help me make great steak
Ok, hounds -- you've introduced me to kurobuta pork. You taught me everything I ever wanted to know about a rack of lamb. Now, can you do it again with steak? Please?
Here is a recent incident that made me realize that I need help:
I splurged for the prime, aged sirloin at $30/Lb and was disappointed. Cooked it to medium-rare, but it was not particularly tender or flavorful. It was good, but not great. And for $30/Lb, I want great. Everyone swoons over sirloin (NY stip), but I thought rib-eye is both more tender and beefy. Is it just me? Did I do something wrong with that ultra expensive piece of meat? I just salted, peppered and grilled on high just until it browned and then turned down the heat until it reached 115F. It went up another 10 degrees while resting.
First questions about buying it:
1) Grass fed vs. grain fed -- I heard that grass fed is more flavorful, but tougher than grain fed. Is that true? If I am buying cuts that are generally more flavorful than tender (skirt and hanger) will they will too tough if grass fed?
2) Prime vs. choice -- is it worth the extra bucks for any cut or only some cuts?
3) Aged vs. not aged -- does this even exist for cheaper cuts like skirt and hanger?
4) What are your favorite cuts for steak? In restaurants, I really enjoy rib-eye, hanger, and skirt. Any good cuts I am missing?
Now the prep:
1) would you trim the fat around the steak? What about that large piece of fat that runs through the middle of rib-eye?
2) marinading -- what exactly does it do? does it help with tenderness or is it all about flavor?
3) when do you salt -- before or after cooking? would you add salt to the marinade?
And finally cooking:
1) high heat vs low heat -- I hear that high heat makes the meat tougher. Is that an issue? How do you deal with that? Do you finish in the oven? If you don't use high heat, how do you get the steak to brown?
2) What temperature do you cook your steak to? I like my meats to be medium-rare, which as far as I could tell by experimenting means taking off heat at 115F and serving at 125F. Do some cuts need to be cooked more or less than others?
3) Resting -- how long do you rest a steak? Do you cover it with foil during resting?
Any other words of steak wisdom?
In our household's experience, grass fed is much tastier than feedlot/grain fed, and if you go for grain fed, wheat fed from Canada tastes better than corn fed. For answers to all your questions, read the sections on cooking steaks and butchering beef in Bill Buford's excellent new book "Heat" -- it's a real education. (A must read for all foodies!) I think the most dependably tender cut for steak is tenderloin; my preference then goes ribeye, strip, and T Bone. If you trim off the fat before cooking, you'll lose flavor. I can't give full directions on the grilling part, as my husband is the master at that. For steaks, however, we only use a charcoal grill. The meat is prepared with some minced garlic, salt, pepper, and olive oil about the time he lights the fire. When the meat feels to the touch like touching the fat pad below your thumb on your palm, it's medium rare; like the web between thumb and forefinger, medium; and like the thumb itself, well-done. If you let the meat sit, it cooks further, so if you're taking it up medium rare and foiling it, it will be medium after just a few minutes. I'm sure others will also have good advice.
I'll keep this short and simple: get the strip steak online at Lobel's:
Smear the steaks with soft butter, then salt and pepper them, and cook on a grill over hardwood charcoal at a very high heat, about 3-6 minutes a side depending on thickness. Allow a good char to develop. Just before it's done, do a "Peter Luger" and pour some clarified butter over the steak on both sides. Take the steak off the heat when the interior is 110 degrees and let sit 5-10 minutes (no need for foil unless it's cold outside).
I can't answer all your questions, and certainly don't consider myself a meat expert, but I always do a good job at home with steaks, and have a few good rules that I swear by: first, I chose my steaks based purely on appearance - how well marbeled they are (even a choice steak can sometimes be better marbeled than some labeled "prime"). Secondly, I test done-ness the Julia Child way - by pressing on the surface. A little experience with this allows you to cook the steak the way you want it without having to insert a thermometer.
