Do you ever have those weeks when you can’t seem to get a single thing right? No matter how hard you try, no matter how simple your plans may be, you find yourself staring down at mess after mess, feeling like the villain in another epsiode of Scooby-Do. Really? Foiled again? By those bumbling kids?
Here it is, only Wednesday, and it’s been one of those weeks. No matter what I’ve tried this week, I’ve fumbled. Whether it was making delicious and ridiculously easy tomato bread soup, glazing some sinfully thin (and sinfully expensive) prosciutto di Parma, introducing a friend with high food expectations to what I swear – swear – used to be the best carne asada tacos I’ve ever had in my life, or just putting liners in my bike tires, nothing has gone as planned. The tomato soup turned into creamy tomato porridge; I don’t think I got enough tomatoes. The prosciutto di Parma turned into sad black wads of bitter, bacon-scented charcoal; luckily it wasn’t a total loss as I decided to only make part of the recipe, and saved half to nibble on throughout the week. The carne asada tacos were shockingly the driest and worst tacos I’ve ever eaten. And at one point during the bike tire experience, my hand slipped and I punched myself in the nose. People, I tell you. I can’t seem to get it right.
Now, under normal circumstances, I’d have thrown up my hands, grabbed Linty and a piece of dark chocolate, and crawled under the covers to read some magazines. But this week I faced a little challenge. See, after the Long Beach Farmers’ Market on Sunday, I stopped at Wild Oats to get myself some fresh meat (no, not that kind, you saucy readers) so I could be sure and have some tasty protein (dirty minds! I swear.) to keep me going for the week. And I hadn’t gotten just any old piece of meat. No, I went and found the nicest all-natural, grass-fed rib-eye steak I’d seen in quite some time. The kind of steak you can’t throw in the freezer and wait for another week, a nicer week, to roll around. But at the same time, the kind of steak you better cook right, or you’ll never forgive yourself.
Oh, the dilemmas we face.
As I stood in the kitchen, forlornly eating my creamy bread and vibrant tomato mash that I kept wishing would magically turn into soup, I steeled myself. Self, I said, you’ve been teaching yourself lately how to make a good steak. You know how. It’s foolproof. More foolproof than tomato bread soup or those tacos or any tire technique. You’ve almost perfected it yourself. Go on, cook that steak. Make it the one thing you get right this week.
The steak, deep red and marbled with fat, sat innocently on its brown wrapper. I’d let it sit out at room temperature for about 30 or 40 minutes, not quite as long as I’d have liked, but I couldn’t wait any longer. It was time.
And you’ll never believe it: It was heaven. Perhaps the best steak I’ve ever cooked. I realized: a lot of people (at least those who eat meat) aren’t comfortable cooking steaks, particularly not in the house. “I don’t have a grill,” they’ll say, or “I don’t like to cook red meat at home,” or “I’m just not very good at steak.” But you know what? I don’t have a grill. Cooking red meat at home is less squidgy than cooking chicken. And you only think you’re bad at steak.
Take it from me: If you eat meat and can handle working with raw chicken, steak is a piece of cake. Look there, I even made a rhyming mantra for you. It took me a little while to get steak right, but with a little help from a friend and from Saveur, I finally have it down. And since every meat-eater should be able to cook up a steak (c’mon, no more excuses), I’m here to walk you through it.
Steak Making, Made A Lot Easier
Step 1: Choosing your steak. In the past weeks, I’ve cooked a porterhouse, a NY strip, and a rib-eye. I’ve used basically the same technique, with some minor variations and a little tweaking. All were delicious, but of course all were a little different. It depends on what you’re looking for in your hunk o’ meat. If you’re looking for thrift, a hefty porterhouse is probably not for you; the steaks are usually big and part of what you’re paying for is a decent amount of fat and bone. But a porterhouse does offer tender loin meat and all that fat keeps things nice and juicy. And if you’re actually eating what is a normal portion of meat, you can make a big porterhouse last you for a few meals. For those looking for a somewhat leaner, less-expensive cut that still lets you feel like you’re eating a steak, the NY strip (also known as the top loin) is a good choice. Then there’s the rib-eye, which most people are familiar with. I’m not a steak expert by any means, but I’d say the rib-eye is a good choice that falls in between the other two. Not as rich as a porterhouse but richer than a NY strip, tender but with that full beef flavor. At any rate, get good quality meat and you can’t go wrong with any of the three. And by good quality, I’m also talking grass-fed. If you’ve never had it, or you think it doesn’t make a difference, you are so, so wrong. Don’t believe me? Ask an Argentine.
