Sunday, March 20, 2011

An update on cooking steaks

From the blog Serious Eats comes a post similar to the one I did last month on cooking steak. It largely matches what I had to say, with three important divergences, all of which sound reasonable to me:

If you haven't salted yet and are going to cook your steak in less than 40 minutes, salt it immediately before it goes in the pan. You will have to read the Serious Eats article for the technical explanation of this, but it sounds completely reasonable to me. I imagine you could mitigate the problems of late salting somewhat by thoroughly patting the steaks dry with a paper towel immediately before cooking, but I won't assert that without trying. Still, with that one important caveat, the Serious Eats post confirms my conclusion that salting well in advance is best.

The butter and oil mixture I use might not quite be the best approach. In my previous post, I repeated the claim I had heard that combining equal parts butter and oil raises the overall smoke point. Serious Eats says this is crap, because the milk solids will still burn regardless of whether they are immersed in oil or butterfat. I had wondered about this from the get go, but was inclined to believe that it really did raise the smoke point, because a) I heard it from a trusted source, and b) experientially I have gotten excellent results with a one-to-one mixture.

I suspect there is still some merit in my approach, possibly because even butter with burnt milk solids still imparts a nice toasty flavor, and the mixture with oil allows it to keep cooking at a higher temperature even as the milk proteins break down. I absolutely disagree with Serious Eats that the best approach is to only use oil, but the technique they mention of adding butter to the pan at the last minute so that it doesn't have time to burn sounds promising. I will likely try this next time I do steaks.

Serious Eats has a lot to say about flipping, whereas I didn't even mention it. When I cook a steak, I flip it only once. I'm not religious about this, and in fact I didn't even mention it in my previous post. But Serious Eats insists that you must flip your steak every 15 to 30 seconds in order to ensure a good sear while minimizing the "grey zone" of overdone steak that often appears between the crust and the pink or red interior.

Before going further, I should mention that this is probably really bad advice if you are grilling or if you have not used sufficient fat in the pan. The reason is that under those conditions the steak will tend to stick until a certain amount of sear has been achieved -- and if the crust tears off, your steak will look bad and taste bad. But with the oil-sufficient pan-searing method both I and Serious Eats endorse, at the very worst frequent flipping should be harmless. So is it actually helpful?

Maybe. I find that I get a virtually non-existent grey zone anyway, even with the one-flip method. But then again I have a nice heavy cast-iron skillet, I have a gas rather than electric range, one of the burners is extra large with an absurdly aggressive flame (it is labelled "POWER BOIL"), and I exploit all of these advantages to the fullest in order to get a really high temperature going in the pan. Not everyone may be able to achieve such a hot cook surface with their equipment, however, and the frequent flipping method seems like it should at least in principle mitigate any issues created by a somewhat lower cook temperature.

So, I cautiously endorse the frequent flipping approach, with the aforementioned caveats about grilling or pan-searing with insufficient fat. It's far more important that the steak releases fully from the cook surface than it is to minimize the grey zone, so if it's sticking at all, just leave it until it's ready.

(Edit: I looked up the post on which Serious Eats bases this advice, and their conclusion turned out to be remarkably similar to what I wrote above. I quote: "[T]his testing doesn't take into account variables like cooking at a higher or lower heat, getting nice grill marks on an outdoor grill... And for all you single flippers out there? Well, you can keep doing what you're doing and it probably won't hurt your burgers none, but lighten up a bit, will ya?" In other words, what I previously believed turned out to be largely correct: Single-flipping can produce better appearance in a grill application, surface cooking temperature affects the usefulness of multi-flipping, and in the end it really doesn't make that much of a difference after all.

I had also mentioned in passing that I sometimes stand it up on edge to sear the sides but had downplayed the importance of this, while Serious Eats is insistent on it. They mention the "edge is often the fattiest, most delicious part of the steak," which I suppose is true depending on the cut, and when that is true making sure to get a sear on that and render some of the fat would indeed be important. So I buy all that, too.

On a side note, the Serious Eats post mentions that searing, contrary to popular belief, does not seal in moisture. They are absolutely correct. However, a properly seared piece of meat still tastes moister, because the complex molecules generated by the Maillard reaction cause you to salivate more. The only time that this knowledge has any practical value is when roasting. Some recipes for roasting have you start with a very hot oven to get a good crust (or crisp the skin in the case of roast bird) and then reduce the temperature, while others have you start with a moderate temperature and then crank it up at the end to get the crust/crisp effect. It doesn't actually matter which you do; those who advocate the former method on the grounds that it seals in moisture are just plain wrong. The latter method probably has some modest advantages in that it is easier to avoid burning the exterior of whatever you are roasting, but in practice I don't think it matters that much. I have used both methods and don't find that one is tremendously better than the other. (Edit: Serious Eats makes a convincing case that it matters a lot in the case of prime rib.)

There is one more thing I should mention which was covered in the Serious Eats article, but regrettably overlooked in mine: How do you tell when it's done? I had mentioned a couple of times that you take it out of the pan as soon as you have a good sear, and I more or less stand by that, but having some way to gauge doneness is important too. I'm afraid I overlooked this point because over time I've gotten pretty good at just telling doneness by feel -- somewhat ironically, my most important practice for this was from a summer job as a fry cook at the rather crappy family restaurant chain Perkins, where, despite the steaks I churned out being of relatively low quality and not cooked all that skillfully, the sheer number I cooked, and the time pressure which precluded any more involved investigative methods, helped me to hone this skill -- so I don't tend to consciously think about this issue very much. My bad.

Serious Eats' coverage of this topic is both fascinating (I would never have guessed the cut-and-peek method did so little harm to the steak!) and apparently sound. One very brief point I have to make: In the end, they endorse the use of a "good, accurate digital thermometer." My response to this is "Yes, but" -- yes, if you are willing to shell out the cash, a good digital thermometer is the best method for determining internal temperature; but if you intend to cheap out, as I did (twice), an inexpensive analog thermometer is superior to a poor quality digital thermometer. I used to own the latter and now own the former. Leaving aside that it would have been better to have not cheaped out in the first place, since in total I ended up spending almost as much as it would have cost to get a good digital thermometer, I am much happier with the analog one than I ever was with the digital one. The cheap digital one never seemed to be all that accurate, and if I attempted to use it in a very hot environment, e.g. on the grill, it had a tendency to glitch out sometimes. The analog one is accurate, trustworthy, and was dirt cheap. The only disadvantage of it is that it takes a few seconds to get an accurate read, whereas a good digital thermometer can give you an internal temp right away. Since I mostly use it for testing the internal temperature of roasted poultry (which can take on the order of an hour or more to cook) that few seconds is a non-issue. But if I were using it for pan-seared steaks (where you are cooking them on the order of a couple of minutes) that few seconds could become a problem I suppose.

Anyway, there you have it. In all honesty, Serious Eats is probably a much more reliable source than myself for these sorts of things, as testified by their rigorous experimentation (whereas I'm basing all of my B.S. on mere experience and accumulated knowledge). You'll notice, however, that there is significant convergence in our conclusions. Proper salting technique in particular is, I think, one of the most overlooked skills for most home cooks. So if there's one take-home from these two posts, I think that would be it.

(h/t Ed Brayton)

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