The Perfect Steak At Home
I like to eat light and healthy, and most of the time I do, but every once in a while I crave a really good steak. Have you been to a decent steakhouse lately? Top quality USDA Prime steaks can easily run $50 or more a la carte. That makes for a pretty expensive date night. Next time you want to impress your date, do it at home. With a little know how and a little practice you can cook perfect steaks at home for a fraction of the steakhouse price.
The first and most important consideration is the quality of the meat. You can't get a great steak from average meat. To end up with a perfect steak you have to buy the best quality meat available. This means dry aged USDA Prime or Choice graded beef or a branded equivalent.
Branded beef, Certified Black Angus, for example, is usually not USDA graded but the better brands are equivalent in quality to USDA Prime or Choice graded beef. Ask your butcher for information about the quality of any given branded beef.
Choose cuts that are well marbled throughout, meaning there are small veins of fat running throughout the meat. It is possible to get a good quality cut of USDA Standard, but it takes a trained eye. Unless you really know your beef, for the perfect steak stick with cuts graded Prime or Choice or buy high quality branded beef.
Speaking of cuts, which cut is the best for the perfect steak? Most chefs agree that the big four cuts - porterhouse/t-bone, New York strip, filet mignon and rib-eye - make the best steaks. The New York strip is a lean cut with good texture and a great chew. Filet mignon is a very lean, fine grained cut from the loin and is the tenderest of all cuts. Rib-eyes have less texture and more fat than NY strips, but more texture than a filet and are considered the most flavorful cut. A porterhouse or t-bone, with a strip steak on one side of the bone and loin steak on the other, is the best of both worlds for many.
Lessor cuts, like sirloin, can produce a very good steak when handled well, but for the very best steaks stick with the big four. Personally, I prefer NY strips, but for our perfect steak we'll use a rib-eye cut, though not just any rib eye cut.
The cut I recommend for the perfect steak is the cowboy cut of rib-eye. The cowboy cut is a triple thick cut of rib-eye with a single rib bone, usually cut two to three inches thick and averaging around 26-34 ounces.
A single cowboy cut rib-eye will easily feed two or three people. Careful shoppers can find USDA Prime cowboy cut rib-eyes for around $10/lb. If you can't find cowboy cut rib-eyes at your local store, a bone in rib-eye is a good substitute, as long as it's cut at least two inches thick.
Regardless of the cut you choose, make sure it's cut thick. A perfect steak needs to be cut at least two inches thick, especially if it's boneless, so you can get a good char on the outside with a perfect medium rare inside.
Buy your steaks a few days before you plan to cook them. For the perfect steak, always buy your beef fresh. Never use frozen beef. Freezing produces sharp ice crystals which puncture the cell walls of beef tissue, irreparably changing the texture of the meat and losing precious myoglobin, the flavorful red juice that's a hallmark of a great steak.
You thought that juice was blood? Nope. It's myoglobin. Blood is made up of hemoglobin, an entirely differnet substance. No blood in beef. Cows are completely drained of blood at slaughter.
At two punds or more, a thick, bone in cowboy cut rib-eye is much like a roast and much like a roast it benefits from a bit of refrigerator aging. Though top quality beef is already dry aged, usually for 14 to 21 days, this dry aging is done by hanging sides of beef before cutting. For an individual cut a few days in the fridge uncovered or loosely wrapped can do wonders to maximize the flavor, texture and juiciness. Two days of aging is good, three days is better. Turn the steak every so often to allow both sides to dry age. Don't age for more than four days before cooking. You've reached the perfect aging when the edges of the meat start to darken in color and begin to look dry.
It's counter intuitive, but this cold drying process produces a juicer steak, for scientific reasons having to do with the nature of the afore mention myoglobin that we don't need to go into here. For now, take my word for it. Once you try it, you'll know it works. If you want to know how or why, you can always Google it later.
Now we have the perfect cut of steak perfectly aged. It's time to cook. Before you fire up the grill, take your steaks out of the frig, set them out on the counter and allow them come up to room temperature. For a two pound cowboy cut rib-eye, this takes 45 minutes to an hour. This tempering will reduce shrinkage during cooking and ensure the best possible flavor and texture.
