Saturday, February 12, 2011

How to Properly Cook a Steak

It turns out that cooking a goddamn good steak is really easy, but you need to know just a few important tips. Really, only three that are critically important, and a few more minor tips that help a little. None of them take very much time or effort (though the most important one requires you to spend sixty seconds with the steak a couple hours in advance) and none of them are anything that your average home cook should have trouble with -- and yet, so many people cook flavorless, overdone, rubbery steaks. There is no need. The perfect steak turns out to be ridiculously easy.

THE MOST IMPORTANT THING: Aggressively salt and pepper the steak at least one hour in advance, preferably two or three or more. Use kosher or sea salt, and use more than you think you should have to use. Do not skip this step. I don't care if you have high blood pressure and one too many milligrams of sodium might just kill you; if it's that much of a problem then just don't eat a steak.

Salting the steak in advance does two important things. Pundits will tell you that it creates a reverse osmosis reaction that tenderizes the steak, and this is more or less true... but far more importantly, it will allow salt to penetrate all the way through the meat, which means that you will actually be able to fucking taste it... and even better, because salt makes you salivate, this will make the entire steak seem juicier, even though the moisture content is unchanged.

Do this every time. I am not kidding. This is the #1 most important thing you can do to your steak. It is simple, it is easy, it costs nothing, it doesn't hinge on matters of personal preference, and it can make the difference between a bland hunk of cow versus a beautiful buttery bite of beef.

THE NEXT MOST IMPORTANT THING: Get your pan hot. Really hot. Like, as hot as you can get it. If you are doing it on the stovetop, this means using a cast-iron if you have it, or the heaviest pan you can find if not. Pick the biggest burner, and turn it on as high as it will go. Gas is best, of course. The pan should just start to smoke (you haven't add the fat yet either; see the next tip) before you are ready.

If using a propane grill, put an upside down baking sheet and/or foil over the part of the grill you intend to cook the meat on. This will superheat it, then remove it immediately before you put the steaks on to cook. Trust me, it's worth it. If using charcoal, buy yourself a chimney. Seriously, don't skimp on this. This is a whole separate topic in itself, but a charcoal chimney is indispensable. Pile the coals all in one corner as soon as they come out of the chimney, and cook your steak over that.

THE LAST CRITICAL TIP: This applies only if you are pan-frying your steak, as I prefer these days (though I will address grilling here too). Thou shalt use the following fats in thy pan: one tablespoon butter, one tablespoon vegetable oil. Not olive oil. A lot of cooks, myself included, like to use olive oil where many recipes call for vegetable oil, because it's healthier and more flavorful. Not here, folks. You want a really high smoke point, and all the flavor is coming from the butter anyway. (And dude, you are eating a pan-fried steak... you're worried about health?! Please...) Don't add the fat until the pan is just starting to smoke, as I mentioned in the previous tip. Then toss it in, swirl it around just until it coats the pan, and throw your steak in.

If you are using a grill, take a paper towel or a clean rag, splash some vegetable oil on it, grasp it with tongs and rub it on the part of the grill you will use to cook the steak right before you cook it. This is actually a good idea with almost any meat you cook on the grill. You can't really do the butter thing this way though (which is one reason I have started to prefer pan-fried steaks over grilled steaks).

THIS IS SO OBVIOUS IT DOESN'T COUNT AS A TIP: Cook your steak rare or medium-rare. Please. If you are going to cook it more than that, I say, Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Seriously, the way Biblical literalists feel about homosexuality, that's how I feel about well-done steak. It's a crime against nature. But anyway, I realize preferences differ, so the meat (har har) of this tip is how to get a good rare/medium-rare.

If your pan is as hot as I said it should be, this means about 2 minutes per side. If it is a particularly thick cut, like more than two inches, stand it up on the edge for just a bit, so that you can't see any pink when you put it on the plate (not only because it looks weird, but because there is a potential safety issue if the surface temperature has not hit 165F). In any case, make sure that the top and bottom sides have a nice crust -- which they should, if you got your pan hot enough and you used the butter-oil mixture I commanded you to use.

THE LESSER TIPS: All of these things matter if you want a really perfect steak, though they are less crucial. If you don't do the first three, you will have done violence to your steak for no good reason. If you follow them, your steak will taste like a damn steak, and that's worth doing. These remaining tips will help put it over the top.

Rewind all the way back to when you are buying the steak. Buy a thick cut. How thick is the minimum depends on your equipment. I have a nice Lodge cast-iron skillet, and one of the burners on my (gas!) range gives an unconscionably intense flame (the dial labels it as "POWER BOIL"), so I am able to get 3/4" cuts to cook up quite nicely. One to two inches is better, of course, and even thicker is even better. The thicker the cut, the more seared you can get the crust while leaving the inside nice and red.

The flip side of this tip is that if you are one of those "alternative steakstyle" types who likes it medium or above, buy yourself a thinner cut. I don't have much to say about this, as I consider it to be immoral in the extreme, but the point is that you want a certain amount of sear on the outside and then you want to take your steak out of the pan -- so buy the thickness of steak that will result in the insides being done to your liking at the point that the outside is done appropriately.

