That thick, sizzling steak you’re about to devour is amazing: Behold its marbled, mahogany crust framing a pink, juicy interior that slices like warm butter and literally melts in your mouth..
What makes this magnificent steak even more incredible is that you aren’t dining in a great, leathery New York chop house. You cooked this baby at home...
Think it’s impossible to duplicate a Peter Luger Porterhouse in your own kitchen? Read on.
After interviewing local butchers, chefs, and food scientists, we have uncovered some of the secrets, tricks and myths of cooking a perfect steak at home.
LET YOURSELF GO
Every expert agreed the first secret to steakhouse quality is to start the way a Palm or Sparks does -- with a prime, dry-aged cut of your favorite beef.
Sure, dry-aged meat is insanely expensive. But the result is crazy delicious! Aging tenderizes the beef and concentrates its flavor to levels so pleasurable that cost—in cash, calories, and cholesterol -- suddenly seems negligible
"Steak is a luxury item,” legendary Hudson Valley Chef Peter X. Kelly points out. "You save steak for very special meals, so why scrimp?"
Kelly knows something about steak. In a Rib Eye throwdown on Iron Chef, he slaughtered Bobby Flay at his own game. The chef acknowledges that because of its prohibitive expense, dry-aged beef is not always available to the public.
Fortunately in Southern Connecticut, you can find it at such markets as Saugatuck Craft Butchery in Westport, Fairway in Stamford, Prime in Ridgefield, and Greenwich Prime Meats, to name a few.
If beef is vacuum packed in plastic from slaughter to store, it will undergo some aging. But don't be misled, that's wet, not dry aging, and they really don’t compare.
"Technically, all our steaks at Fairway are aged," Dennis Bland, the company’s head meat maven, told us. "But only beef that is dry-aged for weeks under controlled temperature and humidity has the depth of flavor you expect in a great steak.”
All cuts perform differently, especially when it comes to texture and taste. Surprisingly, few people know exactly what profile they most enjoy.
"I sometimes think of customers as either Rib or Filet," Ryan Fibiger of Saugatuck Craft Butchery says with a smile. "Rib People are looking for flavor. Filet People want tenderness."
Turns out that Flavor and Tenderness are tradeoffs. The most tender muscles – like the tenderloin --do the least work. However, these cuts are also least flavorful.
On the other hand, the weight bearing muscles exert more energy, building flavor, but toughening the fiber.
So if you enjoy flavor over tenderness, choose the hard working, heavily marbled Sirloin or Rib. For balance between flavor and tenderness, opt for Porterhouse (seen above) and T-Bone, which get less exercise. The lean Filet muscle is the most tender, though least tasty. To impart more flavor, Fibiger recommends ordering the mignon on the bone. (would that be “Un-filet Mignon”?) or wrapping the disk in bacon.
Chef Kelly also believes that bone-in not only provides flavor benefits, it also conducts heat within the meat for a more even cook.
While rib and loin cuts dominate most butchers’ cases, Fibiger encourages customers, especially those who crave flavor, to consider less expensive cuts away from the middle of the animal, like the tri-tip and bavette. Though tough, these tasty steaks can be tenderized with marinades and strategic butchering, cooking and slicing. Just ask your butcher.
The experts contend that a classical steak should be no thinner than 1½ inches (and the smaller filet at least 2 inches high). This thickness allows sufficient time to achieve a tasty crust without overcooking the middle. Ideally. A good steakhouse cut is between 2 to 2 ½ inches.
Meat is seared primarily for taste and eye appeal. Contrary to popular opinion, crusting does not seal in the juices, nor does it “caramelize” the steak surface (like a crème brulee).
When beef is fired, the exterior reaches a higher temperature than the inside, triggering the so called “Maillard Reaction” which creates strong, deep flavors on the surface. The chemistry goes by less scientific names such as searing, browning, and charring, none of which are to be confused with burning, which carbonizes the meat, destroys flavor, and can produce carcinogens.
