How to Cook A Steak
(Yes, PEG 2.0 is now competing with eHow.)
A great steak properly cooked is one of the most amazing things on God’s wonderful Earth. And like most of the best things in food, doing it properly isn’t hard, but it requires a bit of rigor and, most importantly, an understanding of some first principles.
The first thing one has to understand about meat is that meat comes from life. Even though a piece of steak is no longer technically alive, you ought to treat it like a living thing.
Another thing — and this is an axiom — is that there are three ways to cook a steak: rare, medium and RUINED. Rare is best, and medium is tolerable. It’s a matter of fact that less cooked meat is more tender and flavorful. Don’t get me wrong, you have every right to like well done steaks better. It just means you have bad taste.
Now here’s what you do.
- A steak, like any living organism, responds poorly to extremes of temperature. Before you put your steak near any source of heat, it should be at room temperature, to give the meat the time to relax and be more ready to express its flavor. You should take it out of the fridge at least 10 minutes before cooking, preferably 20, ideally 30. (In a high place if you have a hungry cat.)
- Heat your pan at the highest possible setting. Take it to 11. No need for butter or oil or anything like that: just a pan and a steak.
- Lay the steak down on the pan. Enjoy the music of the sizzle. This is important: do not touch the steak. Do not move it around, do not look under it, don’t do any of that shit. Leave that glorious piece of meat be. Also important: do not use a fork to manipulate the steak, as that will pierce it and it will leak blood, which is precious because it contains the flavor. Tongs are ideal but you can use a spatula or spoons or anything that doesn’t pierce the meat.
- So, how do you know when to flip it? Again, first principles: what is going on right now?
As your steak is cooking, what is happening is that under the heat the starch in the muscle is breaking down into sugar molecules and caramelizing. That’s right, the beautiful brown coating of cooked meat is actually caramel (and if you’re careful, you can even taste it). This is why right after you put the steak in the pan, it will stick, because caramel is sticky. But as it keeps cooking, the water will evaporate and the steak will form a crust, which will be dry (read: not sticky).
So after a couple of minutes, shake the pan just a little bit. If the steak becomes “unstuck”, it means that side is done, and you flip it. If not, wait. This is why you don’t need butter or oil to cook a steak. And it’s why it’s crucial not to move around or prod or disturb the meat while you’re cooking it: you’re disturbing a natural process. The meat will tell you when it’s properly done, if you let it.
- Once you’ve flipped the steak, wait again until it’s nicely done on both sides.
- If your pan is hot enough and if you’ve waited the right amount of time, your steak will be an impossibly beautiful, crispy brown on the outside — and still raw, maybe even cold, inside. But again — meat doesn’t like extremes of temperature.
So what you do now is that you store it in between two plates (one upturned). The top plate shouldn’t touch the meat, but suffice to keep the warmth stored around it. (The esteemable @Winterpool points out you can do this with tinfoil as well.) If you wait just a few minutes, just the residual heat of the steak will warm and slightly cook the inside. Equally important, it will leave time for the meat scarred by the extreme heat to, again, relax and really release its flavor. If you wait a little longer, it will be medium cooked. If you wait too long, it will be cold (but still delicious).
See? There’s nothing complicated here.
But it does require understanding just quite what you’re dealing with. When you’re cooking, you’re dealing with life. You’re also dealing with physics and chemistry and history. It’s really a gateway to tons of wonderful things. That’s how it should be approached.
And most importantly: have fun and enjoy.
When to add salt and pepper. Again, first principles. Salt is a hydrophile. So when you salt a meat, you will draw out the blood, which is where most of the flavor is. (The fat, meanwhile, enhances and carries the flavor — wagyu beef, pictured above, which is thought by connoisseurs to be the most flavorful, is also the most fatty. Sorry fitness freaks!)
That gives you your answer. If and only if you plan to use the pan to deglaze and make a sauce to serve with the steak, should you salt the meat before cooking it, as that will draw out some of that meaty flavor to the pan. If not, you should add salt and pepper before serving, or leave it up to your guests.
Choosing meat. This isn’t directly related to cooking it, but it’s a common mistake and a pet peeve of mine: good meat is aged. I’ve been invited to dinner with people who brag about having bought the “freshest possible” piece of meat, which is exactly backwards.
Good red meat is at least two weeks old, sometimes three, sometimes even a month for a large piece. It shouldn’t be a bright red, but a deep, dark one, and even brown around the edges.
Another rule of thumb for choosing a piece of meat: as stated above, fat is directly correlated with the flavor of the meat. You’re looking for a piece of meat which is, in the French expression, persillé, meaning laced with streaks of white fat, like marble. Most beef doesn’t have the amount of that beautiful piece of wagyu above, but it should still have a fair amount.
But the real rule of thumb should be to find a butcher who is a real artisan and to trust her. Good butchers know their meat and will guide you.
A corollary to the above pointer about aged meat is that you should order good pieces of meat some time in advance with your butcher, because she will have the best means to age meat, especially fridges at the optimal temperature. If you age meat in your own fridge, which is certainly possible, a big pointer is to store it in an airtight container on some sort of drain. What makes meat rot and go bad is if it’s sitting around in its blood. If you watch out for that you should be fine.
That should cover it.
Again: have fun and enjoy.
(Creative Commons photo by Flickr user powerplantop)