I spend a lot of time on Quora reading folks posts and sometimes answering questions. One of the perennial questions that is asked quite frequently has to do with the art and science of steak. Most people are referring to beef steak. There are other kinds of steak but I’ll limit the scope to beef steak for this article.
Questions range from “what makes a good steak?” to “how do I get a steak to <fill in doneness here>” so I’m going to cover all that from selecting the meat to actually cooking it.
Selecting the meat
There are many cuts of beef that are considered to be “steak.” According to folks a lot smarter about food than me the seven best cuts are (no particular order)
- Filet Mignon
- Rib Eye (my personal favorite)
- Porterhouse (my very close second favorite)
- New York Strip
- Hanger Steak
- Flank Steak (AKA London Broil)
- Skirt Steak (think Fajitas)
Each of these are very good eating but each requires different handling to get right. I will focus on the top three since their cooking styles are very much alike.
So how do you go about picking a good piece of meat? The USDAA has helped us out here and come up with a grading system for meat that can be used as a guide for picking out that really nice steak.
Typically in a grocery store you’ll see “choice” grade meats. One of the exceptions to that rule is individual grocery stores may have a butcher department and sell prime. The lion’s share of prime goes to restaurants and hotels but you can if you shop around find prime for sale. One of the big box stores comes to mind is Costco which carries prime meats.
The further to the left the meat you are buying the more pricey it gets both due to supply and demand as well as how much meat is produced that gets the stamp of being prime meat. Choice can be the way to go if you examine your purchase carefully before heading to the checkout counter with it.
Further to the left has a higher fat content than further to the right. The fat otherwise know as marbling is very much desired. Fat brings flavor. To a point the more fat at the start of cooking the more flavor in the meat.
When I am talking about fat I’m talking about the well distributed small bits of fat throughout the cut. Large centralized chunks of fat are less desirable since they don’t necessarily render out during the cooking process. The act of rendering out the fat is key to developing flavor as well as what’s known as the Maillard Reaction which is the process of caramelizing the sugars found in the meat resulting in the meat being browned.
Now that we have our steaks and are ready to cook, let’s discuss “doneness” of a steak. Doneness is designated as ranging from “black and blue” rare all the way to well done. I personally don’t like the term “well done” for just about cremating the steak but hey that’s me. My personal favorite doneness is between “black and blue” to medium rare. Well caramelized outside (grill marks optional) cool and red in the middle.
Once you have decided on how much to cook your steak now you need to decide just how. I’m going to go into two of my favorite methods, but there are others.
Grilling over Charcoal or Wood
Notice I did not mention that soulless contraption called a “gas grill.” I my not so humble opinion while gas grills do a fine job or getting the meat cooked there is something flavor profile wise missing when you grill over gas. My preference here is to use either wood chunks or lump charcoal for this task.
Unlike smoking a brisket or ribs you want fast and hot at least at first in your cooking timeline. Get your fire started (no charcoal lighter fluid! use a chimney) and place your steak(s) over the hottest part of the fire. You should hear a sizzle as the Maillard Reaction takes place. Turn ONCE. Wait until the side you put down looks more or less done. After turning use an instant read thermometer to check for internal temperature avoiding any bone that might be in your steak. If after your first turnover the steak is not yet done move it to a cooler part of your grill to finish.
Let the finished steak(s) rest for five minutes before serving.
Cast Iron Skillet
This is a method I recently heard about and adopted. This involves putting your skillet in an oven set to its highest setting and let it “cook” for about twenty minutes and get smoking hot. Turn your stove burner on its highest setting and put the cast iron skillet on it and put the steak in it.
If you have a smoke alarm you might set it off doing this unless you can vent outdoors all the smoke you are going to generate by this process.
Once you see color rising up the side of your steak turn it to the other side. Turn your oven down to 450F and as color rises from the other side use your instant read thermometer to check doneness. If it is done pull it from the skillet and let it rest for five minutes.
If it is not done put skillet and all into the oven and finish the steak to the desired internal temperature.
I typically server Porterhouse steak with one steak feeding at least two people. When my wife still could eat steak (medical condition precludes this) I’d make a spinach salad and top it with cut up steak. Some slices from the filet side and some from the strip side. With some crumbled hard boiled egg on top it was a fantastic meal.