I’ve written before that men are supposed to be able to cook meat, and that not being able to cook a burger is, in some circles, the equivalent of wearing a t-shirt with “I’m impotent” printed on it.
With steaks though, it’s different. If you’re a guy, the good news is that not being able to cook a steak doesn’t warrant one of those shirts. The bad news is that people get the impression that you might as well wear one that says “I’m actually a chick.” And don’t hate me here, I’m just the messenger. No one said it was fair that guys unable to properly cook meats fall to the bottom of the “attractive to women” scale – that’s evolution, and you can’t fight evolution.
So in backyards across this America, be it in fruited plains or near the purple mountains majesty, you’ll find thousands of men faking it every day (and their wives faking it every night), simply because they believe the y chromosome imparts a mystical meat-cooking skillset. It doesn’t.
Instead, it seems to give us an awful lot of guys good at standing around grills drinking bad imported beer, talking about team sports and what they’d like to do to that hot new secretary at work because their wives are “kinda bitchy lately.”
The results of these backyard meat-torture sessions are about what you’d expect: a high proportion of overcooked slabs of cow-disaster that you’d feel justified sending back at a Sizzler.
Still though, no one seems to want to ask for help and find out how to do the steak thing right, and so everyone thinks it’s all about just tossing it on a grill. Maybe with some hideous garlic powder on the meat. Which is probably why my mother-in-law looked a little panicked the other day after bringing by a stack of hugely fat steaks.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“I’m getting ready to cook these fat-boys,” I said.
“Then why are you preheating an oven?” she asked. “Are you aware that you’ve got a perfectly nice grill right outside?”
I was aware, but I travel a different path. And it totally works, so it’s time for some steak-cooking tips.
Assuming you’re interested cooking something close to steakhouse-quality, you may not want to know this: those kitchens can generate crazy heat levels that your Magic Chef or Weber won’t come close to, and that has a huge influence on the end product. But here’s the good news: with some solid technique, I you may never again feel the need to drop $53 for a steak at one of those places unless it’s on your bosses tab.
Get a good cut. As in the case of hamburgers, the cut is key. So to make things easy, I’ll lay out the four basic king cuts: Rib-Eye, T-Bone, Porterhouse, and NY Strip. Select one, or better yet have Sam the Butcher cut you one, that’s between 1 and 1 ½” thick and well-marbled. If you’re in a supermarket, you’re probably limited to USDA Choice, which should be fine. USDA Prime is more tender and has better marbling, but it can be tough to find, and the meat industry’s dirty secret is that not all Prime is created equal. The very best Prime goes to the very best customers (that’d be the steakhouses), so it’s tough to know if the additional dosh is worth spending. For me, unless I know the butcher, Choice is fine.
Prep the meat. This is as simple as it is critical. First thing is to let the steak warm up a bit before cooking it, to close to room temperature if you have the time. This not only aids in even cooking, but will help ensure a hearty Maillard reaction (think caramelization, but with the amino acids in the meat). Now that it’s warm, season both side liberally with a dose of salt and, if your boat so floats, fresh ground pepper.
Summon the heat. Big heat is important. It sears the meat, it causes the Maillard reaction, and it makes lots fragrant smoke and impressive sizzling noises. So while cooking a steak on an outdoor grill is just fine, sometimes it’s easier to generate mega-heat by preheating a pan on the stove for six or eight days (five minutes will do in a pinch –also, throwing it in a preheated oven can work nicely).
If you’ve got the ability to get your grill dangerously hot, go ahead and use it; just preheat the hell out of it with the top down – peg the little thermometer past 550 degrees before hitting it with meat. Whichever way you want to start things out though, preheat your oven to 450 now, and if you’re opening on the grill toss an empty pan in that oven to preheat it. You’ll want it for finishing.
Get the butter (Apologies to Marlon Brando). You can either add it to the pan, or brush it on the steak directly (which is what you’ll do on a grill, of course). You do want to use either clarified butter or a canola/butter blend in order to get the smoke point up. Yes, you can use olive too, but keep in mind that standard works better than virgin (the meat gods like slutty oils – and the smoke point is lower on virgin olive oil). What you don’t want to use is nothing.
Sear it. Once your grill is hot enough to keep children at bay just from the visible heat waves pouring off if it, go ahead and put your steak on the heat. What you want here is to give it a mighty crust; assuming your pan or grill is hot enough, 45 to 60 seconds per side ought to do it. Longer than that may mean you needed to preheat longer – make a note. If you’ve got the butter for it (and you’re working the pan method) feel free to baste it the entire time you’re searing it. Flip it once.
Oven-finish it. Here’s the part that freaked my mother-in-law out: put your steak in the oven (in a pan!) to finish it (go ahead and dump excess butter from the pan first). If you seared it on the stove, just chuck that pan in – if you seared in on the grill, use the pan you preheated in the oven. Depending on thickness, I’ll work with a baseline of about two or three minutes per side in the oven. Someday, you (and I) will be able to tell by touching it if it’s ready, but until then go with an instant read thermometer.
It’s been through a lot, so let it rest. Take your steak out of the oven when it reaches a temperature of approximately five or 10 degrees below your final target temp, then put it on a cutting board to rest. Gaze at it all you wish, point at it and tell your family how much you rock, but don’t you dare cut it open. You want the meat to finish cooking and the juice to evenly distribute throughout the steak, and cutting it destroys the process.
Temperatures are personal choice, but use these to start: rare: 120, med-rare: 125–130, medium 135. Remember, you want to pull them when they’re five or ten degrees below those I’ve just listed. And, as always, the response to a guest requesting well done is simply, “I’m afraid you’ll have to go now. Leave the beer.”
Feeling saucy, Bernaise? I go simple with steak sauce. As in: none. But you do have the opportunity to make one while the meat rests by deglazing the pan you cooked the steak in with some red wine, then adding whatever you think might work in the seasonings department. Except for powdered garlic, you Cretin.
Don’t just look at it, eat it. I know it’s a glorious site, but it’s time to serve it up. Please do not defile the plate with a store-bough steak sauce.
There are other ways to cook steaks of course, but this is the technique that I used under the doubtful gaze of my panicky mother-in-law. Who took a bite and said “I’m not kidding you, Brad: this is the best steak I’ve ever had in my life.” So I’ll stick with my way. For now.