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Bringing steaks to room temperature before cooking?

f
foreverhungry Jul 8, 2010 07:32 AM

The rule of thumb is to let steaks come to room temperature before grilling them. And while I have done this myself countless times, the logic behind it escapes me. Yes, something about more even cooking. But with steaks, isn't that what we precisely want to avoid - even cooking between the exterior and interior?

Here's my logic: In general, folks like their steaks medium rare, about 130 - 135F. And the exterior of the steak should be nicely seared, which occurs at high temperature. So there is a big temperature difference between the exterior and interior of the steak (about 300F) - the exterior temperature changes a lot, while the interior temperature changes relatively little. Put another way, the steak has to be on the grill long enough to sear the exterior, but not so long as to raise the interior temp to more than 135F.

Given that, what is the logic in letting a steak come to room temperature, and thus raising the steak's interior temperature to 70F? The exterior temperature will increase very quickly once the steak goes on the grill regardless of it's starting temperature, so bringing the exterior temp to 70F is meaningless for searing purposes. But why speed up the process of bringing the interior temp up, when we want to avoid over-heating the interior?

So, recently, I took a 1 1/2" Strip, rubbed the exterior with a mixture of salt, pepper, and a little cornstarch, and put the steak in the freezer for about 15 minutes - enough to chill it, but certainly not enough to freeze it. I grilled it for a total of about 9 minutes. The result was a crusty seared exterior, and a medium-rare interior. Huh.

Any thoughts or comments? Does my logic sound completely daft? And what is the true logic behind bringing a steak to room temperature before grilling? (note - I get bringing big cuts of meat to room temp that get roasted, braised, or slow BBq-ed, those where there will be no or little difference between internal and external temperature...).

  1. Funwithfood Jun 25, 2011 11:39 PM

    This is an interesting post. I like medium rare steaks and have come to the conclusion that taking them out of the refrigerator for a few minutes is okay, but not for long. Whereas, I'll leave a tri-tip out for an hour because I'm better able to achieve even cooking (not raw inside) by so doing.

    1. eatzalot Jul 8, 2010 01:03 PM

      I don't know how often this same subject has reappeared on Chowhound, but before every point is rehashed yet again, and in case it covers points the current one doesn't, you might want to read through a long example from last year:

      http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/632150

      I'de dealt with this issue less often with steaks than with thicker cuts (like the "tri-tip"), for grilling or roasting. I've found it extremely effective to first rub whatever seasonings onto the outside, then wrap the roast in a plastic bag and THEN in a couple layers of kitchen towels or newspapers and leave it for a couple hours at cool room temperature.

      What that does (for any remaining physics majors or other interested readers) is add deliberate thermal resistance between the meat and the environment. That both slows the incursion of heat from the environment, and I think more importantly, makes the raw meat's internal temperature tend to equilibrate (compared to just leaving the meat out, which will give a sharper temperarature gradient from outside to inside as it slowly warms up). I need to wait anyway, for my spice rub to penetrate. (When I do cook the meat, it's still cooler than room temperature, but more uniform than if I didn't insulate.

      )

      The end result is a more consistent, easily controlled doneness, e.g. medium-rare or rare, which works out nicely, especially if the meat is for a further use, like slicing for sandwiches. Using this method with a given cut, I can judge doneness pretty reliably by touch, noting the tensing up as it cooks.

      1. w
        weezycom Jul 8, 2010 08:57 AM

        I let my steaks get the chill off because, although I do like rare to medium-rare steaks, I don't want them near-charred on the outside to bring the center up to temp with that tough gray ring of meat near the outer edge. I find I get a more consistent, more tender throughout, result.

        1. grampart Jul 8, 2010 07:41 AM

          I've always interpreted the suggestion as "let the steaks sit at room temp for 30 minutes before grilling", NOT to let the meat come to room temp. While looking for an answer to your inquiry, I found this interesting entry.

          http://lifehacker.com/5571192/seven-m...

          10 Replies
          1. re: grampart
            l
            letorthopper Jul 8, 2010 08:07 AM

            I always thought that a cold steak "shell" meeting a really hot surface would increases stick and the likelihood of burning. So I thought that warming it up will produce a better sear. I also wonder if letting it come to temp releases some of the absorbed liquid from your average steak - although when I buy a nicer steak from a reputable place this is rarely the issue. As an aside: I'm convinced my Giant is pumping water into steaks to raise the wt, but that's another post entirely!

            Mostly though I haven't given it much thought and was just going through the motions.

            I wonder if Harold McGee, or someone of his ilk, has anything to say about this. The article's got me thinking.

            1. re: letorthopper
              l
              letorthopper Jul 8, 2010 08:27 AM

              Turns out Harold McGee does suggest starting with very cold meat so that a sear can be achieved more quickly and the steak can then be moved off high heat.