Now proceed slightly forward to when you were salting the steak -- depending on the cut, it's probably worthwhile to trim off any major external fat deposits while you're at it. If it's a filet mignon, probably not, any fat there will just turn buttery as you cook it. A strip steak, though, or a ribeye, or whatever, it's worth trimming off what you can easily get to without hacking too much meat off. Of course the diner can always cut it off at the table, but I'd rather take care of it in the kitchen. It makes a nicer presentation, and it allows the diner to just chow down without having to work around any inedible parts.

I've heard it said that you should let the steak sit at room temperature for 20 or 30 minutes before you cook it. This makes good sense, as raising the surface temperature means that you can get a good sear faster than you would otherwise, which means the center can stay appropriately rare. Cooks Illustrated even has a method (which I have used with some success, though I consider it ultimately unnecessary) where you cook the steak in a low oven before pan-frying it, thereby warming it and -- according to them -- activating enzymes which help to further tenderize the steak. I do not doubt the validity of all this, but I will say that, while following the remaining tips in this guide, I have never had a steak come out too tough or with too much of a "gray zone" separating the crust from the nice red innards. I mention all this because, though I think it unnecessary, I find the science sound: if you are concerned about getting a proper crust, or about getting a sufficiently tender steak, but all means, try pre-warming it.

Finally -- and this should almost be one of the Critical Steps, because it makes a pretty big difference -- when the steak is done, you should let it rest for a few minutes before serving. But don't let it just rest on a plate! Take a slice of bread, and let it rest on that. Then, depending on how juicy your steak is and how hungry you are, either eat the beef-sopped bread yourself, or else feed it to the dogs. Why do this? Well, if you listened to me about getting your grill really super hot, and about using a nice butter/oil mixture to fry it in, you should have a really nice crispy crust on both the top and bottom. You have to put one side or the other down, and, since you did such a good job keeping this steak nice and juicy, whichever side you face down is going to puddle in its own juices. If you do nothing to abate this, you will re-sog that side and obliterate that nice beautiful crust you just went to all this (not very much) trouble to create. Better to stand it on a slice of bread, which will soak up the drippings and allow the crust to stay intact.

So this post is a little longer than I meant, because I wanted to cover all the bases, and explain the reasons why in addition to just issuing the commandments. To summarize, here is a simple recipe that will guarantee you a better tasting steak:

1) Buy a thick cut to get a good rare/medium-rare (assuming you aren't one of those pervs who likes it medium or worse, in which case buy a thin cut).
2) Unless it is a very expensive cut like filet mignon, trim any visible fat.
3) Aggressively salt and pepper your steak at least one hour in advance, preferably more. Seriously, if there's one lesson I could leave to my sons, it would be to season your fucking steak in advance. It's so easy, and will make your steak taste 200% better than if you hadn't done it. Even if you ignore every single other piece of advice in this post, season your fucking steak.
4) Get the pan really hot.
5) Once the pan just starts to smoke, add 1 Tbsp butter and 1 Tbsp vegetable oil.
6) Toss in the steak and cook 2 minutes per side, or just until a crust starts to form. If it is a particularly thick cut, use tongs to stand it up on edge for half a minute or so until all the external pink is gone.
7) Set each steak on top of a slice of bread and let rest five minutes-ish before serving.

This is an absurdly easy recipe. You owe it to yourself to follow it, or at least to digest the information in it. Every time I eat a steak that has not been properly seasoned or has not been cooked at high enough temperature, I die a little inside. Please don't do that to me.

4 comments:

  1. And I was just thinking earlier today, can't remember why, that you are a great cook. I love steak and will follow your instructions! DM

    ReplyDelete
  2. I read this on the day it was posted. I agree, great advice, but one reservation. Is it always pepper? I use pepper on my steaks, sometimes. But using pepper every time reminds me of my brother - whenever we used to go to the icecream shop he would order vanilla. Fifty-four flavours, but he had vanilla every time. With my steak, I always use salt, but sometimes pepper, sometimes oregano or crushed juniper berries or coriander seed or paprika - you get the idea.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Very fair point, and your analogy to vanilla ice cream is quite apt. This should be considered the "vanilla" steak recipe, but of course any sort of seasonings or spice rubs or whatever can be used. And I didn't even discuss making pan sauces, etc.

    One point that should be raised here -- and while I have a lot of difficulty reconciling this with anecdotal experience and intuition, I have heard it convincingly argued by multiple reliable authorities, and so I am forced to accept it as true -- the only seasoning that really needs to go on in advance is the salt. Even in this "vanilla" recipe, you could pepper it five minutes before you put it in the pan and it really wouldn't matter. Apparently the chemical properties of salt (I think the osmosis or something?) allow it to penetrate deep into the meat, but virtually every other seasoning won't penetrate deeper than 1/8" or so no longer how long you marinate it.

    It still may be convenient to apply all the spices ahead of time, e.g. if you are using a spice rub which contains all the salt you are going to use; or even just for practicality's sake, as in this recipe, where I recommend doing the salting and peppering in the same step just because you're already putting stuff on it, so might as well get it all done in one step.

    I've never tried crushed juniper berries on a steak (or anything really), that sounds really interesting!

    ReplyDelete