Call me base and elemental but out of all the necessary dishes to master, being able to cook a steak and to cook it well, features highly on my list. Perhaps higher than honing your ability to make a crispy bacon sandwich. Or say, to construct a decent roast dinner. Of course, there are pitfalls along the way to achieving steak nirvana and I have endured many. An urgent need after some liberal Friday night refreshment, has led to a handsome ribeye being thrust out of the fridge and straight into a pan, equally cold. The poor marbling of glorious fat that ran through it didn’t even get the chance to melt. Which in turn, led to the chewiest experience of my life. Not good. Especially at 1AM. But you live and learn. And there are worse things you could do to a steak, like trying to flash it in a toaster. I mean, who would do that sort of thing?
Saying that, what does constitute as the best method to cook steak anyway? Tomes have been dedicated to the art and the internet itself offers a wealth of information. However, it can all get rather busy and confusing. Furthermore, I have born witness to some horrific videos on YouTube. I still get the shudders after watching an overlong demonstration on ‘How to cook a New York Strip Steak’ that battered some slices of short loin into grey submission. My veritable stubby fingers could not cover my eyes fast enough.
It’s a minefield in other words. But after doing some extensive research, I would like to share with you some good house rules; that should at the very least, deliver a steak that is juicy, tasty and perhaps, almost perfect. Actually, let’s drop the p-word in this instance, as other factors may play a part (like late night cooking, ahem).
If you can get into a certain ‘steak of mind’ though, then you might just reach that nirvana.
TYPE OF STEAK
It goes without saying that the choice of steak has become massive these days, with more and more cuts making it from the board and across the counter. Ribeye, sirloin and rump are all firm favourites but an extended range now also gives us the choice of Butler’s steaks, onglet and Seven bone. Not forgetting the introduction of Galician steak, using cuts from beef that are older (up to 15 years) and therefore a lot deeper in flavour. One core principle remains with all steak though, it is good to be aware of the fat content. Lean and thin steak benefits from fast cooking, whereas heavily marbled slabs of meat deserve just a bit more time, so that the fat renders down and helps to baste the steak.
BRINGING TO ROOM TEMPERATURE
One commonly forgotten factor when preparing steak is the necessity to bring the meat up to room temperature, or ‘tempering’ as it is known in the trade. A cold steak will take everything out of your control and plunge you into the unknown. So, after taking from the fridge, you should allow at least 30 minutes or more on the side for it to warm up, depending on the thickness of the steak. Not forgetting to cover with kitchen towel and leave in a secure place. For fear of buzzing creatures or roaming pets.
As I have already alluded, there are a whole range of seasoning methods and recipes out there and I for one like to keep an open mind. When it comes to some of the more robust cuts, like bavette, I am fond of going so far as to marinating beforehand. With some red wine, herbs and a squeeze of citrus, to help break down the fibres a touch and to get the party started. But saying that, nothing quite beats a healthy sprinkling of good ol’ fashioned salt and pepper. Go for seasoning just before cooking though, as the salt can draw out excess moisture. And use sea salt flakes, rather than the table variety. It is just too harsh.
SOURCE OF HEAT
By and large, many of us will simply approach the hob to fry our steak off in a hot pan but it is worth considering other fiery routes, such as cooking over charcoal or wood, to impart some smoky flavour. If you are feeling particularly adventurous, you could go ‘dirty’ and slap a steak straight onto smouldering coals. And a fine cheats method is low-temperature cooking, where you very quickly sear the steak and then place it in an oven set at 80°C, speared by a meat thermometer. Once the internal temperature reaches between 55°C and 60°C (for medium-rare) the steak is good to go. Great for keeping a cool head at dinner parties but the important point throughout is to get a decent crust first, from that all important Maillard reaction.
TOUCH VS PROBING
Having mentioned temperatures and probes already, you can keep an eye on proceedings, again by monitoring the internal temperature of your steak as it cooks. The range for medium by the way is between 60°C and 65°C and medium-well done is 65°C to 70°C. Not that you’d want to go that beyond that. Heavens no. And then there is the classic ‘pinching-finger-to-thumb-and-prodding-of-your-Mount-Venus’ test for done-ness. Where you run the gamut of digits, starting from your index (medium-rare) to your pinkie (well-done) and make a touch comparison with the steak. It does work and is a great technique that relies on your senses and better judgement.
REST, REST, REST...
You’ve chosen your steak. You’ve brought it up to room temperature. You’ve seasoned it well. And you’ve cooked it to your own preference. Excellenté. And after all that, the last thing you want to do, is mess things up right up by cutting into it straight away, right? Well, now is the time to let that steak rest. In the pan, still but off the heat. Straight on a plate and left in a warm place. Or even wrapped up in foil. But whatever you do, leave it alone, for at least ten minutes, to relax and unfurl.
Steak and chips are hard to beat and perhaps that is all you will ever need. But sometimes, it is worthwhile going the extra mile and rustling up a béarnaise or peppercorn sauce. If you’ve gone to the trouble of basting your steak in butter whilst it cooks (another good technique) it is also worth throwing in some extra aromats in, such as garlic and thyme. To help flavour and finish. But if you have invested in something that is quality and just that head above the rest, it is probably best enjoyed unadorned and straight up. You’ve come this far, so why spoil things?
Whatever you do, just try to be patient.