MAILLARD AND MOISTURE
Moisture on the surface of the steak can literally “boil” the exterior, the evaporation cooling the surface and inhibiting the crucial chemical reaction. So top chefs thoroughly pat down the meat with paper towels before it goes on the fire.
Some scientists also believe that the Maillard Reaction works best in an alkaline environment. One recommends lightly dusting the steak surface with baking soda to increase the PH.(In the name of science, we gulped and tried it. To our surprise, it resulted in a very tasty, attractive crust -- with no notes of baking soda!)
PAN FRY VS. GRILL.
The Maillard Reaction accelerates in high heat, but it certainly doesn’t require the blast furnace temperatures of restaurant equipment. You can achieve extreme heat at home using a cast iron skillet that’s been fired on a stove top.
As opposed to a grill, a pan maximizes contact between the steak and the hot surface. This extra real estate results in a more complete crust than a grill, where the crust is confined to the hatch marks. (That’s why grilled steaks taste best when cross hatched. The design isn’t done just for style points, but to double the crust area.)
While all our experts confessed they grill outdoors for convenience, especially on hot summer days, most agree that the kitchen stove offers more control, higher heat, and a more robust Maillard Reaction.
“Just be sure you’ve got enough windows open,” Ryan Fibiger cautions,” so you don’t set off the smoke alarms.”
TWO ZONE COOKING
Whether working on a grill or a stove, most experts utilize two different heats: high to sear the exterior, low to finish the interior.
When grilling outdoors, pros like Fairway’s Dennis Bland place the steak directly over white hot coals for a fast sear, then move the steak to a grill area without burning coals, and cover the bowl so that indirect heat will gently cook the middle of the meat.
Indoors, the sear is created in the cast iron skillet, and the finish takes place in an oven set to a moderate baking temperature.
Whether at the grill or in the oven, an accurate meat thermometer to judge doneness is essential, Though pricey, experts recommend the Thermapen,
STEPS TO THE BEST STEAK YOU CAN MAKE AT HOME
Prior to the prep, rub kosher salt on both sides of the steak and place in refrigerator for at least 45 minutes This will allow the briny liquid drawn out by the salt sufficient time to be reabsorbed, drawing the salt deeper in the meat..
- With vent on high (and maybe a door or window open) place a cast iron pan upon your stove top’s hottest burner. Heat it for at least10 minutes and set the oven at 300 degrees.
- Pat the steak dry. Apply oil that has a high smoke point (such as grapeseed). Next lightly salt the steak a second time with a very coarse sea salt for texture. Do not pepper yet, as it will burn at over 400 degrees.
- Using tongs, place the steak vertically in the pan (on its fatty edge) and rotate the perimeter to render and crust the fat. This may take a few minutes.
- Sear each side of the steak for 2½ minutes apiece, basting with the rendered fat. Flip only once – using tongs, not a fork.
- Wearing an insulated mitt -- that handle is flesh searing hot -- place the pan and steak in the oven and heat until the meat thermometer reaches 5 degrees below your preferred doneness temperature. (That would be 115-120 for medium rare, the favorite of most experts.)
- With tongs, remove the steak from the pan and rest it on a rack for 10 minutes to recirculate the juices that have migrated to the edges. The meat will continue to cook an extra five degrees. (No need to tent the steak with aluminum foil or cut it to check for doneness.)
- Before serving, pepper the steak to taste. And give in to what Peter Kelly calls, ““The Chef’s secret helper.” – a pad (or dot) of butter, which glistens the sear and richens the taste.
- Serve and accept all raves with humility..
CTBites’ Jeff Schlesinger has enjoyed success cooking steaks sous-vide, especially cuts he could fast grill, like a NY Strip. He reports the texture is a bit softer and the exterior is reddish grey, even though the Maillard Reaction is perfect. The challenge is to achieve more of steakhouse eye appeal for the crust. So it’s still a work in progress. But he adds, “The flavor and juiciness are spectacular.”