I was just on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour discussing how to cook the perfect steak. It’s a complicated issue that’s difficult to cover in 10 minutes of airtime, but the basics are helpfully recapped on the Woman’s Hour website. I typed this up yesterday as a more in-depth summation of the whole process.
The Perfect Steak
aged sirloin steak, 300-500g (3-5 cm thick)
smoked sea salt
The perfect steak has to start with really high-quality meat. It won’t be cheap, but then steak is not an everyday food. In general, you should look for breed known for complexity of flavor, such as Aberdeen Angus, Longhorn, or if you’re really feeling flush, Wagyu. But even among meat from the same breed, not all steaks are equal – different diets produce different results, and of course aged beef will taste different (many would say better) than beef from a freshly slaughtered cow. Look for meat that’s well-marbled; it should have little ripples of fat integrated with the muscle fibers. Whether or not to go with aged beef is a matter of personal preference, but there are certain benefits to beef that’s been hung for a few weeks. As the meat ages, it dries out slightly, which concentrates its flavor. As the cow’s cells break down, they release enzymes that start breaking down other molecules into smaller ones, producing new, intense flavors, and degrading proteins that cause toughness in the finished steak. Aged meat turns dark and dry along the exposed surface; this part of the beef can be chewy and can harbor harmful microbes, so your butcher should trim it off before portioning your steaks.
If you take a highly precise, scientific approach to cooking the steak, it becomes a prohibitively complicated endeavor. The food chemist Harold McGee dedicates no less than 17 pages to cooking meat in his encyclopedia of kitchen science, and his conclusion is still to use your intuition and senses when cooking a steak to perfection. “Cookbooks are full of formulas for obtaining a given doneness, but these are at best rough approximations. The best instruments for monitoring the doneness of meat,” he writes, “remain the cook’s eye and finger.” There are so many variables in cooking steak – pan temperature, thickness, cut, fat content, age, etc. – and trying to monitor and account for all of them is practically impossible. It is best to stick to a few rules of thumb, but always bear in mind that they may not always yield exactly the same results. You have to trust your instincts, and remember: if meat is undercooked, you can always cook it longer, but overcooking is irrevocable. Always err on the side of rare.
Start with a frying pan with a good, solid base that distributes heat evenly. Blast it with heat on your strongest burner; let it sit on the heat for at least 5 minutes to get really screaming hot. The high heat will ensure the steak develops a gloriously flavorful, toothsome brown crust. You should start with a steak at room temperature, but if you’ve forgotten to take it out of the fridge ahead of time, don’t worry. Just remember that it will take a little bit longer for it to cook through. Rub the steak all over with generous amounts of smoked sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, and a neutral vegetable oil (I use rapeseed). The smoked sea salt is optional, but I find it lends a pleasant barbecue-ish flavor. Now it is time to cook.
For a sirloin, start the cooking by laying it in the pan on the edge with the thick band of fat. Fat does not conduct heat as well as meat, so the meat along this band will take a little longer to cook. Cooking the fat first also renders off dripping, which will help lubricate and flavor the rest of the steak. After the fatty edge has cooked for 1 minute, turn it onto its side. In general, for a medium rare steak, cook for 1 minute plus 1 minute per centimeter of thickness per side. So if your steak is 3 cm thick, it will be in the pan for 7 minutes; if it’s 5 cm thick, 11 minutes. For medium, add a minute; for medium well, another minute, and so on. Turn the steak frequently; if you leave the steak for too long on each side, the intense heat will cause it to overcook along the edge, so instead of a consistently medium rare steak you get a steak that’s medium rare in the middle but well-done on the outside. I turn my steaks every 30 seconds, although some chefs turn every 15 seconds. If you’ve got a really thick steak, it’s best to cook it in the oven and then just finish it in the pan to develop a crust.
When the steak is finished, take it out of the pan and give it a squeeze with your fingers. There’s a test you can do which is not tremendously accurate, but it’s still one of the best ways to gauge doneness. Hold your hand out with the palm facing you and let it hang limp. Feel the inner heel of your thumb (the big fleshy bit inside your palm). This is approximately the same feeling you get from poking meat that’s raw or cooked blue. Now pinch your thumb and index finger together, but don’t squeeze. The heel of your thumb now feels like a rare steak. Thumb to middle finger is medium rare; thumb to ring finger is medium well; and thumb to pinky is well done. If your steak feels like this, abandon all hope. You’ve ruined dinner.
Finally, an important but often overlooked step: resting. The muscle fibers in meat constrict when they’re hot, forcing moisture out like a sponge being squeezed. If you cut the meat before the meat has cooled slightly, you’ll lose precious juice. Rest your steak for at least half the cooking time before serving.
And there you have it: the perfect steak. Serve it with whatever you like, but don’t obscure the beef’s flavors with overpowering sauces; you paid for it and no doubt fretted over it, so you’ll want to taste it! Some nice, buttery mash and maybe a little horseradish are all you’ll need.