juices, the very essence of a melt-in-your-mouth bite.

The problem is fairly easy to solve. She recommends a meat thermometer for best results. Yes, its sharp probe can release juices when you poke it in to gauge the temperature of the meat, but the loss is less than a knife slice.

There’s also a finger test for doneness, though getting the hang of this trick requires a little practice.

She explains: “Open your hand all the way up. Now put the index finger of your other hand on your palm [just below the thumb] and feel how bouncy that is. That would be rare. Now put your index finger and thumb [on the same hand] together like an OK sign. You feel the palm of your hand getting tougher?”

The change in firmness in that fleshy area between the thumb and the base of your palm corresponds to the firmness of meat the longer it cooks. You can notice the difference in firmness as you touch your thumb to different fingers: index, middle, ring and pinky.

“You can tell by touch,” Pulliam says. “If it’s bouncy, it’s rare to medium rare [a sensation similar to the thumb and index finger together]. No bounce [thumb to pinky finger], it’s well done.”

A Weber GrillWatch Survey reveals that Independence Day is the most popular grilling holiday, followed by Memorial Day and Labor Day in a virtual tie. And unlike the easy picnic fare served to Fourth of July revelers, the two holidays that unofficially bookend summer often call for more substantial servings than hamburgers and hot dogs.

Pulliam says she’s happy to field questions about anything that goes on the grill. LongHorn’s menu includes everything from burgers to pork chops to chicken to seafood. But getting steaks right is a point of pride.

“We have to nail it,” she says, “because steak’s in our name.”

Contact Lisa Denton at or 423-757-6281.

Maste the meats

Here’s more of Leeann Pulliam’s best advice for mastering steaks
on the grill.

› Best cuts: Sirloins can be tricky, she says, because they can be tough if not cut correctly. She suggests marinating them first in Italian dressing. Her two favorites for home grilling are a fillet and ribeye. “With a fillet, you have minimal fat, so you want to make sure you get it good and seasoned to make sure it has a great flavor,” she says. “I usually bacon-wrap mine. Bacon gives it flavor since there’s not a lot of marbling. Ribeye has about 25 percent marbling, and that’s what’s going to give it great flavor when you grill it.”

› Preparing the grill: It needs to be really hot, 500 to 550 degrees. “But you also want to make sure that it’s nice and clean when you start,” she says. “And you want to oil the grate to make sure it’s not going to pull all the seasonings off your steak.” Remember that most grills don’t heat uniformly, so some zones will be hotter than others.

› Seasoning: There are four she recommends: kosher salt, fresh-cracked peppercorn, garlic powder and onion powder, about a teaspoon of each mixed together. “Those four components really pack a punch for a great steak,” she says. You can mix and match depending on your preference for the different flavors. You’ll want to pat it on the steak before it goes on the grill. And remember that every flip of the steak will remove some of the seasonings.

› Time: Anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the steak and the cut you choose. Use a meat thermometer or the finger test to judge doneness. “Once you pull that steak off, you want to let it rest for a couple of minutes to really let those juices come together with the seasonings before you cut into it.”

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