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Beyond Survival: How To Cook The Perfect Steak

The perfect steak is a simple masterpiece.  With the right cut of meat and the slightest amount of cooking technique, you can have a great juicy steak that’s crisp and brown on the outside, and tender on the inside, and just melts in your mouth.  The key is to throw that baby in the pan and let fire do its thing; no fancy seasonings and no dressing it up.  Just let it sizzle like it’s supposed to.

What’s the best method for cooking the perfect steak?  Most folk would argue that it’s outside over an open fire.  We’re going to cover this method, as well as how to do it just right in your kitchen, but first let’s take a look at what the cow has to offer.

A lot of what determines the taste of your steak is the quality of the meat.  This depends on what part of the cow we get the meat from.  Now, go to the farm and pick out the cow you’re going to slaughter… just kidding!  We’re going to the meat section of the supermarket instead, but you still have to know your cow.

What you’ll usually find is shoulder meat, called “chuck,” and meat from the middle part of the cow – the rib, short loin and sirloin.  Shoulder meat is usually the cheapest, and the reason is that it’s tough and stringy, which makes it tough to cook just right.  This is because it’s all tendons.  The parts we want to focus on are the three middle parts of the cow.  These are areas where cows don’t move much, so the meat is nice and tender.

  • Rib Steak.  This is prime rib basically cut into smaller pieces.  They have portions of fat that make them moist and juicy.  The difference with the rib steak is that it has bone; rib eye doesn’t.
  • Short Loin.  This area includes top sirloin, tenderloin and T-bone, some of the best cuts of steak out there.  Top sirloin is leaner than rib steak and lots of steak lovers consider this cut the perfect balance between tenderness and leanness.  Tenderloin is the most tender (but also the priciest) and has a mild flavor.  T-bone is so named because of its shape and gives you the best of both worlds – tenderness and a rich taste.
  • Sirloin.  This is the hip of the cow and it gives you a nice balance of flavor and tenderness.  It’s also generally a better value than the short loin.  Under the hip is the flank and that’s where we get the flank steak.  Flank steak is chewy but if you cook it with high heat and cut it thin, it has its own unique flavor that lots of folks love.

Let’s Get Cooking

Now, there are several ways of cooking a steak in the kitchen, and there’s fierce disagreement about which is best.  The method I like, and I think most people are with me on this, is the sear and bake method.  We start by cooking it on the stove and then finish it off in the oven.

No matter how you’re cooking your steak, let it get to room temperature before you start.  Pull it out of the fridge and let it sit for 30 to 60 minutes.  Before cooking, pat the steak dry.  You might want to brush on butter or oil, but avoid using olive oil because it can become bitter when cooked.  Season both sides with salt and pepper by either rubbing it in with your fingertips or using the back of a spoon.  Be careful not to season it too much. Remember, you can always season it more later but you can’t un-season it.

The stove is great for cooking steak because it browns the outside while still leaving the inside juicy.  Oil the pan well so that the oil just covers the bottom of the pan.  That’s a lot of oil, but you can drain it off later.  Turn the stove on to high heat and just when it starts to smoke, lay on the meat.  Be careful not to splatter oil outside the pan.

You’ll hear it sizzling and that’ll get your mouth watering.  You’ll probably want to open some windows because it’ll get smoky.  Don’t cook too many cuts of meat like this; if you crowd your steak in the pan, it’ll only steam and won’t sear.  In about 2 minutes, flip it over and do the other side.

Now, you’ll put it in the oven.  Oil an oven-proof pan and preheat the oven to 450 degrees.  Let that pan get hot, and then lay the steak on it carefully with tongs.  Let it cook for 3 minutes, and then flip it.  If it’s stuck to the pan that means it’s not done browning yet.  Leave it about another minute and it should be ready to flip.  Flip it over and give it another couple of minutes.

Cooking the Perfect Steak in the Great Outdoors

When cooking outdoors, the preferred method is usually to use a charcoal grill.  Gas grills are easier to control, but charcoal gives it that rich, smoky flavor.  The challenge with a charcoal grill is controlling the heat, but you can arrange the charcoal just right so that there’s a hot area and a low-heat area, and this will give you some control by moving the steak.

For the best smoky flavor, use hardwood charcoal like mesquite, hickory or oak.  Go easy on the lighter fluid or your steak will have a gasoline aftertaste.  Heat up the coals and when they turn from red to white, spread them out so that there’s a higher heat and a lower heat side.

Make sure the grill’s good and hot before you start.  Never cook steak on a cold grill.  Pat and season your room temperature steak and lay it on the grill.  Most steaks will take about 3 minutes.  If you’ve got a cut that’s thicker than 1 inch, it might take a minute or so more.  Flip it over and give it another 3 minutes.  You’ve now got a steak that’s medium rare.  If you’d like to cook it a little more, lay it on the low heat side, cover it and check every few minutes.

After cooking your steak, whether it’s outside or in the kitchen, let it sit for about 10 minutes before you cut into it.  Cutting into it too soon will let the juices run out.  Cover it with foil and wait, and you’ll have a nice, juicy steak.

Is your mouth watering yet?  It sounds like you’ve already decided what’s for dinner tonight!  Long-time barbecue nuts will tell you it takes years of careful cooking to get the steak just right, but I’d say that if you follow this guide, you’ll be doing pretty well.

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