Choosing a Steak
Examining all the meats in the butcher shop can be extremely overwhelming. There are so many different cuts available – skinny steaks, big steaks, huge roasts, and small roasts, to name but a few. If your goal is to cook a steak at home, you should stick to the ribeye, T-bone, New York strip, or filet mignon. These are the most expensive cuts of meat, but are the most tender when grilled or pan-fried.
This difference in tenderness comes from the cow having stability muscles (think the lower back), which are less powerful and thus tender, and load-bearing muscles, which are tough. The price of the meat is directly correlated to these qualities. A tender steak will cost more than a tough steak (though with the right treatment, you can successfully turn a tough cut into a tender, flavorful piece of meat).
The seasoning requirements differ based on the cut. A tougher steak requires more seasoning because your eating experience is all about the seasoning, rather than enjoying the tenderness of the cut. For example, you can easily get away with simple salt and pepper on a fillet mignon, while a flank steak may require a spicy rub all over it.
If all this overwhelms you, check out the easy-to-read guide on steaks and their tenderness, price, and ideal preparation below.
So, you’ve purchased tender steaks and you’re ready to cook them. First, you should let them rest at room temperature for about 30 minutes in order to take the chill off. This will result in more even cooking. Pro tip: If you are cooking for someone who likes a well-done steak and you like yours rare, leave yours in the refrigerator until the last minute; your steak will cook less than your guest’s in a similar amount of time.
If you’re going to be cooking on a stovetop, a cast iron or stainless-steel pan will work best. Non-stick coating is not able to handle the high heat that is required for cooking a steak. Before you place your skillet over high heat, lightly season the steaks with a mild rub or just salt and pepper.
While the skillet is warming up, pour in a few tablespoons of canola, peanut, or other high-smoke point oil. When the oil is shimmering and the pan is hot, place the steaks in the pan and cover it loosely with foil to prevent oil from splattering everywhere. Now is also the time to turn on the kitchen extractor fans, as some smoke will be generated.
If your steak is less than one inch thick, you can cook it in the pan the entire time. However, if your steak is thicker than an inch, do the searing on the stovetop, and then move the entire pan to a preheated, 400-degree oven to finish cooking.
When the steak hits the hot pan, start the timer. In general, 2-5 minutes per side is enough for medium doneness. This range is flexible because, among other variables, everybody’s heat will be slightly different, as is the steak’s starting temperature. For steaks which are less than an inch thick, sear for about 3 minutes on either side, after which you should let it rest. If you have a thicker steak, put it in the oven after two 3-minute turns, and let it cook for a further 2-5 minutes until it reaches your desired doneness.
There are two methods for determining doneness.
One is to use a digital cooking thermometer. If you’re aiming for a rare steak, you’ll need to take it off the heat when the internal temperature is between 120-130F. On the other hand, if you want a well-done steak, you should take it off the heat when the internal temperature is between 160-170F.
If you don’t have a digital thermometer, then you can use your hand instead. By positioning your thumb and fingers in various ways, you can mimic what a steak should feel like at various levels of doneness.
The tenderness of a steak roughly correlates to the feeling of the thick part of your palm, below the thumb, when your thumb touches the index, middle, ring, and pinky finger. Touch that part of your hand with the index finger of your other hand while moving your fingers from index to pinky, and you will feel that part of your palm getting firmer. If you’re having difficulty understanding what we mean, the visual guide below will help.
Do you prefer to cook your steaks on the grill? If so, you can easily apply most of the above methods to a hot grill, cooking the steaks directly on the grate. The same searing times apply, and if you have a steak that is thicker than an inch, simply finish cooking it over indirect heat. You should get the same tasty results, but with the added bonus of a grilled, smoky flavor.
To sum up, preparing a steak successfully is all about the cut selection and cooking time. If you stick to a tender cut of beef and cook it on high heat, then you can confidently start with the 2-5 minutes of sear time on each side, and then finish it off in the oven.