              Second page, paragraph 6. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/02/din...

              This is pretty nice to know... I'm frequently delaying dinner by forgetting to take the steaks out early enough.

              1. re: letorthopper
                f
                foreverhungry Jul 8, 2010 10:27 AM

                Interesting. So it seems both Raichlen and McGee advocate using ice-cold steaks and moving them straight to the grill, which to me, makes a lot of sense given the difference in temperatures you want to achieve.

                Interestingly, there was a thread for Minneapolis/St. Paul on where to buy top steaks, and most folks said they left their steaks out at room temp for at least an hour "to ensure even cooking". That's what spurred this question.

                Any more thoughts or references on the topic would be much appreciated. Thanks for the great answers so far!

                1. re: foreverhungry
                  ipsedixit Jul 8, 2010 10:41 AM

                  The typical sear-oven method works esp. well when you have ice cold steaks -- it gives a better char on the outside without overcooking the inside. (Note: I generally like to take my steak out of the fridge and pop it in the freezer for anywhere between 10-30 minutes, depending on thckness, which creates a nice frozen crust; don't recommend trying to grill a frozen piece of meat, however).

                  However, when you use the reverse sear method, I find that it is better to let the steak come to room temp, so that you can more easily avoid "cooking" the steak when you place it initially in the oven.

                  1. re: ipsedixit
                    f
                    foreverhungry Jul 8, 2010 11:01 AM

                    So by the "reverse sear" method, you mean letting the steak come to room temp, popping the steak in the oven for X amount of time to get the center to 130F (or less, allowing for residual heating), then pulling the steak out and searing it in a super hot skillet? I've never tried that method. What's the advantage of that over the traditional sear then oven method?

                    1. re: foreverhungry
                      ipsedixit Jul 8, 2010 11:13 AM

                      Yes, that's correct.

                      I think, for me anyways, the reverse sear method works better with thicker cuts (2" or more).

                      1. re: ipsedixit
                        k
                        krick Jul 8, 2010 12:27 PM

                        Interesting - for thicker cuts, I've always seared first then put in the oven to finish. Why reverse sear?

                        Apart from that, I wonder if it matters if you are cooking to rare instead of medium rare. I like mine rare, and I'd be concerned that if I started with an ice cold thick steak, in the amount of time it would take to get the center rare, too much of the steak would be medium rare or more. I might have to run a side by side test on this.

                  2. re: foreverhungry
                    a
                    athanasius Jun 25, 2011 09:11 PM

                    This is an old thread, but I've recently been thinking a lot about this question and have reviewed this thread as well as the one linked in a post below. Also, in case the OP is still looking for perspectives, here are a few thoughts from my own experience and research:

                    "Interesting. So it seems both Raichlen and McGee advocate using ice-cold steaks and moving them straight to the grill, which to me, makes a lot of sense given the difference in temperatures you want to achieve."

                    Yes and no. Note that McGee advocates this ONLY as part of a two-stage process. And it should be noted that this is a two-stage process which many home cooks are unlikely to follow, if they follow traditional grilling timelines.

                    What I mean is that McGee describes the following:

                    "On the grill, this means having high- and low-heat zones and moving the food from one to the other. On the stove top or in the oven, start at 450 or 500 degrees, and then turn the heat down to around 250, ideally taking the food out until the pan or oven temperature has fallen significantly."

                    While many cooks use a two-stage process for steaks -- i.e., sear, then roast in an oven or closed grill -- few advocate a temperature as low as 250 for the second stage. And many recipes I've seen for indoor steak cooking argue for moving the pan the steak is in directly from the stovetop sear to the oven (often at medium to high heat), rather than McGee's advice to remove the meat until the cooking area has cooled to 250.

                    Anyhow, the issue of using a temperature of 250 is that it could take a LONG time for a steak to warm up throughout at that temperature, particularly if the steak is rather thick and/or extra cold to begin with.

                    In other words, for a thick, cold steak, we could be talking about a sear for just a couple minutes and then a bake of 30-60 minutes or more to get to medium rare. Most people are simply not used to taking so long to cook a steak. It's not that you couldn't do it, but most people expect to cook a steak in ~10-15 minutes. It might seem reasonable to many people to wait for a thin steak to come up to temperature, but if you're looking at a 2-inch thick or more cut, you might be waiting a couple hours for a frozen or semi-frozen steak to come to temperature in a 250-degree oven.

                    (By the way, McGee's method is great for roasts in general. Low and slow is definitely the best. But it's not going to make for a quick-cooked steak, unless you're talking about something really thin.)

                    Having said all that, if you want to grill your steak at a relatively "normal" pace, rather than slow-roasting it, bringing it to room temperature does help. Why? Because you always end up with a gradient between the crust (which gets really hot) and the center (which will obviously warm up the slowest).

