Despite the mighty steak being one of the most purchased items in a butcher shop, a surprising number of people still tense up when it comes to the cook. To be fair, it’s easy to mess it up, and considering the get-it-right-or-go-home type scenario it presents, like cooking for 2 on a date night for example, I can see why a person’s heart rate rises when their date asks for 1.5 inch steak medium-rare. What does that even mean?
Below I’ll discuss 5 different ways to cook your steak. Some methods are more suited to different types of steaks, and I’ll explain that, but it’s worth trying all of them to see which works best for you. I’ll start by saying that after a bit of practice you'll start to have a good idea when you're steak is done to your preference but if you're new to the steak world, or just aren't sure, like most things, science is on your side. All you need is your trusty thermometer probe (What? You don’t have one? Go and buy one after reading this) and you will be guaranteed to produce hot-date or even Friday-night-by-myself steaks any time you desire.
A matter of preference or principle?
The chart at the end of this post explains what the core temp of your steak should be for your desired outcome. If probing in the pan/oven or grill, take it off 5 degrees before you reach your target temperature as it’ll continue cooking a touch during the resting stage. That brings me nicely on to the, er, resting stage. When I was a nipper I was always jumping straight in, eager to taste what juicy steak I’d just either ruined or absolutely aced in the pan. I knew about resting but didn’t want it getting cold etc so only ever gave it a minute at most. I was wrong.
Resting is key for anything that’s just been exposed to temperatures hotter than a warm day in Nevada. That includes steaks, chicken, rib roasts, lamb and pork joints, you get the idea. The protein fibres tense up in the cooking and unwind when you reduce the heat, so resting afterwards allows the meat to relax and soften up. If you’re concerned when you see the juices emerging from your cut, don’t fret, relax like your meat and be safe in the knowledge that they will be absorbed back in to the meat if left long enough. Recent edit: I recently read a book called Meathead, which uses a lot of science to confirm or deny a few meat and cooking conventions. He says the resting thing makes no difference after they tested it in a lab… Let me know if you have any thoughts on that.
Lastly, one more shout out to science. There’s a little thing called the Maillard reaction that plays a bit part in a lot of things you and I cook and eat. The Maillard reaction is the accumulation of many, simultaneous chemical reactions that occur when proteins and sugars in and on your food are transformed by heat, producing new flavors, aromas, and colours. Think the char of steak, the brown on toast, the crispy edges of roast potatoes, even cookies and beer are affected. It’s basically the foundation of cooking anything: cooking (applying heat) is transforming the molecular construct of the raw material into something more palatable and safe to eat. It’s why a raw spud is not so nice and a roasted one is a beautiful delicious thing. The protein and sugar reactions have created wonderous new flavours. So with steak, you’ll optimize the conditions for the Maillard reaction by patting it dry before seasoning, a dry steak in a hot pan: good things happening.
With all the methods, season the steak well just before cooking and apply a light coat of oil if desired, see more on this, more on the above and other general mistakes to avoid in the next post Classic Mis-Steaks.
Raw Potato? No thanks.
The Classic – First up, the classic method, which is cooking in a frying or griddle pan. If you have a griddle pan, use that, for two reasons: First, the steak cooks above the fat that renders out of it, meaning it’ll be less greasy, and second, you get those lovely char marks from the ridges (Maillard reaction). You can still brown the steak with a flatbed pan but it just won’t be in lines, that’s all. Heat the pan so it’s almost smoking, then turn heat down to medium. Throw the steak on and don’t move it for about half your total cooking time. Then flip it over and again, leave it. When you think you’re nearly there, gently probe the side of the steak to check temp and rest if ready, continue cooking if not (temperature guide at the end of post). You can either rest it uncovered or cover with foil. Covering with foil traps the heat and steam inside which I don’t mind, especially as I tend to do a very high heat char and rare in the middle, a little extra cooking won’t hurt. If you’ve cooked it well done though, I’d say leave it uncovered, otherwise you’ll be venturing into overcooked territory.
The 30 Second Rule – I saw this years ago in England by a chef called Heston Blumenthal. It hasn’t gained worldwide recognition but I’ve included it in case you want to try something different. It’s basically the same as above, but you flip the steak (with tongs, don’t be stabbing it with a fork) every 30 seconds until the steak is how you like it. The idea is that the heat from below pushes the moisture up to the top and by constantly flipping it you lock that moisture into the middle. I thought it worked great, but anytime I’ve tried it there could have been other factors that could have affected the outcome, quality of steak, exact temperature of pan, how quick I was to turn, and total time on the heat. I welcome any comments on your results if you try it. I would say lastly to use a timer on your phone, you’ll be surprised at how quickly those 30 seconds roll by.
The Fire – This is a variation on the classic methods above, best suited for regular steaks, especially if you like them rare to medium-rare. Basically you jump start the Maillard reaction with actual fire, usually on a grill which means you get that wonderful charred taste and professional looking char lines on the steak. Basically, same as the classic, except, you’re doing it on open flame. If you prefer it done medium and up, try direct flame for the sear and just off for the rest of the cook, unless you like it really burnt on the outside. Another good idea if hosting, for example, slow-cook a tomahawk steak or rib of beef, then bring her out before serving to finish on the fire (an example of the reverse sear below). You’ll be an absolute hero.
The Oven – For fans of thicker steaks, medium done and up, and those who aren’t fussed about having a seared or charred broiled flavour. You can also sear it first to get some of that browning but then you might as well see below. If you’ve got something a bit thicker than normal, season well and sear for 20 seconds each side if preferred, then pop in the oven at 325°F for about 10-15 minutes, or until the probe shows you what you want to see. It’s technically roasting the steak, so you benefit from an even cook, and it’s handy if you want to add a bit of rosemary or some other herb you prefer to the side.
The Reverse Sear – Last but not least is actually one of my favourites and probably deserves its own blog post. It is best suited to thicker steaks or ribs of beef but can also work with thinner individual steaks. It can be done well two ways, via sous vide, or a low-temp oven. Basically the idea is you do all the sneaky behind the scenes cooking before the searing/Maillard stage which is reversed to the end stage. Sous vide (under vacuum) in French is a low temperature cooking method used in homes and restaurants around the world. Its normally the reason why you can order a 7-hour cooked lamb shank in a restaurant and get it in front of you 25 minutes later. You simply vacuum seal the meat and place in a controlled low-temperature water bath for hours until it is technically cooked but not finished or browned. If you have a sous vide water bath at home we can gladly vacuum seal the meat for you if you don’t have your own sealer. The oven method is similar to the slow-cook method I discuss HERE. Set the oven really low and gently bring the steak up to temperature, the same as you would have set the water bath, 140°F for medium-rare for example. After either approach above, get that pan nice and hot, season steak if you haven’t already, then blast in the pan both sides for seconds until desired searing has occurred. Two things about this method, you have great control over the temperature, so it’s harder to mess up, and the pre-cooking, especially in the oven, dries the surface of the meat so the browning is even easier. Also works amazingly well with any rib roast, lamb joint or pork joint (if you don’t want crackling).
There you have it, if you made it to the end, well done (pun intended). These are obviously my methods and I truly welcome (constructive) critique or if you have a different way of doing things. Feel free to write a post on it if you do and I’ll put that on here too. Speak soon.