So far I think the vast majority of steak pros would agree with everything I've advised. Seasoning, however, is still a controversial area. Some chefs I respect and admire wouldn't think of cooking a steak without a rub or some other seasoning well beyond salt and pepper. In my opinion, if you've started with high quality meat and treated it well, heavy seasoning only masks the essential flavor of the beef. I use a variety of seasonings on a variety of cuts for a variety of reasons, but for the perfect steak from the perfect cut, I use only salt and pepper and I'd advise you to do the same.
After the steaks have come up to room temperature, brush both sides with a good quality olive oil and season liberally with salt and pepper. Do not skip the seasoning. The salt bonds with the outer layer of the meat and creates an osmotic barrier that is crucial to getting a good char. If you're that worried about salt consumption, you probably shouldn't be eating a huge rib-eye to begin with.
Now it's time to grill, which bring us to another point of contention among professionals. Some use only charcoal. Some wouldn't think of grilling over anything other than hardwood burned down to coals. Some swear by gas grills.
I like all of these methods. I like the infinite flexibility of charcoal in determining grill top temperature with the ability to set up "cool" zones of indirect heating. I love cooking over wood, though it's the least flexible of these mediums. Cooking over wood, and to a lessor extent charcoal, gives the meat a genuine "outdoors" smoky flavor. I also love the convenience and control of cooking over gas. To me the most important element in turning out the perfect steak is the technique, not the medium. I've devised a method I believe combines the best attributes of all of these media.
The most important factor for turning out the perfect steak is heat. Lots of heat: At least 750 degrees Fahrenheit at the grill surface for best results. But we'll also need an area of indirect heat to finish our steak. Experienced coal or wood cooks already know how to do this. It's a bit trickier with gas.
I use a four burner gas grill. I start with all four burners on high and cover closed. I place a metal bread pan directly on the burners on one side with a handful or two of wood chips. I like a combination of oak and pecan. Once the chips begin to smoke, I place the steak on a grate above the pan and cover it with another bread pan. For multiple steaks, use broiling pans. This creates a low temperature, high density smoking chamber. In only 5 or 6 minutes so you can get as much smoke flavor as you'd ever want into your perfect steak. You can skip this smoking process if you're using wood or coals.
After smoking, turn off half of the burners, or mound your coals on one side of the grill, and place your steak at a 45 degree angle across the hottest part of the grill. Close the cover. To produce the perfect cross hatch grill marks that are the hallmark of any true grill master, after two to three minutes rotate the steak 90 degrees and move to another hot spot without turning it over. Grill for another two to three minutes. Now turn your steak over and repeat the striping process, always moving to the hottest available spot on the grill. Don't worry too much about flame-ups. You want a good sear and it takes more than a couple of minutes of flame to burn the outside of the steak. What at first may appear to be charcoal on the surface of the steak will turn into the perfect flavorful bark as we finish the steak over indirect heat.
After striping your steak on both sides, 8-12 minutes, move the steak over to the side you turned off, or to the indirect heat side if you're using wood or charcoal, and close the cover. Using an instant read thermometer, check the internal temperature from time to time at the thickest point of the steak about an inch from the bone. Continue cooking covered over indirect heat until the internal temperature reaches 127 degrees Fahrenheit for medium rare, 132 for medium, 137 for medium well and 142 for well done. Check the temperature every 3-5 minutes or so. Personally, I am of the opinion that a perfect steak must be cooked medium rare or why bother, but here you're on your own.
Once you've reached the desired internal temperature, immediately take the steak off of the grill and put it on a cutting board, preferably one with drains to catch the juice. The last, but certainly not least step is to let the steak rest. Let it sit for a good 10 minutes. 15 minutes is better. Do not skip this step. The meat will continue to cook to your desired level of doneness and more importantly, this will allow the meat to rest, making for a much juicier, much more tender, much more flavorful steak.
After the steak has rested, cut the meat from the bone and carve the steak across the grain into slices about a 1/4"-1/3" thick. Serve as you would a carved roast. Pour the juice from the cutting board over the servings or put the juice into a gravy boat for ladling.
I guarantee you that if you follow these tips, you will end up with a steak as good or better than any steak you can get in any steakhouse anywhere, and at a price in reach of almost anyone. A hearty red wine - a cabernet or zinfandel or a really good pinot - goes best with the perfect steak. Ice old beer - a micro brew, of course - works, too.
One last step. Now that you know how to select, prepare, cook and serve the perfect steak, don't forget to invite me over for a taste, just to make sure you got it right.