Steak is paradoxically the simplest yet most complex ingredient in the cooking world. Nearly every home cook has their preferred method of preparing steak, of which, they are boisterously confident. Just as there are many ways to skin a cat, I suppose there are as many ways to cook a steak. It’s important to remember that there are as many outcomes as there are methods, and it is the outcome that should be considered before all else, in my opinion.
Lost in the maelstrom of noisy declarations of steak recipe supremacy is the steak itself. In the US, we are lucky to have some of the most luxurious beef to be found anywhere. Despite the moral evils of the industrialized food system (perhaps more on that later), the beef ends up tasting better than candy. This can be attributed to the feedlot, where they spend the last few months of their lives gorging on corn. The bloated beasts have nowhere to run off all those extra corn sugar calories so it begins to store in the muscle fibers. We call it marbling. Combine that with the efficiencies of industrial capitalism, and you find delectable meat in nearly every corner of the country. Most Americans, regardless of budget constraints, have access to excellent quality, and affordable beef. Sure, the purists may claim that the only beef to eat is the prime, dry-aged, business you have to pay exorbitant prices for, but I’m quite content with the common selection for everyday use.
Don’t misunderstand my point on quality. This does not mean that you can simply snatch any old steak haphazardly from the meat section. While you have a higher chance of finding a good steak here than other places in the world, it is important to follow a set of guiding principles that will increase your chances of having a wonderful steak, every time. There are seven crucial stages to follow in order to get the perfect steak.
- Choose the best steak available. Butchers are your friend. Cut it thick
- Let it come to room temperature before cooking.
- Season it simply.
- Focus on color. No color, no flavor.
- Shift your focus to doneness. Use your oven if needed.
- For the love of everything holy, let it rest.
- Strategically sauce (or not) and serve your masterpiece.
This not a recipe, so much as an in depth, even philosophical, approach to cooking steak. If you follow these steps, you will come to appreciate steak in a way that is far more enriching than following the standard recipe driven method.
The first step is to choose a nice, well-marbled steak, and do everything possible to avoid messing it up. The goodness is there already, you just have to help it along. I prefer to cook steaks that are no less than one and a half to two inches thick. There are two reasons for this. First, you have a much larger window for error. You are less likely to catastrophically overcook a steak if it is a bit thicker. Secondly, you must develop color on a steak for it to taste good. If you cook a thin steak over high heat, it gets overcooked before you can develop color. If you cook it on low heat you’ll end up with the red interior but a flavorless grey exterior.
Go to the butcher’s counter and ask them for a New York Strip. There are many other options, but we’ll start with this cut because it is the least technically difficult. Ask them for the best quality they have. Sometimes they carry different grades and may have choices in terms of quality. Tell them that you want the best quality cut they have, well marbled, and cut 2 inches thick. This will easily feed two people. Be sure to let the steak come to room temperature before you start cooking. This will cut the cooking time down while providing you with a more consistent result.
The best way to decide whether to cook a steak in a pan or outside is to ask yourself what season it is. Fall and winter are great times to cook steak indoors. Spring and summer basically require you to fire up the grill. Because the pan method is the most technically difficult, I will use it as an example. The grill has the benefit of being an oven at the same time it is providing direct heat. With the pan method, depending on your desired level of doneness, you may end up needing to throw the steak into the oven to finish. The doneness of a steak is important. If you like your steak cooked anywhere north of medium, I would suggest you switch to roast beef. Clearly, that is what you like and you shouldn’t trouble yourself with a cut that doesn’t lend itself well to that sort of preparation. Get yourself some chuck roast and braize that puppy up.
Put your pan over medium to medium-high heat and allow it to get ripping hot. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees as well. While the pan is heating, season the steak. Simple seasoning is the best. As I said before, we have access to great quality beef. You don’t need to marinate or heavily season a good steak. Season generously with coarse salt and fresh cracked pepper. You should notice a strip of fat running along one side of the steak. Place the steak in the hot pan, fat side down. This will render and give you the fat necessary to develop color on the other sides of the steak. Once you see a generous amount of fat in the pan and can see that the fat has turned brown and crispy, flip it to the opposite side. It will take anywhere from three to eight minutes to get the color you are looking for. Repeat this process on all sides (4 total). The higher the heat, the quicker you will see the color develop. It is important to remember that this stage of the process is all about developing color so don’t worry too much about having a hot pan. After you have achieved a uniform, crisp, brown exterior, move on to the next phase of the process.
If you are unfamiliar levels of doneness, do your research. There is no shame in using a thermometer. There are also touch methods to gauge the level of doneness. This is where your patience in waiting for the steak to arrive at room temperature will pay off. Depending on the heat of your pan—lower pan temperature will allow more time for heat to travel to the interior of the steak before you get the desired level of color—your steak may be finished. If not, you may need to throw it in the oven. Doneness is where you will see my bias at its greatest intensity. I prefer steak to be on the rare side. If you prefer to cook it more, you’re on your own. I will, in no way, facilitate or otherwise be an accessory to that sort of behavior. Typically, if the pan was running a bit hot, and I achieved the brown exterior quickly (say 3 minutes each side), I will throw it in the oven for 5-10 minutes. Always be cautious. You can’t uncook a steak.
This is perhaps the most important part. Under no circumstances should you cut into the steak unless it has rested for a bare minimum of five minutes. It is ideal to let it rest for ten minutes. I prefer to cut the steak into slices and eat it family style. After cutting it and testing seasoning by eating an end piece, add additional salt and any pan sauce, butter, or béarnaise sauce you desire. It’s not needed, but it can make it a little bit more luxurious. I would recommend it strongly if you had to settle for a piece of beef that had less marbling.
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