|Steak with Chimichurri Sauce - recipe in post|
When I first set out to write informative blog posts, my hope was to tackle some of the things I don't know a whole lot about and learn something new myself. Well, this week I accomplished just that.
I'm not vegan or vegetarian, but I don't cook meat very often, especially steak. Don't get me wrong, I love me some steak! But I'm a firm believer in moderation when it comes to something so rich, and I find that the rarer the occasion the more special it is. When I'm going to eat red meat, I want to make it count! I go out and track down the freshest, grass-fed, locally-grown hunk of cow I can find... because even if I weren't terrified by the current state of the meat industry, the difference in flavor is undeniable. Trust me on this one, it's worth every penny!
Now, I'm no expert on cooking steak... which is exactly why I'm writing this post. When I decided it was steak for dinner, I went out and researched as much as I could on the subject. Let me tell you, there is a lot of debate about the "right way" to cook a piece of meat! Fortunately for you, I've done my best to compile some of the tips and tricks that have helped me the most, and talk a little about the why they work.
(At the bottom of the post you'll find the recipe for steak and chimichurri - if you're pretty confident in your steak skills, feel free to skip ahead.)
It's FAK Friday (Feeding my Appetite for Knowledge), and this is meat week! I've put together a list of all the best tips and tricks I could find on how to cook the perfect steak, along with some explanations about why they work. I've done my best to accommodate different views on how it should be done, but forgive me if I've missed something. If you have any favorite steak-cooking tips, please share them in the comments below!
12 Tips For The Perfect Steak
There are a lot of different methods for cooking steak, from the oven, to the stove top, to the grill, and beyond. Most of these tips apply across all methods, but some of them are geared specifically towards pan-searing, such as getting the pan hot, oiling, etc.. If you're cooking in the oven, be sure to preheat well ahead of time so it's nice and hot when you're ready to cook.
1. Pick and Choose - buy the best quality meat you can afford. In the US, steak is graded as "prime" (best), "choice" (second best), and "select" (this grade is considered less desirable). If you have a local butcher or meat vendor that sells organic, local, or pasture raised meats, buy that. It will be a little more expensive, but the difference in quality and flavor is well worth it.
When buying a piece of meat, try to look for a light pink color (not dark red, but also not brown or grey). The strands of white fat running throughout the meat is called marbling, and this is what will produce a tender, flavorful piece of meat. Besides grades of meat, there are also different cuts to choose from. Some of the 'premium' cuts are NY Strip Steak, Ribeye, or Filet Mignon (the most tender, but also most expensive). Leaner cuts like Sirloin or Flank Steak are a little more prone to be tough, but can still be excellent in flavor. When buying a steak, you should also consider the thickness of the cut. Going with something between 1-2 inches thick is a good rule of thumb for starters. Much thinner and it may become over-cooked too quickly, much thicker and it will be hard to cook through to the center without over-cooking the outside. For this post I've chosen a piece of Ribeye, about 1 1/2 inches thick.
2. Patience - let the meat come to room temperature before cooking it! This is one of the most important steps, no matter what steak or cooking method you use. If the meat is cold when it hits the heat, it will shrink-up and become tough. It will also cook much more quickly on the outside than the inside, leaving you with a well-done exterior and a raw interior. Take the meat out of the fridge at least 40-50 minutes before you plan to cook it, or longer if your kitchen is particularly cool.
3. Pat Down - pat the meat dry with a paper towel before cooking it. Moisture on the exterior of the meat will turn into steam in the pan, oven, or on the grill, and prevent the steak from getting a nice brown crust. Color means flavor, and steamed meat is grey. Do you want to taste grey? I didn't think so.
4. Seasoning - there's a lot of debate over when to season your meat. Should you season in advance, and if so, how far in advance? Or should it be done immediately before cooking? Or should it not be done at all?! Okay, let's not get too carried away, here. There's a simple answer.
The source of most debate lies in whether to salt the meat just before adding it to the pan, or adding the salt at an earlier time. Here's how it works: if you salt the steak immediately prior to cooking it, the salt will sit on the outside of the steak and help create a nice flavorful crust. If you salt it five or ten minutes before cooking (or fifteen or twenty or thirty minutes before cooking), the salt will draw some of the moisture out of the meat, and your steak will not sear properly (see tip #3). If you salt your meat a good fifty-sixty minutes prior to cooking, the salt will draw some of the moisture to the surface, and then those juices will dissolve the salt and re-absorb into the meat, creating a flavorful, tender steak. All of this is to say, add the salt right before cooking, or add it well in advance, but not sometime in between. If you want to use other seasonings, like a spice rub, add them to your meat just prior to cooking. I prefer not to use pepper on my steak when pan-searing, because pepper can burn at very high temperatures. To marinade or not to marinade is up to you, just remember to dry the steak thoroughly before salting and cooking it.
