The Perfect Steak
It all started one fine summer evening. The sun was going down, bathing the world in that golden, perfect so-late-I-can’t-believe-it’s-still-light-out glow. I took a walk and smelled . . . it.
It was a scent so mouth watering, so heavenly, so ridiculously tantalizing, that just the mere whiff of it floating across the thick, humid Virginia air stopped me cold in my tracks. It smelled like a charcoal grill and hickory smoke and sizzling, perfectly seared meat. It smelled like steaks and laughter and family and friends. It smelled like heaven.
Someone was having one heck of a cookout, and my stomach rumbled to join.
I pondered meat all the way home. I couldn’t help it– every so often I would catch another tantalizing whiff of carnivorous goodness that set my mouth juices surging into high gear again. I tried to think of a reason– any reason– to approach the house where that steak was cooking. Maybe I could bring a piece of junk mail to their door. Maybe I could ask if they were thinking about buying Girl Scout Cookies (next year). Maybe I could steal their dog and offer to help them find it? Maybe someone inside could use a kidney transplant. Hey– here’s an idea– I have an extra kidney. Let’s talk about it– over dinner, shall we?
As I walked painfully past the house where the pungent smoke was rising from the backyard (and most likely people were gathering in droves offering sacrificial side dishes just to have a small chance to worship at the steak altar), I thought to myself . . . you know, I have made a lot of steak in my time. I have made them on the grill, in cast iron pans, in regular pans. I have used charcoal and gas grills. I have used fire, and I have used the stove. I have used the oven. I have used thick and thin steaks, fatty and lean cuts. I started thinking, “Out of all those methods, I wonder what really is the best way to cook a perfect steak?” What is the perfect, foolproof, “gets it right every time” way to cook those little buggers into hunks of meaty bliss so perfect that all the neighbors walk by your house 5 times in a row, just to snatch another whiff?
So I thought, let’s talk meat. You’d like to talk meat too? Perfect. It’s one of my favorite subjects. You’re so smart. I love working with you.
Today I thought it would be fun if we investigated the three most common ways of making steak, and then talked about what type of “finished product” each of those methods will get you. The way I like my steak may not be the way that you like your steak. So we will look at each method and talk about how to tweak each one to your personal level of steak perfection. Sound good?
Just think. Your neighbors will be walking by, sniffing the air enviously by your house before you know it. Feel free to sell tickets. That college tuition isn’t going to pay for itself. But I would hide your dog, if I were you.
What are we waiting for? Let’s do this.
Ahhhhh, the sizzle of steak on a summer evening is truly the siren song of the culinary world. When steak is cooking it engages all of the senses– the way it radiates heavenly smells and little pops of delight on a sizzling pan, the way it cuts like butter and tastes like bliss in your mouth . . . the way that meat blushes with a little kiss of pink at its heart . . .
Ahem. Sorry I needed a second to wipe the drool from my mouth.
Steak is a universal magic wand that automatically makes everyone excited for dinner. It makes cooks out of the most timid and inexperienced people (hubby can’t make microwave popcorn but will “throw some steaks on the grill” anytime? Exactly).
The key to cooking a truly fabulous steak is to understand each element that you’re working with. Each cut of meat is a little different, and each cooking medium is also a little different. Generally you want fattier cuts of meat like the ribeye (which I chose to use for this taste test) when grilling steaks, because these cuts can take the intense heat needed to get that to die for sear without becoming tough and leathery. They remain moist in spite of the heat because of their fat content. Leaner steaks toughen more easily and do better on the stove with a buttery pan sauce (more on that in a moment). Marinating beforehand and cutting them thinly against the grain when serving also adds tenderness.
But no matter what type of steak you use, there are some ground rules. Steak should not be cooked “right out of the refrigerator.” It doesn’t have to sit out for hours and make you worry about food poisoning, but try to take it out of the fridge 30-45 minutes before you’re ready to cook so that it loses some of that fridge chill. If your steak is cold, then the middle will cook unevenly– rendering the center raw and the outside burned. We don’t want a two faced steak. Take that baby out of the fridge.
Another way to ensure that glorious crust is to dab the steak dry with paper towels before cooking. If you put dripping wet steaks on the grill, then all of that moisture will steam the meat, rather than caramelize it.
I take my steaks out of the fridge, dab them dry with paper towels, season with whatever I’m using that day (for this test I used Montreal Steak Seasoning— one of my faves), and let them sit for 40 minutes or so while I get everything else ready and preheat my grill or pan.