I have never had to marinate a steak (wouldn't want to interfere with the beefy flavor, but that's just me). I do not salt them before cooking (I read once that this toughens the meat, but I don't know if that's true - however, salting and peppering them after they're cooked works just fine). High heat does not toughen a good steak, in my experience. Maybe it would if the meat was lean, however. I don't see why you'd want to rest a steak - I certainly wouldn't cover it with foil, which would only serve to steam it. Have everything else come ready as you finish the steak, and serve it at once.
Our all-time favorite is a porterhouse - a good compromise between flavor and tenderness.
When you cut a steak right after it has been cooked, you will notice that the steak releases a lot of its juices. Thus if you rest the steak after cooking, it allows the juices to settle back into the meat. After resting, you will notice that not as much juice runs out of the meat when cutting and the meat will actually be juicier when you chew into it. That is the reason for resting the steak.
I will usually rest my steak, but I also enjoy serving my steak over rice (or pasta) and when I do this, sometimes I will cut into the steak a little early to allow the juices to run into my starch giving it a little extra flavor.
Do you know if the sirloin was dry or wet aged? Most "aged" steaks are just plonked in a cryovac. Doesn't really have much effect on the meat in my experience.
However, a properly dry aged steak is a real treat. Fairly easy to do at home. Evaporating the moisture in the meat really concentrates the flavor. Its the difference between a handmade burger on the grill and Mcdonalds.
My favorite cuts are bone-in ribeye, fillet, ny strip, london broil. I usually take my butchers advise when I ask him whats good today. The only steak I marinate is London Broil, everything else I usually just use sea salt and fresh ground pepper before grilling. High heat always 4 to 5 mins. a side, then take off grill and let set uncovered a couple mins. before cutting. Grass fed seems more readily available at my butcher, but he has steered me to grian fed on ocassion. I don't think Prime vs. Choice is worth the extra money.
My grandfather was a meat packer, so I learned a bit from my father. The difference between Prime and Choice is very subjective. Depending upon the grader, the low end of Prime can be equal to the high end of Choice. Go for a vendor who sells only Choice and gets the high end from the packer. The low end of the Prime that doesn't go to the restaurants often ends up at the retailer's. Check for marbling. Buy from a vendor who wet ages the cut as long as possible...it does make a difference. Dry aging is good, but kicks the price up. I recently dry aged a NY strip Select grade, and it was great. Not much marbling, but tender and flavorful. Lots of work and waste. I did, however, wet age the cut for 2 weeks beyond the sale date. If you bought a dry aged Prime steak, and it wasn't rich and tender, find another butcher. There is something wrong there or you are pathelogically picky. Tell the butcher of your dissatisfaction, and maybe he will shape up.
Responses to your questions, in the order posed:
--I like grass fed better than grain fed, but you should decide for yourself; have a taste off.
--I don't think it is worth the trouble to get prime; I prefer the more lightly marbled choice anyway.
--dry aged is good, but I can't afford it all the time. Regular ol' wet aged is fine by me for "everyday".
--my favorite cuts are NY strip, tenderloin, and ribeye (in that order). All three call for very different treatments/handling.
--don't trim the fat, esp if you splurged on prime (what do you think makes it PRIME?)
--don't marinate tender cuts (strip, ribeye, tenderloin), but do marinate tough ones (top sirloin, skirt, flank)
--feel free to salt the marinate, salt while cooking, and salt just before serving (but maybe not all three!) Salting will not adversely affect the taste/texture of your steak.
--high heat, high heat, high heat...that's part of what makes it STEAK.
--I NEVER use a thermometer, just use a forefinger poked lightly into the surface of the meat. Bill Rice's steak cookbook has good directions for this method: poke your index finger of one hand into the flesh between the thumb and index finger of the other hand. Rare is what it feels like when the thumb and finger are close together & the muscle is relaxed; for medium, spread your index finger and thumb halfway apart; for well (which you shouldn't do anyway), stretch your thumb and forefinger to their maximum width.
--I only rest "big" pieces of meat...london broil, top sirloin intended to feed several people after being sliced, a whole flank steak..."individual" cuts are best if served immediately after cooking.
