Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Perfect Steak

I am sure we have all had at least one steak in our life time.  At least that is what I hope.  I also hope that when you have consumed this flesh of a bovine, it was an experience that left you satiated and happy.  A great many people only really experience good or great steaks at a steak house restaurant.  There are even some that are afraid to cook their own steaks for fear of screwing up the meat.  Steak after all is not exactly cheap.  Have no fear for I am here to impart some simple knowledge that will make cooking tasty steaks not only an easy task, but one that you enjoy.

Let's start with how to pick a good steak.  What you are looking for in your meat is a steak that is shiny vibrant red. This means the meat is still fresh and full of moisture.   If it is starting to brown or look dull, the meat is getting old and dried out.  Not sexy.  Dried out meat means less flavor.  Next look at the meat itself.  You are looking for plenty of intramuscular fat.  This is called marbling and the more marbling you have, the more flavor and juiciness your meat will have.  In fact, it is the amount of marbling that helps distinguish a choice cut of beef from a prime.  Last comes the thickness of your meat.  This is a matter of personal preference but there are some important things to consider.  Meat that is too thin will more often over cook and dry out.  Meat that is too thick will take forever to cook to where you really want it, unless you want it blue (read raw in the middle).  Chances are you will burn the outside before you get it to that perfect state of doneness.  I personally recommend a steak that is from no less than 3/4 of an inch to 1 1/4 inches.

We now have our steaks and are ready for a great steak experience.  We just need to cook them and are on our way.  Well, yes and no.  Before we get to actually cooking them we need to let them get to almost room temperature. Leave them out for about a half hour.  Why?  Well, simple really.  The steak you are about to cook is a muscle, even if it is dead.  What do muscles do?  They contract, especially if you shock them.  If you take a nice cold steak and just start cooking it on some hot grill, the muscle will get shocked, tense up and leave you with a rubbery, chewy steak.  Let your meat come up to temp. Trust me, waiting that half hour wait is worth a nice tender juicy piece of heaven.

So we have our steaks at home ready to go.  How are we going to cook them?  The most well known way is just to simply slap them on the grill and cook them that way.  There is certainly nothing wrong with that.  I enjoy a nice grilled steak as much as the next guy.  I just want to point out that there are other options out there for those of us who don't own a grill or even a grill pan or are just afraid of the outside.  You can cook a perfect steak from the comfort of your own indoor kitchen.

To me, when cooking steaks in the kitchen, nothing is as indispensable as the oven.  Yes, that is right the oven.  Now, I am not saying you are going to roast your steaks like you would, say, a roast, but you will help them cook in there.  To me the oven is the best way to help get your steaks to that perfect degree of doneness.  Just preheat that bad boy to 350-375 degrees. 

Now, don't just stick your steaks in there and call it a day.  No, there are some steps to take before hand.  One way I love doing steaks is using the good ol' saute pan.  If you have a cast iron pan, even better.  What you want to do is get this pan nice and hot.  As hot as you possible can.  Next thing you do is put your steaks in the hot pan.  There are two things you need to know when you do this.  First of all, don't add fat to the pan.  The steaks has enough fat to do its thing.  You just need to be patient and let it do its thing.  If the meat sticks, don't worry about it.  As it cooks and caramelizes the meat will "let go".  When it does, you know it is time to flip it over.  This is what we call searing the meat.  Contrary to popular belief, this does not "seal in the juices".  It does however give you nice eye appeal, a nice crust on the steak and excellent flavor. 

The second thing you need to know when searing meat is do not under any circumstances season your meat until after you have seared it.  For one thing, if you season your meat there is a good chance that you will burn said seasoning.  Nothing can ruin a tasty steak like burnt bitter seasoning flavor.  Secondly, if you season your meat the salt will draw out the moisture of the meat and make it more difficult to caramelize in the hot pan.  So show a little restraint and wait until after searing the meat.

The meat is now nice and seared, but do not be fooled.  While the outside is nice and cooked, the inside is still pretty darn raw.  Granted, some people like it this way, but most of us like our meat at least a little more well done.  This where the oven comes in.  You have two options.  If your pan is oven proof, you can just stick it in the oven and move on to other things.  If it is not, or if you want to make a pan sauce, then you will have to transfer your steaks to a baking sheet and put them in the oven that way.  While the steaks finish cooking you can make your pan sauce out of the leavings in the pan.  For how to make pan sauces, just refer to my previous article.

The amount of time the steaks stay in the oven depends on several things.  Factors such as the oven itself, how thick the meat is, how well done you like your steak all play a role in how long the steak is in the oven.  Generally I say start with a time of about 8 to 10 min.  then take the temperature of the meat.  The best way to check doneness is with a meat thermometer.  It is more accurate then the touch method and not as hard to learn.  For a rare steak you want the final temperature to be at 125 degrees.  For medium-rare you are looking for 135, medium 145, medium-well 155 and for shoe leather you are looking for 165 or over. 

Another way to use your oven is to use the broiler.  Most ovens today have a broiler setting.  The problem is most people don't even know what it is or how to use it.  The broiler is essentially the same thing as a grill.  That is to say it is a cooking method using intense and direct heat.  The only real difference is that with the grill the heat comes from the bottom up and with the broiler the heat comes from the top down.  Knowing that you can use your broiler to cook steaks in much the same way you would on a grill.  You could also used the broiler to sear your meat then finish it off in the same oven only under the conventional setting.

One thing to consider when cooking with the oven is that you want to pull stuff out about five to ten degrees before you want it to be since the meat will continue to cook for about ten min. after it has been out of the oven.  You want to let the meat rest during this time.  If you cut into the the meat, all your juices will run out and leave you a nice dry steak.

Now that you have your steaks cooking, how are you going to season them?  The perfect steak seasoning is salt and pepper.  That is it.  If you have good meat you don't need to embellish any more than that.  The salt and pepper make the flavor of the juices sing in your mouth. 

That being said, I know a great many people that will say, well, that is all fine and good, but it is boring.  Well, if you want to sass up your steak then there are endless ways to do so.  Try some crushed red pepper flakes or how about a squeeze of fresh lemon juice after the steaks are done.  Or how about making a garlic and herb compound butter and putting a pat of that on the steaks and letting the residual heat melt it into the steak.  As stated in a previous part of this article you could even make your own pan sauce for you steak.  You could try the countless rubs and steak sauces available at your local grocery store, and there is nothing wrong with that.  However, when you make that steak your own with your own seasonings and sauces, then you really have something special to enjoy.

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