The Meatist: How To Do Steak the Right Way

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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?"

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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 there.

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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.

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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 internal temps.

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 to finish.

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.
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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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