                    If you're cooking at a really low temperature (as in the sous vide method McGee also mentions), the heat has plenty of time to gradually warm all the meat all the way through to the center. If you roast at 250 F, the heat still works its way inward rather slowly, leaving a rather gradual gradient between perhaps a medium layer near the surface and medium-rare in the center.

                    On the other hand, if you cook at high temperature on a grill or put into a hot oven after the sear, the heat will be forcing itself into the meat at a much greater rate. You thus have a better chance of developing a significant well-done layer near the edge, followed by a medium-well layer, then medium, etc. all the way to rare or blue in the center. When I have had bistecca alla fiorentina in Florence, which is often a t-bone about 3 inches thick grilled on a very hot grill (usually over 800 degrees), you'd clearly see this pattern... there's no way to avoid such a pattern in a 3-inch steak unless you had a period of slow-roasting. And in fact, the pattern is usually expected in that dish.

                    But most steak lovers who are cooking somewhat thinner (yet perhaps more than an inch thick) steaks are interested in having a steak that is mostly medium-rare inside.

                    Here's where the room temperature comes in -- the longer the meat stays in medium to high heat, the farther that gradient of well-done and medium-well meat will penetrate into the steak. So, if you start with a steak whose center is 70 degrees, it only needs to rise 50 or 60 degrees before you remove it from the heat source (and let the center temperature continue rising a few degrees for a thick steak). For a steak starting at 32-40 degrees in refrigeration (or even lower for slightly frozen), the required temperature rise in the center is now almost 100 degrees, which means a longer time on the grill or hot oven, which means more well-done steak near the surface.

                    For thin steaks, this isn't much of an issue. But once you get up to an inch thick or more, it will make some difference. You can follow McGee's advice for a cold steak, but then you'd probably need 45 minutes in a 250 F oven to finish your 1.5-inch steaks. If, as you say, you finished them in less than 9 minutes on the grill, warming to room temperature probably still has some advantages. Whether those advantages are that significant will depend a lot on your grill or oven/stove temperature, how frequently you flip, and a lot of other things. I have definitely seen an undesirable gradient appear in steaks that are only a half-inch thick when searing on the stove at very high heat, but much less of a gradient when I've let the steak warm to room temperature. I don't have that issue, though, if I flip very frequently and sear at a lower temperature, but then I don't get as nice of a crust.

                    As a hybrid approach, you might try letting the steaks come to room temperature, then placing them for a short time in a VERY cold freezer, to cool down the outermost layer, and then searing them. The short cold shock might help keep the layer of meat right below the surface from turning to well-done as fast, thus achieving your aim, but the center should still be close to room temperature, which will allow your steak to cook faster and thus create less of a gradient. (This method would be similar to the recent extreme idea advocated in a New York Times story about cooking a hamburger sous vide to medium rare for an hour, then dipping it into liquid nitrogen to freeze the outermost layer, and then torching the outside. The nitrogen dip keeps the torch heat from penetrating too far, thereby protecting the inner meat that is closer to being done.)

                    1. re: athanasius
                      cowboyardee Jun 26, 2011 07:59 AM

                      I think you're right on. But basically, to distill your point (correct me if I miss anything or if you disagree):

                      This only applies when cooking steaks traditionally - hot and fast. Allowing refrigerated meat to come to room temperature is a trade-off - you are focusing less on crust formation in turn for a more even doneness gradient in the meat (and because of this, generally more tender meat for a given doneness at the center of the steak). This is an excellent trade-off to make when cooking thick or even moderately thick steaks because any high heat method of cooking will ensure plenty of browning/crust formation by the time a thick steak is cooked through enough to rest. For thin steaks, cooking directly from the fridge is probably more advisable, since the cold center buys you extra searing time for a decent crust, and the doneness gradient of a thin piece is less problematic.

                      1. re: athanasius
                        drongo Jun 26, 2011 03:57 PM

                        Yes, you’re right, athanasius. In the absence of the two-step process, he recommends essentially the opposite – i.e. warming rather than chilling. Here’s what McGee says (“On Food and Cooking”, 2nd ed., p. 156):

                        “Because grilling and frying involve high heat, they tend to overcook the outer portions of meat while the interior cooks through. This overcooking can be minimized in two ways… The warmer the meat starts out, the less time it takes to cook through, and so the less time the outer layers are expose to high heat. The cooking and overcooking time can be reduced by a third or more by wrapping steaks and chops, immersing them for 30-60 minutes in warm water, so that they approach body temperature, 100F/40C, and then cooking immediately…”

                        (The second of the “two ways” referred to by McGee involves exposing the meat to intense infrared heating intermittently -- e.g. by flipping frequently… or, even better, using rotisserie or spit roast.)

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