A perfect steak is hard to forget. The mouth-watering aroma of a tender, juicy steak with a sweet, seared crust is often linked with a good memory. It’s therefore not a surprise that many of us have tried our hands at cooking it for that rewarding experience of eating a good steak.
However, making a perfect steak is more difficult than one can imagine. And it’s quite easy to ruin a good and often expensive cut of meat. This challenge is why cooking a perfect steak is one of the skills you’ll have to learn to become a culinary master.
Here are some tips on cooking steak to perfection and help you on your way to becoming a great cook.
It’s all About the Meat
A good starting point for the perfect steak is to have good ingredients. The general advice here is to get the highest quality meat that you can afford. When you’re looking at the meat’s grade, prime is best and choice is a very good second option.
There are popular cuts for steak and it’s recommended to use them as they are known for being tender:
- Rib-eye – A good and normally cheap cut. Because it comes from the upper rib area, the meat is lightly worked and therefore tender. It has creamy fat that enhances the flavor of the steak and can be used to baste it as it cooks.
- Fillet – This is the tenderest cut of beef from the tenderloin and is highly desirable – which explains why it can get quite pricy. However, it’s not as flavorful as other cuts.
- T-bone – Cut from the short loin and composed of a bone with meat on either side. Just like the rib-eye, it has creamy fat that is usually on one side.
While there are other steak cuts, these are the most popular. You can make a perfect steak from the other cuts too, so feel free to experiment. A good-sized steak is about 1 to 1 ½ inch thick and 12 to 16 oz. If the cut has sinew, you can ask the butcher to remove it.
One thing to look for is good marbling – the fat that you’ll see surrounding the meat fibers. You’ll want fat on the meat as it adds flavor and keeps the steak moist and tender. A good steak will have a lot of marbling and a lean steak will have little or no marbling. If you’re on a diet, it’s best to eat steak in moderation.
Some cuts like rib-eye and t-bone have a layer of creamy fat. Don’t remove the fat before cooking. As the steak cooks, the fat will release its flavor and even use the rendered fat to baste the steak. If you don’t want the fat, you can remove it before serving.
You’ll often see that articles online recommend that steak should be allowed to rest to room temperature before cooking since the cold center will prevent the meat from being cooked properly. This is an old wives’ tale. What you don’t want is to cook a frozen steak. It’s perfectly fine to take the steak from the fridge (not the freezer) and put it on the grill or pan without waiting for it to go down to room temp. A good grill or pan can cook the steak evenly even if it’s cold. You do want to remove the excess moisture from the surface of the steak if you want a nice brown sear.
A lot of people prefer to keep beef’s natural flavor. In most cases, all you’ll need to season the meat is salt, pepper, and olive oil. Rub the olive oil evenly on the steak, season, and then to the pan. If you’re using a grill, you can skip the pepper until later as the grill can burn off the pepper.
One old tip is not to salt too long as it can dry out the meat and make it tough. This is another old wives’ tale. While there may be some drying, it’s negligible and won’t make the meat dry enough to become tough. What it does do is help get a better sear as the heat has less surface moisture to evaporate.
When you salt the steak, you’ll notice that after a few minutes it draws out moisture from the meat. Wait until the moisture is reabsorbed into the meat before cooking for a more flavorful steak. For the best results, you can salt the steak and leave it in the fridge overnight. You can also wipe off the brine and put the steak on the pan but this means that you’ll lose flavor. So either salt immediately before cooking or wait until the brine has been reabsorbed.
First and foremost: searing. You don’t sear to lock in the juices of a steak. Meat is permeable and no amount of searing will make it water-tight. You sear the steak because it adds a savory sweet taste to the steak.
In a pan, the best way to sear is by using oil – not butter. Oil has a higher smoking temp than butter, allowing for higher cooking temps. A steak will start to caramelize at 300 degrees F; higher than 500 degrees F can cause the steak to dry out. For a nice, even sear, flip the steak every minute. A lot of steak cuts have a nice layer of fat on the edges, use tongs to pick the steak up and sear the edges. Once you have a nice sear, then you can add butter to the pan for more flavor and baste the steak with the butter, oil, and rendered fat until done.
If you’re using a grill, preheat it with the cover closed until it reaches 300 to 500 degrees F. The recommended time for preheating is 10 to 15 minutes. Not only does this ensure a great cooking temperature, it also burns off any leftover food on the grill and makes it easier to brush off. Don’t brush the grill with oil as it can make it sticky – it’s also a fire hazard. Cook for 2-3 minutes on a side.
But how do you know the steak’s done? A lot of chefs would recommend using the touch method. You basically touch your thumb with your pointer, middle, and pinky finger. This will cause the soft fleshy part of your palm under the thumb to flex and simulate the firmness of medium rare, medium, and well-done. You then compare the firmness to that of the steak.
On the other hand, we recommend using an instant-read meat thermometer: 120 degrees F is rare, 140 degrees F is medium, and 160 degrees F is well-done. The expense of the thermometer is offset by the fact that you don’t ruin an expensive cut while trying to figure things out with the touch method.
If you eat the steak immediately after cooking, the steak will have an uneven texture. This is because the cooking process drives the juices away from the surface of the steak towards the center. Resting the meat allows the juices to redistribute and make the meat tender.
To rest the meat, put it on a platter and cover loosely with foil. The foil will keep the steak warm while it rests. You don’t want to wrap it tightly with foil because it will then make the steak sweat out the juices.
The recommended resting time is about half the cooking time or at least 5 minutes. After this, you can enjoy your well-deserved steak.