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The Best Way to Cook a Thick Steak

As Alain Ducasse noted in the New York Times in 2002 (article here, discussed here), the standard American method of preparing steak involves high heat. I'd say that 99% of steaks I've had at steakhouses and in people's homes have been cooked either on a grill, under a broiler or in a very hot skillet. Yet, some of the best steaks I've ever had have been served at Ducasse's restaurants (and at other restaurants that use similar methods, such as Tom Colicchio's Craft places), where the steaks are prepared using relatively low heat.

Demonstrating this method -- which I think is perhaps the best way to make a steak and has the advantage of being easy to do in the home kitchen with no special equipment -- is something I've been meaning to do for the past six years, ever since that article came out. The other day, though, inspired by the arrival of a USDA Prime 28-ounce dry-aged bone-in rib steak product sample from Lobel's, I decided to do it. Lobel's is arguably the world's preeminent butcher, and Ducasse the world's preeminent chef, so I thought it would be fitting to introduce the method to this fine piece of meat.

One of the points Ducasse makes is that when you have a piece of meat this good, it's a shame to burn it. He prefers, as do I, to get a good crust on the steak with no charring. Once you char a steak, you're substituting the carbonized flavor of burnt flesh and fat for the, in my opinion, more delicious "roasty" flavor of the Maillard reaction and the beef itself.

Okay, so here's the Ducasse method of making a rib steak, as interpreted by me. This is a 45-minute process, assuming you start with a steak that has been allowed to come up to room temperature or that at least has been out of the refrigerator long enough to take the chill off it. The method starts with a skillet -- in my case cast-iron but any good skillet works fine as does a pot like a rondeau -- heated to a medium heat. The steak is started on its edge. The reason for this is twofold: first, it renders the fat so you're able to cook the steak in beef fat (this echoes Ducasse's principles of flavor reinforcement, which are nearly universal in his cooking); second, it creates an appetizing appearance on the edges.

Note that there was no salt or anything added to the steak before cooking, and that the pan is dry -- no oil etc. You're just putting the steak in the skillet on its edge. If you have a big fat steak (a lot of restaurants would call this a cote de boeuf) then at first it will stand on its edge without help. But eventually you'll have to get creative with the geometry by leaning and propping the steak against the sides of the skillet in order to keep it upright while exposing as many parts of the edge as possible to the heat. If you're willing to stand there with tongs and secure the meat in various positions for 10 minutes you'll get an even more uniform and beautiful crust. Here's how this process unfolds during the first 10 or so minutes of cooking:

Now it's time to cook the steak on its flat faces, 10 minutes on a side. The way I prefer to do this, which is not exactly the same as how Ducasse recommends in the Times but is something I've seen done in restaurant kitchens, is to dump out enough of the beef fat so that there's a thin coating of it left in the pan, plop the steak on its flat face, and add a couple of tablespoons of butter.

A lot of people recoil at the notion of using butter as a cooking fat with steak, but I've found that butter has two excellent properties: 1- butter, more than most any other fat I know of, is a huge aid to the Maillard reaction, and 2- the combination of butter and beef fat makes a tastier cooking medium for steak than oil.

Meanwhile, I've been cooking some potatoes over medium heat in a nearby skillet. I should mention that if you're looking for a good, simple potato dish to accompany your steak then home fries are a possibility and happen to take the same 45 minutes that the steak takes to cook. There are a lot of ways to make home fries but this is a method that has worked for me and seems to make home fries that work particularly well with beef. You start with roughly chopped potatoes, salt, pepper and olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. The ratio I'm using here is two medium-size russet potatoes and half a large onion. The onion will go in later, though. If you start the onions and potatoes together, the onions will burn.

Now, after about 10 minutes the butter has browned to the point where, if we don't do something, it's going to start imparting burnt flavors to the steak.

