Simply Sublime Steaks
Simply Sublime Steak
Everyone loves a steak. Well, not people of the Vegetarian persuasion but you know what I mean. However not everyone loves to cook it and a common gripe of the home cook is that it is either too dry or bleeds when they cut into it; which is a turn off. This is why eating steak out for dinner is so popular.
Cooking a steak is simple but as with most simple things each element has to be perfect for the end result to shine. I have some top tips for you to consider when choosing and cooking your selected beef cut. Cooking the perfect steak begins in the prior thought you put in.
Grilling outside on coals is ideal but not possible in all situations. Also too much char can actually detract from the flavour of the beef, so pan frying is by far the most convenient method.
First of all a great steak starts in the store! Yes I know not everyone has a good butcher but if you can then do, farmers markets are ideal and even online shopping for farm shops now exists. Have a look around, if you do go to the supermarket buy the very best you can afford and read the labels carefully. Knowledge is taste!
What breed of cattle does the beef come from? Ideally a British Breed is the right answer
Was it grass fed? Yes is the important answer for both taste and the quality
What age was it killed? At least 2.5 years old is the answer we would like to hear
How was it aged and for how long? There are basically two kinds, wet and dry ageing. Dry ageing is the only way to go as wet aging does not develop flavour, though is economical for the vendor. It needs to be aged for at least 28 days to have hung long enough to have broken down its cell structure enough to be tender and deepened in flavour.
Now the second most important thing is the actual cooking.
Consider your pan - thick bottomed and shallow. Do not over crowd it as the meat will not brown properly and you will wind up with some unpleasant boiled beef flavours.
Griddle pans provide great presentation with their bar marks but are designed to suck moisture into the channels between the bars and can make your steak dry before it is properly cooked. Also an even crust is more appealing taste wise than the pretty criss cross marks.
The crust that develops on a well cooked steak should be dark, rich and savoury tasting. This is often known as 'bark', presumably because of its similarity in appearance to that on a tree.
Here comes the science bit!
The crust is developed by something known as the Maillard reaction. It can also be encouraged to form by generous seasoning with salt. Sea salt is best, but be careful not to make the meat too salty yet do not be shy. Consider the thickness of your steak, a chunky piece of meat can take more seasoning than you may imagine.
The Maillard reaction is names after a French physician who discovered it in 1910. It is a very interesting but complex chemical reaction between the sugars and amino acids in the meat which combine and do things so complicated you would definitely need a deep understanding of physics to work out. All you need to know is this what makes beef tasty and I hope Maillard would be happy with this too. One of the effects of the amino acids and sugars reacting together is they give off many different flavour compounds: nutty, fruity, savoury, floral and earthy notes all coming together to create delicious flavour. You could take two identical steaks, poach one to exactly the same temperature as a pan fried one and the steaks could not be more different. The poached one will taste of nothing compared to the meaty delicious seared one.
Under the crust the meat is also performing changes. The heat is loosening the strands of protein and contracting connective tissue which is squeezing out a liquid known as 'protein bound water' into the flesh. This water cannot be unlocked by anything but heat; chewing alone can't do it.
This protein bound water is extremely high in the fifth taste, known as umami; roughly translated as pleasing savoury taste. It's that roasted rich unctuous flavour you can't quite put your finger on. This is also present in such things as parmesan, anchovies, soy sauce and cured ham. Basically, it's yummy. You need it in your life.
So, heat makes meat more juicy and easier to chew but too much heat can dry out the steak, making it tough. This is why for many the best way to eat a steak is medium to medium rare.
Resting the steak after cooking evens out the temperature and increases its water holding properties again after the initial heat impact made it tighten and squeeze out the liquid. Abit like a squeezed out sponge. This means some of the juices are redistributed through the meat making it more juicy to eat. Cutting into an unrested steak lets the juices flow out, which if the steak is less than well done will have a bloody appearance. This that can be so off putting to many diners and why resting is so important to proper steak cookery. Resting is what sets a restaurant steak apart from most home cooked versions.
Finally, the Maillard reaction also has the effect of stimulating saliva production in our mouths thus making us perceive things as more juicy than they are. Drool inducing clever stuff!
When cooking you need to consider the cut of the steak. The 6 most common are:
Porterhouse/T – Bone (similar cuts, porterhouse is American standard and T-bone European, Porterhouse contains a larger portion of the fillet)
If your steak has a large seam of fat alongside it, such as sirloin, then stand it vertically in the pan to brown and render the fat as you cook and oiling the steak will not be necessary. Never cut the fat off the steak prior to cooking - fat is flavour. If your guest wishes to remove it at the table and not eat it then that is their choice, but cooking it with the fat in is paramount for flavour.