5. Get Your Pan Hot - let your pan heat-up over medium-high to high heat (this will depend on your stove-top) for at least a minute or two before adding your steak. Unfortunately there's no clear-cut way to tell you how to do this, because every cooktop is different. Use a heavy-bottomed skillet (I like my cast-iron for this) so that the heat will be evenly distributed and the pan won't cool down too much once the steak is added. Do not use non-stick, as most non-stick pans aren't designed to withstand such high temperatures, and will also keep you from getting a good crust. Do not add any oil to the pan while it is heating up, always add oil once the pan is just about up to temp. I prefer to rub a little oil on the steak itself and leave the pan dry, but this is up to you. You don't need much to keep it from sticking, trust me.
6. Oiling - when it comes to oiling the pan, you might be wondering if you should use oil or butter. To get a good sear, steaks have to be cooked at very high temperatures, so oil is best (butter will burn). That doesn't mean you can't add a bit of butter towards the end for the flavor, though (see tip #9). If you're going to add oil to the pan, do it after the pan has pre-heated. Oil that sits in a pan and is exposed to the heat longer will break down faster, and smoke more readily. Your pan should be very hot, so if you're using olive oil it may smoke a little... in this case, that's okay. If you can get your pan super-hot, however, you might want to use a neutral flavored oil with a higher smoke point, such as corn, vegetable, or safflower.
Instead of adding it directly to the pan, I prefer to rub my steak with a little oil prior to cooking it, especially if I plan to season the steak right before adding it to the pan (see tip #4) because it helps the seasoning to stick to the meat.
7. Doneness - how do you like your steak? According to the beef council, red meats should be cooked to at least 140° Fahrenheit all the way through, which is a pretty well done piece of meat! If you like your steak rare, it should reach an internal temperature of around 125°f. Medium-rare is 130°f, medium is 135°f, and medium-well is 140°f. Keep in mind that after the steak is done cooking and allowed to rest, it will continue to raise in temperature as much as five degrees, so you should remove your steak from the heat before it reaches the desired temperature.
When it comes to beef, the worrisome bacteria should only be on the outside of the meat (unless your steak has been punctured by some careless butcher, or if you're using ground beef). How you cook your steak is entirely up to you, but if you've done a good job buying a piece of fresh, quality meat, you should have nothing to worry about.
To test the temperature of your steak, insert an instant-read thermometer, or a digital meat thermometer, into the center of the thickest part of the steak. Be careful not to go through the steak, or touch the thermometer against a bone or pocket of fat.
There is also another way to check the doneness of your steak which professionals use called the finger test, by which you gently touch your thumb and forefinger together, and with your other hand press on your palm near the base of the thumb. The amount of resistance you feel is approximately how firm a medium-rare steak should feel. Touch your thumb to your middle finger, or your ring finger, or your pinky, and you will feel the amount of resistance produced by a medium, medium-well, and well-done steak, respectively. I find that this is a fairly finicky way of doing things, because there are simply too many variables, and your steak will feel different based on how much fat or how thick a crust it has in any particular spot. I say stick with a thermometer, at least until you become more familiar with what to look for.
The time it takes your steak to cook will vary considerably depending on the cut of meat, how thick it is, and how you like it done. Keep in mind if you're cooking a piece of beef with the bone-in, it will take a little longer. The bone will heat slower, and therefore the meat closest to the bone will take longer to come up to temp.
8. Don't Fiddle - when your steak touches the pan, it should sizzle. A lot. Press it down gently into the pan to be sure it's making full-contact with he heat, and then leave it. Don't jiggle the pan, don't move it around, and don't flip it. Just let it cook, and I promise you it won't stick. As the exterior of the meat caramelizes, the parts that stick at first will release all on their own. Leave it be for at least 30 seconds to 1 minute before giving it a peak to see how the browning is coming along.
There are two ways to go about this - the two-flip method, and the many-flip method. I like the two flip method, which says to cook the steak on one side until it is thoroughly browned, then flip it once and cook on the opposite side until done. I find this creates a nice crust. The many-flip method says to flip the steak every minute or so to cook it more evenly, but frankly I've never had a problem with the two-flip method and prefer not to fiddle with things.
If your cut of meat has a band of fat along the outer edge, use a pair of tongs to hold the meat up and sear that fatty edge to crisp it up before removing the steak from the pan.
9. A Restaurant Secret - almost all restaurants do this one, and it gives the steak a little added richness and nuttiness. When your meat is almost done searing, add a pat of butter to the pan. As the butter melts, tip the pan to one side and use a spoon to baste the meat with the fat in the pan. Once you remove the meat to a plate or cutting board, drizzle some of the pan juices over the top to be re-absorbed as the meat cools.
Another quick restaurant tip - warm the plates you plan to serve on in the oven for a moment, this way the food will stay nice and warm all the way to the table. Of course, I'd warn against putting any fancy china in there, and be careful that your plates don't get too hot to handle!