In the first stages of browning, butter has desirable flavors. But eventually, even with medium heat, it breaks down. So it's time to renew the butter by dumping the cooking fat and adding another couple of tablespoons. I believe Ducasse recommends only adding the butter towards the end of cooking, but I think the steak comes out a little better when you use butter all the way through to coax a little more of the Maillard reaction from the steak.

So we are at the 20-minute mark. We've browned our edges and cooked one side of the steak in a mixture of beef fat and butter for 10 minutes over medium heat. We've dumped the fat and flipped the steak. Witness the crust:

Once I saw that crust -- beautifully browned but not at all charred -- for the first time I became a believer in the Ducasse method. But it gets better. Now you add some more butter, let it melt, and spoon it over the crust (aka basting). This is also when I sprinkle the steak liberally with coarse salt. I know this is much, much later in the cooking process than anybody will tell you to salt a steak, but I find that it yields good results.

Now the steak will have to rest for 15 minutes in a warm place (the Ducasse rule of thumb is to rest meat for half as long as you cooked it) before being carved. I use a warm plate near the stove. A 150-degree oven is also an option, and if you use on oven you can rest even longer without worrying about the steak getting too cool to be appetizing.

This is when I add the onions and some butter to the potatoes. It's a convenient timing mechanism: no onions until the steak is out of the pan. It prevents the onions from burning before the potatoes are done, and it also has the benefit of really forcing you to let the steak rest because your potatoes won't be done until the steak is fully rested.

If you look at the Times piece, there are some slight variants between the instructions there and the way I do it. In part that's because I'm not good at following instructions and in part it's because I've seen some variation in actual Ducasse restaurant kitchens where I've spent time watching the line cooks cook steaks. Most of all the method affords a lot of flexibility, so a little more or less flipping, turning and time won't have a huge impact the way it might on a super-hot charcoal grill or under a Jade upright broiler.

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  1. I find it interesting that he objects to "substituting the carbonized flavor of burnt flesh and fat for the, in my opinion, more delicious "roasty" flavor of the Maillard reaction and the beef itself," yet is fine with adding butter to impart flavor to the beef, and impart flavor it will, especially if basting.

    1. Too much work for me. I prefer Heston Blumental's method where he roasts the steak at very low heat (I use around 225F) until the insides reach about 95-100F. Then I sear both sides and let it rest and it should come out to about 120F (I like my steak rare). He "dry brines" the steak similar to the zuni method where he salts the steak I believe a day ahead of time. I don't do that either. Not as detailed as your post, but you get the point.

      You can leave it in the oven for a bit longer if you wish to bring it up to medium rare, etc.

      1 Reply
      1. re: darrentran87

        generally, the best way to cook a steak is fast - over high heat, turning only once. Do not poke holes in the steak as it only creates an escape route for all the natural juices and makes your steak dry. Since the steak is so thick and you may want to broil it in the oven on the farthest rack from the heat. That will make it cook more slowly so it wont burn on the outside. Cook them slow on the grill. Use a meat thermometer to make sure they are done on the inside. Any ways exchange of opinion is always good and i will surely try it , and please give me other suggestions also.

        Thanks and regards
        Andy Steven (Ireland)

      2. I cook with high heat 95% of the time because that's the way we prefer it, but that's the beauty of home cooking, to each his own.

        1. We cooked a 2 1/2" bone-in rib-eye last night and used this method. It was without a doubt one of the very best steaks we've ever eaten.

          I should mention that the meat itself was grass-fed and dry-aged, so we were starting with a spectacular raw ingredient, but following this method took the fabulous steak and turned it into one of those meals where we just kept mmmming throughout every bite.

          thanks for posting!

          1 Reply
          1. re: the_beezelet

            I agree. It's a very good post about a very good approach to preparing a valuable piece of meat. I think it just seems so counterintuitive to what has been going on in our homes and backyards for so long, that many will automatically shy away from trying it. Than again, I suppose most people also shy away from very large cuts as the "one steak per person" seems to be the more common practice.

