There are countless recipe book entries and web-pages promising to reveal the secret for cooking the perfect steak. Most involve complicated preparations and procedures and generally repeat certain ‘wisdoms’ which, for the most part, are largely nonsense. In my experience, most seasoning and ‘special’ techniques are mere window-dressing and, really, all that is required for a great result is choosing a good cut and avoiding over-cooking.
I love to barbecue but, often, pan-frying is the only practical method available. Some people pooh-pooh this as an appropriate cooking method for steak at any time, while others grudgingly suggest it may be okay for lesser cuts. In truth, however, as long as you are careful, you can begin with a pricey, top-quality piece of beef and produce some excellent results just using a pan…
A bone-in Rib-eye is my favorite cut but my local store had some nice thick T-bones on special and I picked one up for my supper. This one is about 1 ½ inches, or 3cm thick, which is a good thickness for grilling or pan-frying. If much below an inch in thickness, it is harder to achieve the lesser degrees of ‘doneness’.
As you can see, I have slashed through the edge fat in a couple places. This is very important and it is necessary to actually cut just a little way into the meat. The idea here is to cut through not just the fat but also the underlying fibrous muscle fascia so as to prevent the steak from curling as it cooks.
Good quality steak requires very little in the way of seasoning other than salt and, perhaps, just a little pepper. Other spices are fine but, though you can be liberal with the salt, be very sparing with anything else. A teaspoon of salt for each pound of meat is about right but I rub extra into the bone and fat. I don’t use pepper, myself, and I often use garlic salt for just a touch of background flavor. As for marinating in very aromatic, acidic liquids, this is really only appropriate with very tough cuts, in my view. With a good quality, nicely marbled steak, my advice is to never do it…
When to Salt? … There is a lot of disagreement on this point. Some say a steak should be salted just before cooking, and other insist that the salt be sprinkled into the pan, not onto the steak. For me, I have found the best results come with salting and then letting the meat rest for a good while. Ideally, about an hour after you have salted, you should pat the steak dry with paper towels (and do the same for whatever pan or dish it is sitting in). Afterwards, let it sit in the fridge until the surface has formed a tacky ‘pellicle’. Turn the steak a few times so that both sides dry and become tacky the same way. You can leave the steak for up to two days and, the longer you go, the darker, and more purple, the meat will become. A two day pellicle can really make for a nicely cooked surface but it’s by no means absolutely necessary if time is an issue.
A cast-iron pan is about the best for cooking a steak as it holds and distributes the heat nicely. You want to be liberal with oil and cook over a moderately high heat. Generally, the oil is ready for cooking when it begins to ‘shimmer’ in the pan.
One little nugget of traditional ‘wisdom’ is that you should allow steaks to come to room temperature before cooking. After years of cooking steak, I am pretty much of the opinion that there is no compelling reason to do this. Indeed, at several restaurants where I had cooing jobs (back in a past life), we used to put steaks on the gill that were straight out of the freezer, generally with fine results. I’m not advocating that, by any means, but you can quite confidently go ahead and cook your steak right after taking it from the fridge.
I always begin by frying (or grilling) the bone first. This is not so much critical on a T-bone but makes a difference on other cuts (a bone-in rib-eye, for instance) where the bone has a membranous covering and a line of fat. The initial grilling greatly improves the experience of gnawing on the salty bone after you’ve eaten the meat (and I even do this in upscale steak-houses, I must confess).
After the bone, I like to cook the edge fat until it is done all the way through and nicely crispy. Even if you don’t like to eat the fat, don’t trim it off before cooking… Instead, cook it as above and then cut it away on your plate. The fat adds to the flavor of the meat as it cooks in a big way.
Another of those ‘old-wife’s’ tales about cooking steak is that you should only turn once during the cooking time. For years, I followed this ‘rule’ religiously but I have since been convinced that turning the steak repeatedly with short cooking on each side results in a better result and makes it easier to judge when the right degree of doneness has been achieved.
As a general rule, I cook the steak for a minute and a half, or so, on each side and then for only a minute or so on subsequent ‘turns’. The number of turns will depend on the thickness of the steak and the desired degree of doneness, but about 4, through 6 or even 8, is about right. Above, you see the steak after the first turn.
A certain amount of smoke is almost inevitable (unless you really use a lot of oil). A bit of smoking is good actually but if you use just a smear of oil, or none at all, then, unless you have a restaurant grade fume-hood, you will likely set off every smoke detector in the house and choke yourself in the bargain. I’ve done this on many occasions and now I use a good few glugs of oil in the bottom of the pan.
Here the steak is ready to come out of the pan, which of course begs the question… How do you know when it is done?
Basically, a steak that is rare will still feel as soft as raw when you press it with your finger and will be completely firm when it is well-done. As with most aficionados, however, I am of the view that anything beyond medium is overdone and I prefer mine medium rare. At this point, a steak will start to firm up a little but will have a bouncy, spring feel to it.
Again, the length of time and number of turns will depend on the thickness of the steak and the heat of the pan. As a novice, you can, of course, cut into the meat with a knife to see how things are going but you really should avoid this as it lets precious juice escape and spoils the appearance. Once you follow the above steps a few times, you will find that you get a feel for when it is done the way you like it.
In any event, once steaks come from the pan (or the grill) you should always let them rest for 5 minutes or so before serving as this allows the juices to distribute evenly and causes the meat fibers to relax for a more tender result.
And here is my steak after I cut the first bite… I must confess that it is just a shade closer to medium than the juicier medium-rare I prefer but, in my defense, I have to plead a certain slowness due to fiddling with my camera. I usually take 6 or 8 pictures for every one that gets included in a blog post and this often is a bit of a problem during the cooking process.
Anyway … that’s my two cent’s worth on the subject…