You don’t need any extra oil on the meat (but of course you can add it if you want). I just do dry rub spices over the meat on both sides and then allow the steaks to sit for 45 minutes or so until I’m ready to cook. That way when I’m ready, they will be too.
Another key to a FABULOUS steak is letting it sit there, seasoned, for the aforementioned wait time. The salt sinks into the meat and adheres to it, creating that crust we love so much. So here you technically get points for procrastination. See? I told you that anyone could do this.
Now let’s talk method. There are three main methods of cooking steak that most people tend to use, mostly because many families have at least one of these tools at home. You can get a very nice steak cooking with any of these methods. Each steak will be slightly different (yet delicious in its own right), and you can choose which way makes the ideal “dream steak” for you.
Let’s start with the one most people reach for– the grill. Grills are a great choice for cooking steaks because they provide high heat and an outdoor area for smoke (there can be LOTS of smoke, especially if you are using a fatty cut of meat). Grills are also super easy cleanup (I use foil and toss it afterward), and they don’t heat up your house and kitchen in the summer. Some people swear by charcoal grills, and others use gas grills. Either is fine and produces a beautiful product.
For me, I let the grill preheat for 20 minutes or so on medium high heat, and then it’s my somewhat room temperature, seasoned steak right onto the foil on the grill. I don’t use oil or cooking spray on the foil. When the steak is done on one side it releases easily from the foil. If it sticks badly then it needs a bit more cook time. I flip once, closing the lid of the grill in between (because I like my steaks a little more on the medium well to well done side. I know– don’t hate me). The “baking” effect of closing the lid helps the center to get more cooked without burning the edges. If you prefer rare or medium steaks then you can use higher heat, and you don’t need to close the lid while cooking.
Close your eyes, rare steak lovers. Don’t hate me. This is how I love my steak– well done, but still tender and juicy. Yes, well done can still be juicy. You don’t have to have a leathery charcoal briquette to be well done. This steak had a beautiful sear and was melt in your mouth tender, flavorful, juicy, and yes, also well done. The grill did itself proud.
After all, didn’t God Himself say, “Well done, my good and faithful servant?”
I rest my case.
The next method (which is the die hard, tried and true method of many a chef) is the cast iron pan. Cast iron pans come in all shapes, sizes, and religious preferences most likely. You can use the old fashioned, black seasoned one your grandma has had for 100 years. You can use the brand new Lodge you bought on sale at Target last weekend. You can use enameled cast iron pieces (my personal favorite) like Le Creuset or Staub. Cast iron is prized for steaks because its meltingly hot surface sears the steak perfectly. Today I am using an enameled cast iron grill pan by Le Creuset, my personal favorite cast iron steak vessel.
I do use a silicone basting brush to rub some oil on the ribs of the pan prior to placing my steak on it. A little oil on a cast iron pan keeps the steak from sticking and gives it those perfect grill marks that show off your cooking props. Put the oil on the pan right before you place the steak, because it will start smoking if food isn’t placed on it quickly.
Also use an oil with a higher smoke point (like canola or vegetable), rather than olive oil (which practically weeps in terror when you put it on a surface this hot for any length of time). Work quickly and be careful– that grill pan is HOT. Don’t forget that the handle gets hot too. You don’t want your hand branded with Le Creuset. Well, maybe you do. But don’t do it this way– too painful.
Same deal for this guy as for the grill– place it and leave it alone (lid open for rare or medium, closed for medium well to well done). When it’s done searing (about 3-4 minutes), it will release easily from the pan. Flip the steak once. Inhale the scent that all your neighbors are gulping enviously behind closed doors. Smile an evil, grinchy smile and wave in their general direction. Hide your dog inside for safekeeping.
Allow the steak to rest for 5-7 minutes before you eat it. Resting allows the steak to get a facial and have its nails done, of course.
Just kidding. Resting the steak allows the juices to recirculate throughout the meat so that this bad boy is juicy and flavorful and ENVIOUSLY PERFECT. The kicker is that the temperature of the meat rises a little bit while it sits there
getting its nails done resting like a good little boy, so you have to pull it off the heat a little BEFORE it’s done to the level of cook that you like.
So how do you know when your steak is done the way you like, without cutting into it and spilling the juices inside? There is a nice little rule of thumb that I use when testing steak. Hold out your hand, loosely, in front of you. Pinch the spot between your thumb and pointer finger while your hand is loose. That is the way a rare steak should feel. When you push down on your steak with a spatula or tongs (without piercing it) and it feels like that, it’s rare inside. Take it off and rest it for rare steak.
