With The Right Skillet, Cooking Steak At Home Is Simple
Producing a steak at home that matches or exceeds one served at a top steakhouse involves just three components: a suitable cut of beef (see sidebar), seasoning, and an adequate heat source. Though some pretty complex stuff is happening, awareness of the fundamentals behind flavor and texture goes a long way toward proper cooking. Armed with knowledge and preparation, those of us with even the most basic home kitchens can bang out a pro steak.
The two critical factors in cooking a steak are browning and moisture retention. The dark, aromatic crust that is the hallmark of a good steak is produced by a chemical process called the Maillard reaction, in which amino acids react with simple sugars (glucose in the case of beef) to produce numerous complex molecules with irregular shapes that scatter light, making them appear brown and smell and taste savory. (The Maillard reaction is also what produces browning in everything from sautéed onions to bread crust and dark beer, and is not to be confused with caramelization, which is an altogether different phenomenon.) In beef, a subsequent process called Strecker degradation further contributes flavor and produces fond, the brown sticky stuff that is the basis for pan gravy. The reaction occurs most readily around 230 degrees Fahrenheit, and since water cannot rise above 212, surface moisture must first be vaporized for best results.
Searing in a moderately hot pan accomplishes this--the sizzle is the sound of rapidly evaporating water--but takes time to do so. As a result, a piece of meat's outer surfaces can overcook and dry out with the center remaining raw in a thick steak, while a thin cut can cook completely through before sufficient browning occurs. To minimize moisture loss, steakhouses have broilers that blast steaks at 1,800 degrees and induce browning very quickly. The steaks then finish cooking in a cooler part of the oven. Note that searing is purely for flavor and does not actually seal in moisture at all.
The two best ways to achieve a proper crust at home are with a stupid-hot cast-iron skillet (left on a full flame for three to four minutes on a gas range) and, for those of us lucky enough to have a backyard, lump charcoal in a grill. Using only large chunks of real charcoal (briquettes contain impurities that inhibit high heat) stacked in a pyramid with the intake vents wide open can get you over 1,000 degrees of heat. The lower output of a home gas range is offset by the excellent heat retention of cast iron. A 10-inch pan is around $10 at H&H Surplus.
Browning shouldn't require lubrication, unless you're using a cast-iron pan and it isn't properly seasoned, meaning it hasn't developed a natural nonstick surface from repeated oiling and heating. If so, or if you're unsure, add clarified butter or a neutral-flavor refined vegetable oil (e.g., canola, grape seed) to the pan just before searing. Every chef on Earth is on extra-virgin olive oil's jock these days, and not without good reason, but it isn't the oil for this particular job: Because it's unrefined and sometimes unfiltered, olive oil begins to smoke and degrade at a low temperature, producing unpleasant flavors.
Start by allowing the meat to come to room temperature by leaving it out for about 15 minutes. This idle time can be used to season the steak. Being a bit of a purist, I use only kosher salt, and sometimes fresh black pepper, on my steak. Anything more elaborate is simply overkill. Salting in advance helps draw out moisture from the surface, aiding crust formation, but does not penetrate deeply enough to affect overall moistness.
I've found that roasting a two-inch-thick steak in a 350-degree oven for 15 minutes yields a nice medium rare. You can test doneness via the poking method--firmer equals more well-done--but this requires practice and becomes less reliable for thicker cuts, so I recommend using a probe thermometer (about 150 degrees for medium rare) or making a small cut and inspecting visually. Don't shudder at the notion of precious juices lost; the damage is mostly cosmetic and moisture loss is highly localized if the incision is small.
Once the steak is seasoned, the coals or pan hot, and oven preheated, the execution is simple. Browning should take just a couple or three minutes on each side. When using a pan you may want to let it reheat for a minute before searing the second side. A lot of smoke is produced, so you may want to disable any smoke detectors temporarily. After sufficient crust formation, roast in the oven to desired doneness. It's worth mentioning that reversing the order--roast first, sear second--works beautifully. This may be more convenient for some, since the precooked steaks can be refrigerated up to a few days, with only a quick searing needed when ready to eat. If you're eating it directly after roasting, it is vital to allow the steak a brief resting period to allow the muscle cells to unclench and the hot, volatile liquids inside to cool and reabsorb into them.
And that's it. It may look a bit naked, bereft of any other bit players like sauce or mushrooms or what have you, but hopefully the inner beauty has been revealed somewhat, an expression of both careful human manipulation and serendipitous nature.
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