Like many meat-eaters, I don’t think you can get much better than a steak. But not just a steak, a steak cooked very, very well. I’ve prepared steak many times, desperate for perfection each time. I’ve picked up dozens of tips over the years that I’ve spent in pursuit of ultimate beef eating. After many failures (many failures) I’m very happy with how it comes out for me. The “how-to” can be crystallized into a few steps that can lead to carnirvana.
First, the meat itself. Start with duff meat, you’re probably not going to enjoy the result. You could drown it in sauce, but what’s the point? Pay slightly more, probably get slightly less (in weight), yet end with a far superior dinner. The cut’s a little up to you, from supermarkets the choice is largely between ‘frying’ steak, rump and sirloin. Frying or minute steak is an odd flash-cook piece of meat best reserved for dedicated recipes. That leaves selections from the lower back or mid-back of the cow respectively. For me, the harder working rump wins every time – it tends towards a slightly harder texture but the payback is squarely in taste. Sirloin can sometimes smack of bland, so the consistency (both meanings of the word) of the arse of beef works for me. If I can get some, I also enjoy a rib-eye – more common than ten years ago, a supremely tasty cut indeed. Worth the premium. The best restaurants will serve fore rib, a versatile under-shoulder cut that does a lot of work on the animal and leaves a superior texture.
Do have a good look at the meat, don’t just grab the first pack off the shelf. Squint at it. The colour should scream at you to be eaten. That said, don’t squirm at a little browning on the meat – this usually means it’s been exposed to oxygen. The main thing is the marbling, the white lines of fat through the meat. This is good! You need some of this as this is where the main flavour in a steak is contained. Upon cooking this melts and bastes the flavour from the inside. So find something rosied and streaky that needs you. Additionally, if it’s possible press the meat with your finger: ideally it will take a while to spring back into shape, implying the beef will be loose in texture and nice on the tooth.
Second, get your pan hot. As hot as you can make it. Get your pan that can take the most heat and stick it on your highest, biggest burner. If the heat’s too low it won’t scorch and caramelise the meat and create lovely tasty bits; also the steak will boil in its juices and the flavour will bleed out. When menacingly hot the pan will brown the outside of the meat, encouraging both colour and flavour.
Thirdly, oil the meat, not the pan. This ensures that it isn’t overoiled and going to swim in fat. So, oil up the meat and season. I think only salt and pepper is required on a decent piece of steak, though if pressed I might add some thyme sprigs, cayenne or paprika. I also like to massage the flavours into the meat to help stick together.
I think these three points are the easiest stages to miss, and yet the most crucial towards getting it right. Now it’s time to actually cook!
Lay the steak into the pan (away from you to avoid spatter of course) and enjoy both the satisying sizzle and beefy aromas. It should stay, untouched, sizzling in the pan for about four minutes until you can see they grey-brown colour coming up around the sides. Then turn it over, as gently as you can without piercing the meat (more on that in a mo).
Now it comes away from recipe, as each steak is different depending on many factors. The steak will dictate to you when it’s ready by touch. After a couple of minutes, take a finger and press it into the thickest part of the browned meat. Its springiness will tell you how ready it is. My favourite method of testing doneness is by comparing the touch of it to parts of your face. A bounce similar to poking your cheek means the steak is rare. A touch akin to your chin is medium. If it feels like your forehead it’s well-done and probably not worth it (though I suspecters ‘well-doners’ won’t be reading this blog).
If you’re happy with it’s doneness, remove the steak to a warm plate. Not quite out of the frying pan and into the fire, but nearly. This resting period is crucial to tasty and tender meat. During this time the juices in the meat relax and flow back throughout. Cutting into it too early causes these juices to flood out, and there goes your flavour and your texture. This steak needs to sit for five to ten minutes, whatever you can spare.
During this resting time you can prepare something to do with those lovely leftover bits in the pan. This is totally optional, but to ignore it is a dreadful waste of taste. At the very least, keep the heat high and sloosh a small amount of water – enough to cover the base of the pan – around, swirling those yummy pieces up as it bubbles away. When it reduces down to a slightly sticky gravy it’s ready to go and you can get it off the heat. If you’re feeling a bit more extravagant, use some alcohol – wine, brandy, or my particular fave, marsala. The principle’s the same. If you want something bit more fancy, a splash of a good wine, a little stock and when reduced take the heat down a little adding some cream. As you take it off the heat swirl in a knob of butter for a glossy and rich finish. Don’t forget to check for seasoning.