There are a million ways to cook “the perfect steak”—everyone swears by their own method for searing, cooking, checking for how “cooked” it is. I know all about the timing of it (so many minutes per side for this or that temperature for however many inches of thickness), all about comparing the steak’s tactile feel and springiness to various parts of your palm, all about it all. But I have to say my foolproof way for knowing how well cooked my steak is on the inside is a very simple one: a digital thermometer.
Now, you can’t go making Swiss cheese out of the steak, poking and prodding it all over throughout its entire cooking time, but, rather once you think its close to done, or getting close to done, then gently poke into it. So, yes, this does mean you have to get a sixth-sense feel of how cooked it is, just a rough idea, so that when you poke the thermometer into the meat it doesn’t read right at the temperature you want it or, worse yet, past that. You want to take the steak off or out of the heat before it hits your desired internal temp and rest it on a plate, lined with foil and then tightly covered with more foil, for about 5 – 10 minutes. I should also mention that I think it helps to have it on a surface that isn’t a great conductor of heat (i.e. a wood surface, versus metal or stone/granite/etc.). This way the heat stays in your steak and not on your counter top. I take mine out pretty early, about 10° shy of just where I want it, because I don’t mind my steak a bit underdone—in fact, I prefer it. I think 7° – 5° under is probably appropriate.
One very simple way to prepare a steak, and for this example lets say we’re using a steak that’s a lengthier cut (like New York strip), about 1” thick and around 12 ounces—a big one, enough to serve 2 very well—starts with seasoning it liberally with salt, set it on a wire rack placed over a sheet pan and leave it uncovered. It should either sit at room temperature this way for about an hour, or in the fridge for up to around 8 (just be sure it comes to room temperature for an hour still).
When the time is right, put a cast iron pan in the oven and set it to 450°, leaving the pan in there for around 30 minutes once it comes to temp to ensure even heating with no cold spots. Once it’s ready, heat it over medium-high heat on the stove to get it screaming hot—it may seem excessive but it’s all a surefire way to get the best sear you can. Smear your steak with just enough regular olive oil (or vegetable) to coat it, and carefully lay the meat into the screaming hot skillet. Give it just 3 minutes on the first side before you flip it over, immediately put a tablespoon of butter on top (with or without a sprig each of thyme, rosemary, sage and a smashed clove of garlic, underneath the butter) and immediately transfer it to the still heated 450° oven. It just needs about 4 – 5 minutes in there (start checking your temp at around the 4 minute mark or pre-insert a probe thermometer before it goes in the pan—it should read 125°, give or take a degree). This will get you right where you need to be for medium-rare. If I’m cooking one for just myself I’ll do it to about 122° or a little less—for the doneness that, as I remember Nigella Lawson saying in one of her shows, is “nothing a good vet couldn’t turn around”. Obviously, if you like your meat a little more done it will take a little more time but be careful—the temperature increases pretty rapidly at this point. Move it to a foil-lined plate, cover tightly with more foil and wait the painstaking 5 minutes for it to rest before scraping off the herbs, if you want, and diving on in.
But don’t feel limited to that specific steak; thinner or thicker, bone-in or boneless, this or that cut—they can all yield a perfect steak. Even a humble shoulder steak is divinely pleasurable with as a punch Pizzaiola. With a thinner cut you can probably forgo putting the steak in the oven for the last side—for anything ½” or less, to sear it is to cook it—so I’d got hard and fast, searing it in a screaming hot pan, throwing some butter in (with the herbs and garlic over the steak if you’re using them) and baste the steak with the sizzling hot fat once it’s flipped. Anything bone-in is going to take longer; if it’s thinner make sure to get a good sear on each side and move to a lower oven, allowing the bone to conduct the proper amount of heat needed to cook the beef around it. If you’re going BIG (cuz you ain’t goin’ home!) and you’ve got a 2-inch-or-more bone-in monster, I’d go with the reverse sear method (outlined here in my Roast Beast with Black Garlic Demi-Glacé) otherwise you risk the inside being totally raw, with an outwardly gradient to a totally overcooked brown-grey. And when you have a very thick cut of beef that’s on the fattier side—think one of those giant Fred Flintstone-sized ribeyes—it’s a good idea to cook it to medium-rare so the fat has a chance to soften, while a leaner cut, like tenderloin/filet mignon, needn’t be cooked more than rare if you like, as there’s no fat that needs softening.
I know some might say that a good steak needs no accompaniments—that is, any sauces, flourishes, and, to some, even butter are neither necessary nor welcome—and it’s not an unwarranted belief. But just because it doesn’t need it doesn’t mean it can’t handle it. I like to add a bit more flavor and fun to the steak, but not so much that you can’t taste the beef itself anymore. Nothing to finicky, with so many ingredients and pungent spices that if you closed your eyes you wouldn’t know that you were eating a steak. Which leads me to the classic Steak Béarnaise—nothing but salt and some fat for the steak, and a simple sauce that’s rich with fat and punctured by little accents of fresh tarragon. It’s perfect, it’s classic, it’s sexy, and it’s simple enough to make that you won’t loose your mind in the process.
It might seem a little passé to post a recipe for something that some may consider basic, but frankly a good béarnaise, as with so many classics, transcends that—they become classics for a reason, you know. A mix of minced shallots and dried tarragon get simmered in champagne vinegar and either white wine (or champagne)—the former for its acid and sprightliness, and the latter for a greater depth of flavor. Dried tarragon is ideal for the simmering because when the fresh stuff is cooked for too long it takes on a muddy, mildewy taste that can ruin the whole thing; instead, flavor the base with the dried herb and stir in freshly minced tarragon at the end for optimal freshness (you can, however, put a few stems from the fresh tarragon in vinegar-wine pan in addition to the dried herbs).
The traditional method is to stir the strained, reduced vinegar-wine mix into egg yolks, set it over a double boiler, and whisk in cubes of butter, letting them melt in the residual heat, emulsifying into the base as it does. It can turn out fabulously… or it can get too thick, too thin, or separate all together—point is, its results can be inconsistent. The method outlined below is foolproof; put the yolks and reduction in a blender (or more preferred, a short and wide mason jar and use an immersion blender), blend for about 10 seconds on high to aerate a little and then, with the blender running, stream in melted butter, finishing it off with fresh tarragon and a bit of lemon juice as usual (the additional of chervil is also part of the classic preparation, but it’s only necessary if you can get your hands on some easily).
With this flawless, elegant, and downright easy sauce and a perfectly cooked steak you and one other very lucky person will be extremely satisfied. Throw a pricked and pierced russet in the oven when the cast iron goes in and by the time the steak and béarnaise is done you’ll have the perfect side (well, it’s easier than fries).
INTERNAL TEMPERATURE GUIDE—there are no real regulated, official standards that define temperatures for different levels of doneness for beef*. It’s all a matter of preference and opinion. These are mine:
Blue……………………. 105 – 110° (remove at 100°-105° and rest for 5 minutes)
Rare………………………. 125° (remove at 120° and rest for 5 minutes)
Medium-Rare………. 130°-135° (I usually remove at 125° and rest for 5 minutes)
Medium……………….. 135°-140° (I usually remove at 130° and rest for 5 minutes)
Medium-Well……….. 140°-145° (remove at 140° and rest for 5 minutes)
Well Done…………….. 155° (remove at 150° and rest for 5 minutes or not – its shoe leather anyway)
*That is, except the USDA and FSIS. The USDA and FSIS specify that for beef (as well as pork, veal and lamb) the safe minimum internal temperature is 145° with 3 minutes of resting (per their online chart, dated 5/19/14). No mention is made to the different levels of doneness.
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