My only steak cooking tips: take the damn meat out of the fridge well before cooking so that it isn't 40 degrees when you put it on the grill or in the broiler. If marinating, rinse off the marinade & dry well with paper towels. Lightly oil the surface with a fat of your choice (olive, bacon grease, butter), and lightly season if desired. Cook over hot coals or a high propane flame until the underside is sufficiently charred to your liking, then flip over and finish the other side. Do not overcook. Do not turn repeatedly.
Guess I've gotta go get some steaks out of the freezer now...
Though I usually just do the straight grill method, I've done the "Al Forno" method a couple of times and had great results--they salt and pepper, then drop the steaks right onto the coals. Instant searing, and the coals don't stick to the meat. Odd method and I usually do this when dining solo because everyone else reacts with a big "ick" factor.
Here are some good tip for cooking flavorful juicy steaks.
Choose a cut that does not get much exercise while the animal is alive. Ask your butcher. Select a steak that is at least an inch and a half thick. I generally prepare the steak with salt, pepper, olive oil, and sometimes a little garlic. The OO will help carmelization. Let the steak come to room temp. When you start cooking, this will help ensure that the inside is not under cooked and the outside over cooked. Pre-heat your cooking surface, preferably a grill or grill pan, to about five hundred degree, HOT! Place your steak on the grill and don't touch it for at least three minutes. Don't worry about the smoke that is normal. When the steak has developed a redish crust on the outside (the aforesaid carmalization)pick up the state and turn it ninty degrees and cook for another three minutes. By know the steak should be reddish brown on the bottom and have nice cross hatched grill marks. Flip the steak on the other side and cook untill desired doneness. To test doneness of a steak push on it with your finger. Medium rare will feel like the spot where your thumb and index finger meet when you make a loose fist; Medium will feel like that same spot when you make a regular fist; and well done will feel like that spot does when you make a tight fist. Once you have taken your steak off the grill let it rest. The juices in the steak need to cool back down and redistribute. If you cut into it right away the juices will run out and you will have a tough steak. Hope this helps.
I used to work the meat station at a 5 diamond resort for a couple years...so some tips...
ABSOLUTELY rest individual steaks. 5-8 minutes. Foil if you want, it's only to keep it warm. (At the restaurant we rested the meat with a knob of AOC French Sea Salt Butter on top, sliced it, and garnished with a few drops of Umbrian olive oil)
Myth: only turn meat once.
Fact: Think about a rotisserie; it's constantly turning the meat, circulating the juices within, and cooking the meat evenly on all sides.
We used Nebraska prime and 28 day dry aged. There is such thing as too much dry age. Dry age should taste nutty and, quite frankly, a little funky.
Tip: Bring meat out at room temp for an hour before cooking. The meat will cook more evenly so you don't dry out the surface as the middle comes up to temp. Don't worry about bacteria or any of that other psycho-sani-American neurosis crap...it would have to sit out for 4 hours before even remotely becoming a hazard.
Salt meat before, after, I've never noticed a difference. Tom Colicchio says salt inhibits browning. In the sense that it draws out water and boils the surface, yeah, sure, but if your grill or pan is hot enough, I find that this is a mute point.
If you're pan roasting, use peanut oil. I'm not a fan of black and blue, I don't like tough crusts, I like tender from outside to inside. I use medium high heat. When I was on that meat station, I would cook many steaks entirely in the pan, no oven time. By the time the outside was beautifully caramelized, the inside was rare to medium rare. If you grill I would highly recommend grilling over med-high heat, I disagree with most posters here. I'm not a huge fan of concentrated carbon flavor. Do an experiment most people have never done: Poach a filet mignon. I'm serious. Bring some concentrated stock with a little cream in it to 165 degrees, put in a remote thermometer, and remove the meat once it's reached 115. Rest for 8 minutes. It will be the most tender piece of meat you've ever had. The only purpose of grilled and pan roasting is caramelization and flavor, PERIOD. I don't see the point in carbonizing a beautiful piece of meat on the outside.
Or think about sous vide, the rage of fine dining restaurants for the past 20 years. You can sous vide a piece of meat to just below tempterature, remove it, and then sear it to a deep brown. You want EVEN cooking, and BEAUTIFUL caramelization. Not intense, forceful cooking, and black caramelization. My two cents...
