No other holiday cries out more for a great steak than July 4. Fireworks, watermelon, homemade ice cream and a thick steak cooked to perfection. The steak should be seared on the outside, and for Louise and me, the steak should be cooked medium-rare with no line of gray between the sear and mid-rare portion.
How do you like your steak cooked?
A number of people have asked me about cooking steaks, and this seems like a good time to share some ideas. You cannot have a great steak without a great piece of meat to begin with. The three most popular cuts are filet, ribeye and strip, sometimes called New York strip. Chances are you don’t have steak every night, so when you do, buy the very best steak that your budget allows.
The most tender cut, and the most expensive cut is the filet. It is lean with very little intramuscular fat. The ribeye is a perennial favorite with a good deal of intramuscular fat, which means it is very juicy and should be tender. The strip is my favorite. It has a little more tooth than the ribeye but, to my taste, it has the best flavor. These are all boneless steaks and for the aspiring chef, they are a little easier to achieve a perfect end product than a bone-in steak like a T-bone, porterhouse or bone-in ribeye. The bones add a lot of flavor, but it may take a bit of practice to get the internal temperature right every time.
The steps to prepare a perfect steak are very simple and very important. For the purpose of this column, I will talk about cooking steaks on the cook top.
1. The steak should be at least 1 inch thick. The best steaks are 1½ to 2 inches thick. It is better to buy one thick steak than to buy two thin ones. It is very difficult to cook a thin steak to the desired degree of doneness and very easy to cook a thick steak to a perfect medium-rare every time.
2. Season the meat heavily with salt only. Many people like to season their steaks with pepper or maybe a rub. We will be cooking the steak over very high temperatures with no oil. Pepper and other spices will burn and turn bitter at these temperatures. The steaks should be salted at least 30 minutes to an hour before cooking. For even better flavor, salt the steaks and put them on a grate over a pan, uncovered, in the refrigerator for 12 to 24 hours. This draws out some of the moisture and really intensifies the flavor. You may think that by drawing out the moisture you will end up with a dry steak. The juiciness of the steak comes from the intramuscular fat and is not lost during the drying process.
3. Let the steak come to room temperature. A steak will not achieve its full potential if it is cooked immediately after being removed from the refrigerator. Have you ever noticed a steak with a gray line right under the surface? This is caused by the meat steaming. This will not happen and your steak will taste much better, if you let the steak come to room temperature for at least an hour while it is heavily salted.
4. Use cast iron. I believe cast iron is just the best. It transfers the heat evenly, and you can get it screaming hot, which brings me to my next point.
5. Use high heat. Heat the cast iron skillet until it is almost smoking. Turn on your vent hood. This may get smoky. Pat the steak dry. Remember, we want no steaming. Put the steak in the pan dry. Don’t use oil or butter. The fat in the steak is sufficient. You have to trust me on this. It is a myth that the reason we sear steaks is to seal in the moisture. The real reason we sear the steaks is to develop the fond or crust by the Maillard reaction. This is a chemical reaction brought about by the heat as it changes the amino acids and sugars, and it is what gives browned foods their fantastic flavor.
6. Turn the steaks about every minute. We are talking about cooking a steak on the stovetop. Another way to cook a steak is to sear one side of the steak for a couple of minutes, turn it over and place in a hot oven to finish to desired temp. To cook a steak to completion on the stove top, it is important to turn about every minute or so.
7. Cook until the steak is almost done. Steaks will continue to cook, and their internal temperatures will continue to rise for several minutes after you remove them from the pan. If you are checking your steaks with a meat thermometer, you want to allow for 5 to 7 degrees of carryover cooking. Here is an approximate guide for temperatures: rare 125 degrees; medium-rare 130 degrees; medium 140 degrees; medium-well 150 degrees; well-done 160 degrees. Most steak aficionados would encourage you to eat your belt rather than cook a really good piece of meat well-done.
8. Should your steak rest after cooking? Maybe yes, maybe no. You have all heard about letting your steaks rest to allow the juices to redistribute. This is true for really large cuts of meat but less so with most steaks. I will serve steaks that are an inch or so thick immediately. If the steaks are 1½ to 2 inches thick, they will rest about three to five minutes.
I hope this has helped those of you that are looking to up your game with steaks. If nothing else, it may provide some fodder for those wanting to debate their techniques with these. After all, I have seldom had a steak that I would not eat regardless of how it was prepared.
I have included a couple of recipes for compound butters that you may want to dab on your steaks.
Have a happy Fourth of July.