The Meatist: How To Do Steak the Right Way
Photo by flickr user Jackie Baisa
"What the hell are you doing?" he asks me.
"Getting ready to cook these steaks," I tell him.
"Dude - there's a grill right outside the door, and you're heating up a pan? Are you on crack?"
Men are supposed to intuitively know how to cook steaks. It's in our DNA, or so most guys with a Weber will be more than happy to explain while they stand in their yards with their Williams Sonoma grilling tools, drinking overrated imported beer and getting all nostalgic over how their dad used to grill meats and how their mothers used to actually wear dresses and serve delightful salads. Fact is though, making a great steak at home is a learned process, not one you know just because you happen to be sporting a Y chromosome. Which is something you already know if you've watched that guy I described take what looked like a beautiful cut of meat and turn it into something you'd send back at Sizzler.
So this week I'm taking on steak.
I'll assume here that what you're looking for is something as close to
the best steak you've ever eaten at a good steakhouse. Now here's the
part you won't want to hear: due to the ridiculous heat that commercial
kitchens can cook with (I doubt your broiler goes to 1800 degrees),
it's a tough order to fill. But follow these tips and don't be afraid
to experiment, and you'll get close. Keep in mind that there are plenty
of methods for cooking steaks; I'm passing along one that I find to be
consistently great, but that doesn't mean there aren't plenty more out
Photo by flickr user 46137.
It starts with the cut. Just like burgers, the meat you choose is
incredibly important. There are four great cuts to look for: porterhouse, rib-eye, t-bone and New York strip. Find one of these
that's well marbled, 1" to 1 1/2" thick, and you're on your way. As for
whole USDA Prime vs. USDA Choice debate, here's the lowdown: Prime
makes up less than 2% of the market, is the tenderest, best marbled
beef you can buy, and well worth the upcharge over Choice if you can
find it at a reasonable price and cook it properly. And there's good
news for meat lovers here: while supermarkets have traditionally
carried USDA Choice - one step below Prime - and left the Prime cuts to
steakhouses and butcher shops, due to the downturn in business at
steakhouses it's easier than ever to lay your hands on USDA Prime beef
at reasonable prices. I've heard that it's even showing up at Costco
for a $2-per-pound premium over Choice. If you get the opportunity,
grab some. I'll be talking about aged vs. dry-aged, vs. not aged in a
future column, so I'll leave that for now. Suffice it to say that aged
Prime beef is even more tender than Prime - and more expensive as well.
I'd suggest perfecting your steak skills before going that spendy.
Whatever cut and type you buy though, allow it to warm up a bit from
the fridge before cooking.
Now bring the heat. Here's where my friend became confused and
disoriented. While you certainly can grill steaks on an outdoor grill,
I've found that the best results come from using temperatures that they
just don't generate. And while I can't get to the nuclear-fission-like
temperatures that many restaurants can, using a hot pan and oven yields
best results. So preheat your oven to 450 degrees and put a
well-seasoned cast iron skillet onto your range and get it hot. Really
hot. Stupidly hot. In fact, feel free to toss it in the oven during
preheating before moving it to your stove top (I'd suggest using a kitchen towel or oven
mitt to avoid melting your hand). Preheating can take
a while (particularly with electric ranges with which you may want to
preheat for ten minutes), so be patient. What you don't want to do is
put the steak in prematurely.
While the pan and oven are heating up, you need to make a couple of
decisions: do you want to add butter and/or oil to the pan or brush it
on the steak directly, and what are you going to use, canola oil,
clarified butter, or a blend of both? While you can use olive oil, its
smoke point is over 100 degrees lower than canola and clarified butter,
so it just increases the chance that your neighbors will call the local
fire department (likewise straight butter contains solids that will go up in smoke
too early). If you're putting it in the pan, go ahead and do so while
you're heating it up. Otherwise, season the steak with salt and (if you
wish) pepper, brush your butter/oil generously over your slab-o-beef,
and get ready to for the fun.
Photo by flickr user lukekb.
Sear the sucker. Once your pan has gotten hot enough to melt steel at a
distance of four to six feet, put your steak in. What you want here is
to give it a hearty crust, and 45 to 60 seconds per side ought to do
it. If it takes longer, it may be an indication that your pan wasn't
hot enough; keep that in mind for your next steak. If there's enough
butter and oil in the pan, baste continuously after you flip it. And
flip it once only if possible.
Finish it. Now transfer your steak to the oven (you can pour out the
excess butter and use the pan, or put it on a fresh grill pan if you
wish) for finishing. I go about 2-3 minutes per side in the oven, but
until you can tell by touch go ahead and use an instant read
thermometer pushed deep into the steak from the side to keep tabs on
Rest it. Pull your steak 5 to 10 degrees short of your desired final
temperature, move it to a cutting board or warm surface, and let it
rest. This step is critical, as it allows the meat to finish cooking
and the juices to distribute evenly. You'll have to find what your
personal favorite is, but as a rule of thumb, final temperatures are as
follows: 125 for rare, 130-135 for medium-rare, 140-145 for medium.
Again, pull your steaks 5 to 10 degrees short of that temp.
Want sauce? If you want a little something to pour over the top, you
have the perfect opportunity to make it while the steak rests. Simply
deglaze the pan that you seared the steak in (back on the burner, crank
the heat, pour in your deglazing liquid, stir with wooden spoon) with
some red wine (or any other liquid that floats your boat), then add
whatever other ingredients you think might be tasty. Just not powdered
garlic, because it's evil.
Other options. As I said, there are a million variations on this. Some
like to use grill pans to mark steaks, some like to finish low and slow
in the oven, some like to use a broiler for finishing, which shortens
cooking time and makes the crust crustier. You can even recreate this
process on a charcoal or gas grill (though I do find it even harder to
get up to the temperatures I want) by starting your steaks on a hot
spot and then moving them to a cooler area on the grill or even an oven
As long as you get a mouthful of steaky heaven at the end of the
process, it's all fair game, so start with the basic framework and then
vary the process to suit your personal taste and style.
Bradford Schmidt is The Meatist. He's also author of the blog Bone in the Fan. He lives in northern Palm Beach County and doesn't think that a steak through the heart sounds so bad.
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