Your summer grilling secret weapon: Red chili steak sauce

Red chili-glazed porterhouse steak.
Red chili-glazed porterhouse steak. Chicago Tribune

This always happens: I eat one meal while devising the next.

Recently, while tableside cooking thin slices of garlicky pork, golden chicken and spicy mushrooms at a Korean barbecue restaurant, the conversation turned to grilling steak.

Steak, we agreed, is the quintessential summer indulgence. The perfect cut? Easy. Porterhouse – the best of both worlds – tender filet, beefy strip. To season or not? Always. Serve with steak sauce? Wow. A division among the ranks. Some eschew the idea; others couldn’t imagine the absence.

As if on cue, a waiter arrives with a tray of sliced boneless beef steak heavily coated in a bright red chili sauce. A thrilling aroma rose from our charcoal grill while the steak edges crisped. Sweet, spicy, tangy, utterly delicious; we nearly inhaled the tender bits.

A consensus among the diners. By all means, steak sauce! This one!

Later at home, noodling around in the kitchen with a bevy of condiments ensued. The result: an intensely red, powerful chili sauce that beautifully complements the rich flavor of beef.

The key component: gochujang. This trendy ingredient, made from fermented soybeans, brown rice and red pepper paste, is found in Korean stores and the Asian section of large supermarkets. The Sunchang brand imported from Korea suits my purposes well. Fairly sweet and thick with spicy chili, a container in the refrigerator inspires many a meal.

For a steak sauce, I tame the red chili heat with dark, rich hoisin sauce and bright, tangy ketchup. A bit of ginger adds intrigue. I say yes to wine with steak, so I add it to the sauce — I like rice wine here, but try dry vermouth, red or white wine too. An ounce of brandy makes a potent, but delicious, substitute for the wine.

Turns out, this sauce doubles as a secret weapon for summer grilling, seasonal stir-fries and more. Just go easy, so the sauce doesn’t overwhelm the steak or other food.

Of course, you can select other steaks in addition to porterhouse. I like strip for its meatiness, especially when I can find it sold on the bone. T-bones, like porterhouse, contain both the strip and the filet (although the filet is skimpier on a T-bone). Believe it or not, the super-rich mouthfeel of rib-eye pairs well with the red chili. Smear a flank steak or flat-iron with this sauce, and leave it in the refrigerator for a day or two; when it’s grilled to medium rare, you’ll be delighted with the tenderness and flavor. Skirt steak (select the outside skirt when you can), coated with the sauce and grilled, makes the best steak sandwich ever.

While I usually opt to purchase the cut of steak the market puts on sale, I always buy USDA grade choice (or prime when the budget allows). If the steak does not clearly display the grade, ask questions. Lean USDA grade select is fine for a weekday stir-fry or sandwich but for steak dinner, choice proves more meltingly tender because, quite simply, it has more fat marbled throughout. Grass-fed beef doesn’t carry the USDA grade but is deliciously beefy if not quite as tender (or rich) as grain-fed beef. Always look for white, moist fat — gray fat can mean an older animal or improper storage.

Steaks taste great cooked in cast iron over high heat or a couple of inches from the broiler element. In good weather, the grill adds a smoky element that cannot be beat. Also, the combination of high heat and spicy chili cooking indoors can be hard to handle because the capsaicin released in the air tends to make us cough.

Red chili steak sauce

Prep: 5 minutes; makes: about 3/4 cup

1/4 cup medium-hot Korean gochujang

1/4 cup rice wine, mirin or dry sherry

3 tablespoons hoisin sauce

2 to 4 tablespoons ketchup, to tame the heat

1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon refrigerated ginger paste or 1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger

Mix all ingredients in a bowl until smooth. Refrigerate covered for up to several weeks.

Note: I also made the sauce using Mama O’s Premium Pepper Paste. It’s available at Made from pepper flakes, garlic, ginger and fish sauce, this paste is quite spicy — more so than my medium-hot labeled gochujang.