If it doesn't have the fat seam then you need to lightly oil the steal before cooking. A neutral tasting oil such as vegetable or an all purpose olive oil is ideal.
Heat your pan very hot before adding the steak and reduce the temperature of the pan after to adjust cooking times. For blue or rare steaks you will not need to reduce the heat. With medium or above you will as the intense heat will burn the crust before the centre is ready.
Cooking times for each stage of done-ness depend on many factors:
The heat of the pan; how many times you turn the steak; fat content (higher fat cuts cook quicker than leaner cuts like fillet); how long the cut was aged and the temperature of the meat before it went in the pan will all play a part.
Ideally your beef should be room temperature before it goes in the pan but this is impractical sometimes. So just cook from fridge cold. It will not affect the result but will take a little longer to reach the desired core temperature.
Lay your steak on a small tray or plate and drizzle over a sparse amount of the oil if using and rub into both sides of the steak. Season generously with sea salt and black pepper and lay in the pan.
Leave for at least one minute of the cooking time before turning to develop an initial crust. Turn and brown the second side. Turn the steak once for each minute of cooking time. This will create a more even result.
Judging Cooking Time
For steaks over 1.5 inches thick the best way for accuracy is to use a digital thermometer, under that it is hard to get a good centre reading so use the timings as a guideline:
Blue 40° to 45° or 1 minutes e/s
Rare 45° to 50° or 1.5 minute e/s
Medium Rare 55° to 60° or 2 minutes e/s
Medium 60° to 65° or 2.5 minutes e/s
Medium -Well 65° to 70° or 3 minutes e/s
Well Done +70° or 4+ minutes e/s
These timings are based on cooking a Sirloin steak that’s about 2cm thick. For fillet increase the time by 1 minute each level, for rib eye it is approximately the same. If the steak in on the bone it will take up to 2 minutes longer as the bone acts as an insulator.
Each steak should be rested for at least three minutes. Extra flavour can also be added at this point by resting in flavoured butters. Butter adds flavour but is also a carrier of flavour. Everything tastes better with butter really, its a fact we can't deny.
A simple way to achieve this is to remove the steak from the pan and place it on the warm tray to rest. In the still hot but off the heat pan, add a knob of butter, some fronds of rosemary and slices of garlic. Swish around until the butter melts and the garlic smells pungent which will only take 20 seconds or so. Pour this mix over the resting steak and turn a couple of times in this butter during the resting. The butter could also be spooned over the finished steak as a simple pan sauce.
The 'Well Done' Steak
Well done steaks need extra attention so as not to be dried out disappointing examples.
To achieve the best results lower the heat of the pan and cook it more gently. This will allow the heat to permeate before the crust is too dark.
Cuts other than fillet that are to be cooked well done can be tenderised with a mallet to break down the structure a little which allows heat transference more quickly before cooking.
Removing the steak from the pan at the medium well stage, tenting it with some foil and finishing the steak to well done in the oven will result in less moisture evaporation than pan cooking to well done.
Always remember that the meat will continue to cook while resting so removing just before the level at which you want it to be finished is astute for optimum juicy results.
The Finger Test
As an alternative to temperature testing you can try the finger test method which takes some practice to become proficient at and should be used in conjunction with time and temperature methods. As with all cooking, it is best to use all your senses to judge.
Using your non dominant hand as the 'steak', as it is relaxed press the thick pad at the base of your thumb with the index finger of your dominant hand. Your flesh will feel similar in texture to the cooked surface of a Bleu steak. Gently, without applying pressure on the muscle, touch your index finger to your thumb tip, again on the non dominant hand and press the pad again. It will have tensed slightly; this is rare. Then as follows; fore finger = medium; ring finger = medium well; little finger = well done.
When cooking more than one steak at a time, a good method for the memory is to lay them clockwise in the pans or on the grill in the order at which they should be done. First at 12 o'clock, second at 3 etc.
Hot plates are your friend for steak serving, pop your done steaks on warm plates after resting and they will retain their heat better. Sauces is another way to keep your steak piping hot, a hot sauce does wonders for a steak that has cooled a lot. Taking the pressure off you as a cook, which is what entertaining is all about!
Here are some sauce ideas for you
Anchovy and Rosemary Butter
When you have done your homework it can take minutes to produce a juicy steak that any restaurant would be proud to serve. Go on, be the brave one who cooks steaks for their dinner party, and do it with a big glass of wine and a smile on your face, your guests will be amazed and happy. Set the bar high, the steak challenge is on!