We used different cuts of meat. We didn't do a typical cross cut NY strip or anything like that. We got in the whole slabs of dry age NY and cut "blocks" out, searing the meat on all 6 sides, resting, and slicing. There was more "interior" to the steak, therefor more moisture.
Cut against the grain (duh)
We used only oil based marinades. You can infuse some oil with garlic, thyme, and peppercorns (I wouldn't go beyond that) and marinate the meat for 1-3 days.
As you can see, everyone has different ways of doing things. All I'll say is I've staged at Craft and Grammercy Tavern, worked with guys who were at FL and Michel Bras, and picked up what I know from them as well as consantly referring to "On Food and Cooking." I consider it the bible and so do most of the top chefs.
Lastly, experience and experimentation.
Thank you so much for such a helpful post. I'll give all these tips a shot. Your "avoid high heat" logic makes sense to me. One of my favorite ways to cook salmon is a long time (20-25 min) at 250F. It makes for the most tender fish. I use that technique sparingly with fish since they are naturally tender and need more browning than tenderizing, but with meat it might be a good idea. The best rib roasts are dones slowly at 250F, so why not steak?
A question about doneness. Everyone swears by the thumb technique, but it just doesn't make sense to me. Wouldn't a skirt steak feel different to the touch than tenderloin. The thumb technique sounds like one-size-fits-all-steaks to me. I am sure that in restaurants when you cook the same cut of meat 20 times in one night you get a good sense of what it should feel like when you poke it, but trying to compare it to the way my thumb feels when I cook that particular cut once every 2 months seems like a recipe for disaster. Is there something so terrible about a thermometer?
Actually, how do you test for doneness in a restaurant? Do you really poke your steaks or is it more like 6th sense?
I always wanted to do an experiment where I give someone a steak (without telling them how long it's been cooking) and ask them to do the thumb doneness test on it.
re: A Fish Called Wanda
One point: Why are you buying sirloin? NY Strip is from the short loin, not the sirloin.
The sirloin section is behind the short loin, which is where you find the strip (top loin) and the tenderloin - combined, they become the T-bone or Porterhouse, depending on where it's cut.
The sirloin is a much tougher area of meat - sirloin steaks, which are cut as pin, flat, or wedge bone, can be tasty, but are definitely leaner and tougher than the cuts from the short loin. The sirloin shell and top sirloin have the tenderloin muscle piece removed (like the top loin), which makes for an even tougher piece, overall.
The rib section is ahead of the short loin and provides nice, fatty steaks (and roasts).
So stick to the rib or short loin - stay away from the sirloin - unless you really like to chew...
If you get a copy of Ruth Reichl's book Garlic and Saphires, read the chapter about NYC steaks, (Meat and Potatoes), and her description of what great steak really is. It will have you drooling. Her main points:
"Great steaks aren't cooked, their bought."
And to paraphrase the others, all you need is salt and more salt, a blazing hot pan, and butter to finish.
re: A Fish Called Wanda
Yeah, after a while (and lots of mistakes) you do get a 6th sense, as well as "advanced" touch techniques. Total lack of resistance to poking means rare, a little resistance is medium rare, and so on. Each cut is different. Colorado rack of lamb and filet mignon are hardest, since they're always tender. A thermometer isn't great...but at the same time, if you don't trust your touch technique then I would definitely recommend this way to start. www.thermoworks.com makes the best thermometers, many health departments use them and they offer thermometers with a less intrusive tip, much finer, accurate, and faster reading than any of those Taylor pieces of crap.
re: A Fish Called Wanda
I've always avoided a thermometer because I was afraid that some juices would seep out once the meat was pierced. I use the touch method and it seems to work for the most part, but sometimes I'm a little off. It's usually "good enough" and done in the range that I like.