10. Give It A Rest! - Whenever you cook a piece of meat (any meat, really) take it out of the pan, set it on a plate or a cutting board, and let it rest for at least 10-15 minutes. If you'd like you can cover it with a piece of foil to keep the heat in. Why the rest period? Well, when the meat is cooking, the muscle fibers tighten up and literally squeeze out all of their juices. As the meat cools and rests, those fibers will relax, open up, and re-absorb the liquid they released, and therefore hold on to a lot more flavor and moisture. If you cut the meat too soon, all those wonderful juices will run out onto your cutting board, and you'll wind up with a dry, tough, not very tasty steak. The cutting board will be pretty appetizing, though!
11. Slice Against The Grain - when you slice your steak (or any cut of meat at all) always slice it against the grain. If you look at a piece of meat, you will notice that all of the muscle fibers tend to run in one direction, just like the grain you can see in wood. If you cut in the same direction that the muscles run, your teeth are going to have a mighty hard time gnawing through those very strong bands of muscle (think about it, this was once a huge animal!). If you slice against the grain with a nice sharp knife, you create short, easy to chew fibers that pull away from one another very easily. Nice and tender!
Tip: while the steak is resting, why not make turn those flavorful juices and browned bits into a pan sauce? Try adding some stock and wine to the pot, along with any drippings that may accumulate while the meat is resting, and reduce the liquid over medium heat until thickened to coat the back of a spoon. Delicious!
12. Practice Makes Perfect! - We've all heard that cooking is a science, but it is a variable one to say the least. The results will depend on everything from the temperature and quality of the ingredients, to the equipment you use to prepare them. The best way to get good at a dish is to cook it over and over, and to know your stove/oven/pans. Try to be consistent, and before long you'll be a pro!
Recipe Notes: Chimichurri is a traditional sauce from Argentina. It is a versatile condiment, as common to Argentinians as ketchup is to us. It is used most often on grilled meats, but can be treated like a pesto and tossed with pasta, lathered on crostini, or spread on a sandwich. It is traditionally composed of parsley, oregano, garlic, olive oil, and vinegar. Variations include the addition of cilantro, basil, or other fresh herbs. I've taken the liberty to swap the vinegar for lime juice, which I quite like. I've chosen to use roasted garlic in this recipe, but you can use raw if you prefer. You can find my step-by-step tutorial on how to roast garlic here: how to roast garlic - a rose by any other name.
Makes about 1 1/2 cups
2 cups tightly packed flat leaf parsley, stems removed
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh oregano
1 bulb roasted garlic (or 4-5 cloves raw)
juice of 1 lime (or about 2-3 TBSP white wine vinegar)
1/2-1 tsp. kosher salt, or to taste
1/4-1/2 tsp. fresh cracked black pepper, or to taste
1/4-1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes, or to taste
3/4-1 cup good quality olive oil
1. Pulse the parsley in a food processor. Add in the oregano, garlic, lime juice, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes, and pulse to combine. While blending, drizzle in the olive oil.
2. Stop to scrape down the sides, and give it a taste. Adjust the seasoning to taste, and pulse a few more times.
3. Sauce can be used immediately, or left to rest for a couple hours for the flavors to mingle. It's great the next day. Store in a jar or other airtight container in the fridge for up to a few days, or freeze the sauce in an ice-cube tray for later use.
1 lb. ribeye steak, about 1 1/2 inches thick, without bone
olive oil, or other cooking oil
1. Remove the steak from the fridge and let it come to room temperature for at least 40-50 minutes. Do not skip this step!
2. Once the steak is ready, set a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high to high heat, and let it heat up for a minute or so. Meanwhile, drizzle your steak with about 1-2 TBSP olive oil, and rub it all over. Sprinkle a big pinch of kosher salt over the steak, press the salt in a little, and then repeat on the other side.
3. Lay the steak into the hot pan - it should sizzle loudly. Use your fingers to press the meat gently into the pan, and make sure it's making good contact all over. Do not try to move the meat around or shake the pan. Let cook for 4-5 minutes, or until a nice brown crust has formed on the underside.
4. Using a pair of tongs, flip the steak over and let it cook for another 4-5 minutes. This time is approximate, and for me produced a nice medium-rare steak, but the amount of time will vary depending on your pan, stove-top, and piece of meat. After a couple minutes on the second side, insert a meat-thermometer into the center of the thickest part of the meat (be careful not to poke into a bone or pocket of fat) to check the temperature. If you want your steak rare, look for 120°f. Medium-rare, 125°f. Medium, 130°f. Medium-well, 135°f. Well, 140°f. This is the temperature at which you want to remove the meat from the pan - it will continue to cook while it rests, and will raise in temperature about five degrees, taking it to the right doneness.
5. Before removing the steak from the pan, use a pair of tongs to hold it on-edge and sear the band of fat along the side until browned.
6. Remove the steak to a plate or cutting board, and cover loosely with a piece of foil. Let it rest for at least 10-15 minutes before slicing. Do not skip this step!
7. Serve the steak whole, or slice against-the-grain and serve with chimichurri sauce, or just as it is (that's always good, too!).