Now loosely make a fist. Don’t clench your hand– just a gentle fist– like you would hold a child’s hand. Feel that same spot between thumb and first knuckle again. That is a medium steak. When your steak feels this way to the touch of the tongs, it’s medium rare to medium. Take it off and let it rest for medium.
For a well done test, gently press against your forehead temples. Firm with a little give– that’s what a well done steak will feel like. Take it off and let it rest for a well done steak. These are good rule of thumb tests so you don’t have to cut into your meat every 5 minutes and get a torn up, raggedly steak that is dry as a bone with all its juices leaked out before you get the temperature right.
The cast iron cooked steak is in the back, and the grill cooked steak is in the front. Both of them had an excellent sear. Both were juicy, tender, flavorful, and deeeeelicious.
If I are going to split hairs, I would say that the cast iron pan was a slightly better crust. It was a little more crunchy and flavorful, probably due to the oil that I added to the pan (and didn’t add to the foil). But honestly, both steaks were awesome, and with the grill I didn’t have to scrub a pan afterward. You can certainly make a fantastic steak with either method. Use whatever you have and don’t spend money on extra fancy equipment– you don’t need to. Salt/pepper and a high heat source will make bank for you every time.
The third method I used was a stainless steel pan with a copper bottom. Copper is an excellent heat conductor, and stainless has a devoted steak lover following who swear by it. I thought, “Let’s see if this new kid on the playground can keep up with the old greats, the grill and cast iron.” I honestly didn’t have high hopes for little steel.
Boy was I surprised.
For this particular steak, I tried something different– a finishing sauce. I have never done this before, and whooooeeeeeeee was it good. I honestly think this may have been the best steak I ever had in my life. I ate almost every bite with my eyes closed, oohing and aahhhing because it was JUST SO DARNED GOOD. It was so succulent and juicy that I had to resist sucking my fingers. It was primal steak bliss, my friends. So how did I make it?
First of all, I made the steak itself just like I did the other methods– took it out of the fridge 45 minutes before cooking, dabbed it dry with paper towels, seasoned it with dry rub, let it sit. Got my pan piping hot, drizzled a little canola oil into the pan, and then placed the steak into the hot pan. I let it sit in the pan, untouched, until it was seared (about 4 minutes) and then flipped once.
Now here was where the magic started to happen.
Of course I could have eaten the steak just like that, prepared just like the others. I could have taken it out of the pan, rested it, enjoyed it deliciously just like that. But I didn’t.
During the last 2 minutes of cook time (or thereabouts– don’t stress about it– just do it right at the end when the steak is almost done) I gave the steak a butter bath. Well, I mean, she just had her nails done. She deserved a nice, relaxing bath, amiright?
This part goes quickly so have everything ready to go ahead of time. Dump a few tablespoons of softened (real) butter into the pan with your sizzling steak. Throw in a few smashed cloves of garlic and a few sprigs of rosemary or thyme. I used thyme because that’s what I had in the garden. The garlic and thyme are just for flavor– you can remove them from the pan before serving. Tilt the pan so that the butter pools in the bottom, with the garlic and thyme kind of taking a bath in it. Then use a spoon to constantly bathe the steak in the garlic butter for about a minute. Take the pan off the heat and let the steak rest. When you serve this bad boy, drizzle some of the leftover garlic/thyme butter overtop of it.
My friends, if you don’t have garlic and butter and VERITABLE MEAT BLISS dripping down your fingers while you eat, then are you even having steak????
It was bliss, my friends. Bliss.
So, to recap, all three methods produced a fabulous steak. I didn’t need to buy any extra, fancy equipment to get a fancy steakhouse quality slab of beef on my eagerly waiting plate. Of all three methods I think the cast iron had a slight edge on the sear, but the stainless steel (with garlic butter sauce) was the best steak I’ve ever had in my life. The grill as usual produced a fabulous product too, albeit *slightly* drier.
Bottom line? You can get yourself a darned good piece of meat cooked just the way you like it with any of these three methods. Use what you have and learn to use it well. That’s the hallmark of any skill.
Just don’t forget to hide the dog before you start cooking.
You did it. And I’m just so proud of you.
Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, which just means that we get a few pennies if you purchase through our link. I never recommend products that I don't personally use and love. Thanks!