I don't make steak often and haven't tried every cut out there (I'm dying to try hanger finally), but husband and I both really like ribeye. I agree w/ those that say you should let it come to room temp. (or close to it) before cooking. Very important. I season w/ S&P when I take it out of fridge so that it "marinates" during that time. I've pre-seasoned further in advance and have found that it dries out the meat. I like larger granules of salt and pepper for a big beefy ribeye. Time to pull out the fleur de sel or sometimes I use Hawaiian red salt for smoky, fruity flavor. I love lots of pepper.
I don't like super high heat, and I believe Alton did a show where he discusses the problems w/ that for steak. You might want to check out his recipes. I sear on med-high and sometimes finish in oven. When done and resting, I like to finish w/ a small pat of butter just to add that extra touch of luxury. Good luck and let us know how it goes!
re: Carb Lover
We were dying to try hangar steak too, but when we did, decided it tasted more like kidney or liver than steak. Just discovered flatiron steak, which we love: it's like flank steak but juicier and tastier. (We did marinade it first) Get it now while it's still cheap! ($2.99 this week locally)
re: A Fish Called Wanda
Well, the "avoid high heat" argument is entirely a matter of personal taste. I don't like a "black" crust either, but I LOVE an intense one. And when I cook on my grill at a very high heat, it's to sear the steak. Then I move it over to where the heat is less hot to finish cooking. I don't like "black and blue" either, but my high-heat method results in an intense crust, and a steak that's evenly cooked through to a perfect rare or medium rare (depending how you want it).
My DH's way to cook a steak works for us:
Take the grass fed, dry aged ribeye or porterhouse out of the fridge an hour before cooking. Rub with salt, fresh ground pepper, and ground or cracked rosemary. Of course, we'll settle for grain fed wet aged from a good butcher-- Whole Foods, McKinnon's, and Lambert's, primarily.
Preheat oven to 350F. Sear the steaks on both sides in a preheated, oven proof cast iron or stainless steel skillet. Put the steak in the oven with an oven thermometer until the steak reaches the desired doneness-- I go by the temp. scale inside How to Cook Everything or the Joy of Cooking.
Remove from oven, let rest five minutes on a plate.
Serve with onions (and mushrooms for me) sauteed in butter, and maybe some A1 sauce or Worcestershire sauce.
We usually eat this with just a salad or some pureed cauliflower with cheddar and cream.
I cook tenderloin, ribeye, or skirt steak, and pick and choose looking for good marbling. I like hanger steak but never see it in stores, I think it does have a slightly different flavour as someone mentioned. I guess I mostly have Choice but will buy something expensive if in the mood. I haven't paid attention to aging or grass fed beef so far.
I usually marinade for 20 minutes or so in balsamic vinegar (no EVOO BTW): this isn't a strong vinegar, it is good for browning and it seems to seal in juices (not carbonized as mentioned above). I salt liberally just before cooking, after blotting up any excess vinegar.
I usually cook steak in my grandmothers cast iron pan at something like medium high on my electric stove. I mostly use a bit of canola these days but used to use butter, sometimes I'll just use salt as my grandmother did. Once I've turned the steak I'll usually add an onion slice to brown as I think the steak and onion flavours go together so well.
I like steak a little past rare, so I agree with the person who said that once the outside is browned it's (nearly) ready. I do use the poking method to judge doneness but there is a 6th sense involved. I haven't tried that Luger's butter trick but will try it. I usually let it rest around 5 minutes while I do other stuff.
As a fellow beantown hound I'll note that the porterhouse cut is reputed to be named after an old hotel, The Porter House in Porter Square, where it was first popularized.
NY strip is not sirloin, at least not here in NY. Sirloin is decent, NY strip is much better but not buttery. Rib eye is buttery. Tenderloin is tender but not as bold in flavor. skirt steak is like a really intense flank. I find hanger steak to be somewhat similiar to skirt steak, great for marinating. Those are the ones we usually get. I also sear the steak on all sides.
I would think grass-fed beef might be leaner as a rule, so if you're looking for a lot of marbling, you might prefer grain-fed beef. I like the flavor of grass-fed beef best.
And at restaurants, my dad always orders his NY strip steaks cooked "Pittsburgh" style and he's had good results. Anyone know what this means?