It can be intimidating to know how to confidently cook a steak to perfection. But once you understand what is happening and a few basic rules, you can cook a steak perfectly every time.
Whenever I sell a steak to a customer I like to ask them how they will cook it. Some customers are very confident and know exactly how — I love to hear their enthusiasm. Some aren’t as confident and I love sharing my prefered method with them.
As with most things in life, once you understand a few basic rules, everything becomes clearer and easier. There are many different ways to cook a perfect steak, including sous vide, broiled, and of course, grilled. This is my way.
Contrary to what you often hear on cooking shows, searing beef in a hot pan doesn’t actually seal the juices in. Instead, you are caramelizing the natural sugars in the meat (which will add flavor and color), but it won’t create a barrier to seal juice. If this was true, then steak would weigh the same raw and cooked.
The best way to tell if a steak is cooked is to feel it with your fingers. Generally, well done meat will feel firm to touch, as lots of the juices have been cooked out. A rare steak will have lots of give and feel soft to touch, as it has retained most of its juices. A medium steak will have a little give and feel firmer than the rare steak but not as firm as a well done steak. Using a thermometer is a great way for beginners to learn how to judge if their meat is cooked.
After any meat has been cooked and removed from the pan, it’s internal temperature will continue to rise while the steak is resting. About 5 degrees is normal, but depending on the size and weight, the temperature could rise as much as 10-15 degrees.
When the steak is removed from the pan, don’t rush to cut straight into it, leave it to rest. The beef has been sitting in a hot pan and the protein fibers (myosin and actin) have tightened up and become firm. They need to relax and recover from the searing heat of the pan and the from the convection heat inside the oven for optimal flavor.
A good rule of thumb for me is to leave the steak to rest almost the same amount of time as it took to cook. As the steak rests, the protein fibers relax and become less rigid. Liquid is absorbed back into the meat, resulting in a much more tender steak.
When you cut your steak to serve, you can further enhance the tenderness of the meat by cutting against the grain. When you cut across the natural grain of the steak (perpendicular to the direction in which the muscle fibers run) you shorten the muscle fibers. Think of these fibers like the entwined fiber of a rope. If you slice thinly across the rope-like structure of the fibers you are breaking the chain, which will result in a much easier bite to chew. If you slice with the grain, you keep the muscle fibers intact, which are long and strong. The mouthfeel will be stringy and a lot more chewy.
Temperature Guidelines for Cooking Steak:
Rare:120-125℉ or 48-51℃
Medium rare: 125-135℉ or 54-57℃
Medium: 140-145℉ or 60-62℃
Medium well: 150-155℉ or 65-68℃
Well done: 160℉ or 71℃ and upwards
How to cook a steak:
1. Preheat your oven to 320℉
2. Take the steak from the fridge and leave at room temperature for about 15-30 minutes. This helps temper the steak to cook more evenly as the center of the steak won’t be cold, especially if you are going for a rare or medium steak.
3. Season the steak generously with sea salt on both sides and rub with a little olive oil. Black pepper also works very well with beef, which I like to add.
4. Heat your pan so it’s on medium to high heat. Add 2 tablespoons of oil and lay the steak fat side (edge) down in the hot oil. I like to hold the steak with a pair of tongs to prevent it from falling. (By cooking the fat first you won’t end up with soft chewy fat, but crisp, rendered fat that tastes good).
5. After about 1 minute, lay the steak down flat in the pan and leave it to fry. Don’t start moving the pan and the steak around. You want to fry the steak, not stew it. Let the steak cook in the hot oil for about 1 minute until a golden brown crust starts to form.
6. Flip the steak over and do exactly the same thing for the other side, letting it cook in the hot oil for another minute.
7. At this stage I like to add about 2 tablespoons of butter and fresh herbs to the pan. I used rosemary and thyme here.
8. Tilt the pan and baste the steak with the melted butter a few times.
9. Place the steak in the pre-heated oven for about 2-3 minutes for a medium rare steak.
10. After 2-3 minutes (or whatever time is necessary for your desired temperature) take the steak from the oven, remove it from the pan, and place it on a plate or a board to rest for another 5 minutes. Rest it almost as long as it took to cook. Resting allows the meat to relax and continue cooking, while creating a much more even color throughout the steak. Resting is also very important for creating a more tender steak.
11. Once the steak has rested, either serve it whole or cut it against the grain. Cutting against the natural grain of the muscle fibers will make the steak more tender.
12. Add a squeeze of lemon to the steak cooking juices in the frying pan, drizzle the pan juices on to the steak, and serve.
Broiled and grilled steaks can also be great, but for me this is the best way to get a really juicy and tender steak that tastes delicious every time.
P.S. Don’t be afraid of salt – being generous both before and after cooking will enhance the flavor of your steak immensely.