Sliced steak with chimichurri sauce and meat fork

Beef steaks, roasts and ground meat all have strong, but distinct, inherent flavors. While many of the same herbs and spices enhance the beef’s natural flavor in all these forms, choosing how and when to introduce them can make a big difference in your final meal.

Basic Seasonings

The basic four spices for beef dishes are so well-established that they have their own nickname – SPOG: salt, pepper, onion and garlic. The onion and garlic can be powdered or fresh or a mixture of both. On a solid hunk of meat like a roast or a thick steak, it’s best to sprinkle 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of salt per pound on all surfaces of the meat at least an hour and up to 24 hours before cooking. The longer it sits, the more the salt will be drawn in toward the center, seasoning the meat throughout.

On the other hand, when you are using ground meat, either to make a hamburger or chili or tacos, you’ll want to use the same amount of salt, but not until just before cooking. Salting ground beef early will just draw moisture away from the strands of meat and cause them to stick together.

Once your basic seasoning provides a backdrop, flavoring spices can bring forward different aspects of beef to best complement them, depending on your dish. Dried spices are convenient, but they lose potency over time. If you bought yours at the supermarket when you moved in three years ago and still have the same bottles, it’s time to start over! Many natural food stores let you buy spices in small amounts.

Flavoring Spices and Herbs That Go With Beef

The most common flavoring herbs used for roasts and steaks are rosemary, thyme, oregano and sage. The dried versions can be added to the cooking liquid for long-cooking pot roasts to infuse them with flavor. They can also be sprinkled on before cooking steaks – although they will burn over the high heat of a grill and are better applied after cooking when the steak is resting.

Southwestern favorites like cumin, coriander and various types of chili peppers bring the flavor you are craving in tacos and chili and make vibrant stews and soups. European dishes like beef Paprikash and sauerbraten are enhanced by paprika, cloves, dill and mustard. Horseradish, a classic addition to English roast beef, is actually native to Russia. Asian dishes use variations on all of the above, and they often use a mixture called 5-spice powder, which contains peppercorns, fennel, cloves, star anise, and cinnamon.

The best spices for beef are freshly ground, as they can cut through the inherent fattiness of beef and bring a bright, vibrant flavor and aroma to any beef dish. The best herbs for beef are freshly picked. It’s not uncommon to drop a couple of sprigs of thyme, rosemary or bay leaf into a stew and remove them after cooking, or to finely chop fresh basil, cilantro or parsley to sprinkle on just before serving. Fresh herbs will burn and taste bitter on the grill, however.

Making a Compound Butter for Grilled Steaks

A classic way to introduce fresh herb flavor into steaks or other grilled meats is to make a compound butter. Unlike salt, which dissolves in water, the delicate flavor of most fresh herbs dissolves and intensifies in fats, either those already in the meat or added in cooking.

  • Bring a stick of butter to just below room temperature so you can mash it up with a fork.  
  • Collect and chop about 2 tablespoons of your favorite herbs for steak (oregano, rosemary, thyme, basil and parsley, for example).  
  • Add the herbs, 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper and a finely minced clove of garlic, and mix them well with the butter.  
  • Turn the mixture onto the center of a square of plastic wrap, roll it up into a log, and put it back into the fridge for a couple of hours. It will firm up, and it can be cut into slices to set on top of a freshly grilled steak.