            There are several discussions scattered about these forums concerning using lower temperatures for a variety of meats. I have found them both informative and interesting. In fact, I have used them as my own impetus for experimentation. Recently, I was even playing with the concepts in this thread while trying to use a slowly dying wood fire.

          2. While the theory is sound, a much better method (and easier) is sous vide.

            1. Just to confirm- it is only cooked on the one side, correct?

              3 Replies
              1. re: millygirl

                No, it should cook about ten minutes on both sides. Here's a link to the referenced article: http://www.nytimes.com/2002/02/27/din...

                1. re: MGZ

                  I think that should probably read ten minutes on *each* side. The OP notes that it is flipped at the 20 minute mark and cooks for a total of 30 minutes before the resting period.

                  1. re: acgold7

                    Incidentally (not directed specifically to acgold7), I think you'd get a more even gradient of doneness (less overcooked near the surface) with no damage to the formation of the crust in this particular recipe if you flipped the steak often during cooking, rather than just once. Note that this can bring down the cooking time by just a little bit.

              2. Tried this tonight with 1.5-1.75" thick ribeye from Costco and was very pleased with the results. I salted before cooking and added some garlic to the pan as suggested by Ducasse. With the pan (cast iron) on medium heat, I found that the butter never needed to be dumped and replaced, as it never got overly brown. My steak took about 6 minutes to brown the edges and 7-8 minutes on each face, at which point the temp was 115 internal according to my Thermapen. I pulled it and let it rest for 20 mins, tented in foil. When I sliced it was perfectly cooked, on the rare side of medium rare, with a delicious brown crust. I will definitely do this with my thick steaks from now on.

                1. Thank you!! I just cooked the best thick steak I've ever done. I got so excited halfway through that I forgot entirely to try using butter. Next time. Wow.

                  1. I'm trying to remember who came up with this, but some online cooking maven or another found that frequent flipping of a burger caused the surface to cook more gently and the insides more evenly. I would assume this would work for steaks too.

                    I must say, however, that if I paid the kind of money andysteven probably paid for such a noble piece of meat, no effort would be "too much work"!

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: Will Owen

                      Interesting. Maybe McDonald's and others should implement a frequent flipping policy. But why tamper with success.

                      I occurred to me that most restaurants probably don't use this method because it does take longer.

                      I also used this recently to brown a tri-tip pot roast and a pork loin pot roast with very good results.

                      My steak was really spectacular, though. I don't know anything about cuts of beef, but I paid five dollars for my twelve ounce steak.

                      I'll have to try other cuts, too.

                      This is what I was working with:

                       
                       
                      1. re: bobusa

                        For thin cuts of meat, flipping frequently tends to result in just a bit less browning/crust formation by the time the steak is cooked. For thicker cuts, it doesn't matter so much, since the steak typically still needs more cooking after the crust is formed.

                        Flipping often actually makes the meat cook a bit quicker. But it requires more tending per piece of meat which is probably why restaurants don't do it. That and culinary tradition/myth.

                        1. re: cowboyardee

                          I wasn't clear. I meant to say I think the medium heat way described in the article takes longer. But for all I know it might be faster.

                      2. re: Will Owen

                        Mr Will Owen, I know Kenji from seriouseats ( http://www.seriouseats.com/2013/07/th... ) did a great test on it showing that flipping steaks will cook more even.

                        To OP (I know this is a super old post too), Heston Blumenthal also recommends the low heat method then quick sear at the end for his steaks. This is the only way I do my steaks now :)... that is until I get my Sansaire sous vide machine :D

                      3. Wow, way to gay up cooking a steak.

                        3 Replies
                            1. Most amazing steaks I have ever had start frozen:

                              www.nytimes.com/.../modernist-cuisine...

                              This method sounds silly, but the results are extraordinary if you start with excellent rib-eye and want your steaks juicy pink for every morsel between the outside char.

                              1. This is what I use. A cheap slate walking stone. I love it for steak either gas or charcoal. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HynIvk...

                                1 Reply