How to cook the perfect steak, the Southern Kitchen way
Most steak lovers are not terribly discerning when it comes to the choice between having their tranche of cow cooked on a grill or in a pan. The joy of eating a nicely cooked steak often transcends a preferred method of cooking.
However, if you’re looking to cook the perfect steak by either method, there are some tips and techniques you’ll need to know. None require many ingredients or complicated preparations — a hot cooking surface, basic seasonings, and a little planning will send you well on your way to steak nirvana.
Steaks on the grill
When most people think steak, the grill is the first cooking medium that comes to mind. And why not? The smoky char imparted when beef meets those metal grates that are heated by an open flame instantly appeals to our inner cave-dweller. Simply slapping a slab of beef onto the grill may seem inherent to us as evolved humans; however, there are some basic techniques to follow that will make you a more consistent cook.
Proper preparation prevents…
Steak perfection requires at least an hour of advance planning before you even think about putting your meat on the grill. First, it is imperative that you remove your steak from the refrigerator and leave it on the counter for a minimum of one hour to allow the steak to temper (a.k.a. come to room temperature). Why is this necessary? If you were to take a piece of meat directly from the fridge and place it on the grill, the outer portions of the steak would overcook while the inside remains cold, resulting in doneness that resembles a bullseye. Starting with a steak that has a uniform temperature throughout helps keep the meat cooked evenly from top to bottom.
While your steaks are tempering, it’s time to look at the grill. Regardless of whether you’re cooking with gas or charcoal, check that you have adequate fuel on hand. Take time to light your grill and clean the grates of any leftover food debris. Let the grill come up to high heat — between 500 and 700 degrees — before cooking the steaks.
Don’t be afraid of seasoning
You don’t need to have special spice blends or marinades to cook a tasty steak: some simple kosher salt and freshly ground pepper should do the trick. Before seasoning, lightly brush both sides of the meat with oil — olive, vegetable or grapeseed are all good candidates. The oil ensures that the seasoning sticks to the steak and that the steak will not stick to the grill. Next, season the steaks on all sides with salt. The salt needs to adhere to the meat first, after which you can apply the pepper.
Thrill of the grill
Once your grill is hot and the steaks are seasoned, it’s time to put the steaks on the fire. Find the hottest part of the grill and place the steaks down on a diagonal angle. If the grill were a clock, the steaks should start at 10 o’clock. Close the lid when cooking to help create convection for even cooking, almost like an oven. Depending on the thickness of your cut of beef, let the steaks cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Lift the lid and turn the steaks 90 degrees so they’re at to 2 o’clock on the grill, and close the lid again. Cook for another 3 to 4 minutes. Once you see beautiful grill marks worthy of a food magazine pictorial, flip the steaks to cook on the other side. Close the lid and cook until you’ve reached your desired level of doneness, 4 to 10 minutes.
How can you determine if your steak is cooked to your liking? The easiest way to measure a steak’s internal temperature is with an instant-read thermometer. Most thermometers have a tiny indentation about one inch from the tip of the probe, which is where the temperature is actually gauged. Place this sweet spot in the center of the steak and wait for the reading. Look for 115 degrees for rare, 125 for medium-rare, 130 for medium, 145 for medium-well and 160 for well done.
If you don’t own an instant-read thermometer, you can go old-school and use your fingers to accurately determine the internal temperature of your steak. Place the tip of your forefinger against the tip of your thumb, then press down on the “webbing” in your hand at the base of the fingers. That soft, squishy sensation is similar to the texture of a rare steak. Move your forefinger down one joint in your thumb and touch the same area. Somewhat firmer, this closely resembles medium. Finally, place the tip of your forefinger against the base of your thumb and touch the padding again. The firmness should feel like a steak that’s been cooked well done.
Give your steak a breather
Before tearing into your steak, it’s crucial to let the meat to rest for at least five minutes. When a steak comes off the grill, the juices are loose and flowing throughout the meat. Immediately cutting into the steak would cause this flavor-packed liquid to flood out of the steak. No good. Letting the meat rest helps the juices redistribute it throughout the steak, keeping it moist and flavorful.
Steaks in cast iron
If the weather prohibits outdoor cooking (or you just want to unleash your inner Francophile), using a cast iron skillet to cook your steak is a fabulous alternative to the grill. Many of the principles of cooking a steak on the grill also apply to cast iron; however, there are some additional opportunities for flavor in your trusty skillet.
Prep your steak
Much like cooking a steak on the grill, you’ll need to bring your meat to room temperature when cooking in cast iron. If you fancy a filet mignon, tie a piece of butcher’s twine around the center of the steak’s equator. This keeps a uniform shape throughout the cooking process, leading to more consistent doneness. Liberally season the meat with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper while heating your skillet. You’ll want to take this step right before cooking because salt draws the water-soluble proteins to the surface of the meat and creates a damp surface — the enemy of good browning. And good browning, via the Maillard reaction (fancy chef-speak for the process by which the natural sugars in the proteins caramelize), is what we want. While you’re at it, make sure to set the oven to 400 degrees.
Cooking the steak
Heat the cast iron skillet over high heat until it begins to lightly smoke. Add a few tablespoons of vegetable oil and evenly space the steaks inside the pan. Do not move them around, as keeping the steaks stationary helps the crust form on the surface. Once the bottom of the meat has a mahogany color, flip the steaks over. Add five whole cloves of garlic, a few sprigs of fresh thyme and two tablespoons of butter. The butter will aid in further caramelization when we transfer the entire skillet to the oven. Cook until the steak has reached your desired temperature, then place the pan on the stovetop. Add more cold butter and baste the steak as the butter melts. The garlic and thyme-flavored butter adds additional flavor and keeps the meat juicy. Finally, remove the steaks from the pan and allow them to rest before slicing.