Nutrition information per tablespoon: 34 calories, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 6 g carbohydrates, 4 g sugar, 1 g protein, 240 mg sodium, 0 g fiber

Red chili glazed porterhouse steak

Prep: 10 minutes; cook: 8 minutes; makes: 2 servings

1 porterhouse beef steak, 1 1/4 inches thick, 18 to 20 ounces

1 to 2 tablespoons red chili steak sauce, see recipe above

Finely sliced green onions, optional

Pat steak dry. Very lightly smear some of the red chili sauce over one side of the steak. Let sit at room temperature while the grill heats, or refrigerate, covered, up to several hours. Remove steak from refrigerator about 30 minutes before grilling.

Prepare a charcoal grill for direct grilling, or preheat a gas grill to high heat. Put the grill in place, and let it heat thoroughly.

Put the steak on the grill, plain side down, directly over the heat source. Cover the grill; cook without turning, 5 minutes. Flip the steak; cover the grill and cook, 2 minutes. Smear the steak with another light coating of the chili sauce; cook until medium-rare, 1 to 2 minutes.

Remove the steak with tongs or a spatula; let rest a few minutes. Cut the filet portion and the strip portion away from the bone. Carve each into thin slices. Serve sprinkled with the sliced onion.

Nutrition information per serving: 490 calories, 32 g fat, 12 g saturated fat, 111 mg cholesterol, 6 g carbohydrates, 4 g sugar, 41 g protein, 347 mg sodium, 0 g fiber


Prep: 20 minutes; cook: 15 minutes; makes: 4 to 6 servings

I love to serve grilled steak, grilled eggplant or baked potatoes piled with this mixture. Alternatively, use the mixture to fill omelets, stir into fried rice or dollop on a steak sandwich.

1 or 2 tablespoons vegetable oil for high-heat cooking

1 large sweet onion, such as Vidalia, halved, thinly sliced

12 ounces medium white button or cremini mushrooms

1/2 to 1 cup thinly sliced fresh shiitake mushroom caps

1 clove garlic, crushed

2 to 3 tablespoons red chili steak sauce, see recipe

Salt to taste

Heat a large nonstick skillet or well-seasoned cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Add the oil; when hot, add the onion. Cook, stirring, until golden, about 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms; cook until golden and tender, about 5 minutes.

Stir in garlic and red chili steak sauce to taste. Season with salt. Cook and stir 30 seconds; remove from heat. Serve hot.

Nutrition information per serving (for 6 servings): 55 calories, 2 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 7 g carbohydrates, 3 g sugar, 3 g protein, 84 mg sodium, 1 g fiber


Prep: 20 minutes; cook: 6 or 7 minutes; makes: 2 servings

1 large eggplant, ends trimmed, sliced into 1 / 2-inch thick rounds

Coarse salt

Vegetable oil

2 to 3 tablespoons red chili steak sauce, see recipe

Finely sliced cilantro and green onion

Sesame seeds, optional

Sprinkle eggplant slices generously with salt. Let drain in a colander in the sink while the grill heats.

Prepare a charcoal grill for direct grilling or heat a gas grill to high heat. Put the grill in place and let it heat thoroughly.

Rinse the eggplant slices; pat dry. Spritz eggplant generously with oil on both sides. Set the slices on the grill directly over the heat source. Cover the grill; cook without turning. 4 minutes. Flip the eggplant; smear with a light coating of the chili sauce. Cover the grill; cook, 1 minute. Flip and smear the other side with the sauce. Cook until fork-tender, 1 to 2 minutes.

Remove the eggplant with tongs or a spatula. Serve hot or at room temperature sprinkled with the cilantro, onion and sesame.

Nutrition information per serving: 151 calories, 7 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 19 g carbohydrates, 11 g sugar, 3 g protein, 245 mg sodium, 6 g fiber