I’m one person, and not a particularly big one at that. I generally get a steak that’s around a pound – perhaps a little more or a little less – and I can get at least three meals out of a good-sized steak, if not four, depending on how much of the weight is fat and/or bone (and how succulent it is when it first comes out of the oven and my will-power is at its weakest). Sounds crazy, but remember that a serving of meat is 3-4 oz. Cook it just right and pair it with enough vegetables, and you’ll be surprised to find you don’t need much more than that. Magically, the $12 steak for one doesn’t seem so extravagant. The $23 porterhouse from the very nice butcher shop, on the other hand…
(Above is the porterhouse from a few weeks ago, with its phenomenal crust.)
Step 2: Choosing your pan. You don’t have a grill, which is why you’ve managed to avoid the whole “cooking a steak” thing in the first place. But if you’re doing any sort of cooking, I bet you’ve got a cast iron skillet or two lurking around.
I’ve used both the regular skillet and the grill pan. The regular skillet allowed me to make a truly incredible crust on my porterhouse, deep brown with a crisp, peppery crunch that melted on my tongue. I loved it, but I did find that, because the steak roasted in its fatty juices in the flat bottom, it was a little richer and fattier than I might have liked. Nonetheless, that crust was phenomenal, and I have a scheme for having the best of both worlds (use two pans and switch off: advanced indoor steakery).
The grill pan gives you those great grill marks (so you can pretend you’re a professional or at least a BBQ master) and it does create a nicely seared exterior but really shines when it comes to the roasting. The ridges allow the steak to sit above the juices – the benefit of the grill without setting the outside of your house on fire.
To be honest, you can’t go wrong with either one. I lucked out and found a great cast iron grill pan at a garage sale for $3, but you can use a regular skillet and you’ll be fine.
Step 3: Ventilate the hell out of your house. Things are about to get smoky. Open every window and turn on the fans.
Perfect, Simple Steak
Adapted from basically every steak recipe ever, including the Saveur steak issue
1 big, juicy steak, preferably grass-fed – about a pound, anywhere from 1 1/2 to 2 inches thick
Oil (I use olive or, very occasionally, canola)
Coarse salt and coarsely ground pepper
1. Take the steak out of the fridge and let it sit on the counter for an hour, bringing it to about room temperature.
2. Preheat your oven to 450F.
3. If you’re using a flat-bottomed skillet, rub a tablespoon of oil into each side of the steak and generously salt and pepper both sides. For the grill pan, just salt and pepper each side.*
4. Heat the skillet over high heat until very hot, about 5-6 minutes. Pour about a tablespoon or so of oil in and swirl it over the ridges if using a grill pan. Carefully lay the steak on the pan.
5. Cook the first side for at least 6 minutes, if not 7-8, creating a deep brown crust. Flip the steak and sear the other side for 2-3 minutes.
6. Transfer the skillet to the oven and roast for 6-8 minutes, until medium rare.
6a. You’ll be nervous the first few times, and that’s okay. Just take the steak out at about 6 minutes and cut into it (what? You’re not presenting it to anyone). You want a layer of brown crust, followed by a deep reddish-pink, and a darker, more red center. If it looks like it needs another minute or two, put it back into the oven. I took one of my steaks out at 5 minutes, cut it all the way in half, realized it needed more time, and put it back in for 2 more. It came out perfectly. I prefer my steak on the rarer side of medium-rare, so I take the steak out when the center is a little gelatinous – not raw, but just this side of rare.
7. Remove the skillet from the oven and place the steak on plate. You can also place it on a rack over a tray to keep it out of its juices, but I have yet to try this. Loosely tent the plate with foil and let it sit 5-10 minutes. I find mine is ready to go after about 5.**
8. Slice, and serve, fanning the slices on your plate so you can admire your handiwork.
If you’ve cooked it right, and I bet you will, your steak will have an almost silky mouthfeel. There will be a little chew to the exterior, but just enough to make it feel substantial in contrast to the smooth, rich center. You’ll taste the deep flavor of the grass-fed beef, highlighted by the crackly salt-and-pepper crust. And if you can resist tearing that beauty apart in the kitchen, licking your fingers with abandon, you’ll even get to sit down at the table and enjoy your freshly cooked steak like a civilized human. Good luck with that.
*I’m not going to get into the debate of whether or not to salt meat before you cook it, because it draws the juices out. It turns out wonderfully for me and gives a fantastic flavor. Maybe I’ll try it without sometime and get back to everyone on it.
**There are those who say you should never let meat sit under foil, even for a few minutes, and those people are probably right and are probably brilliant chefs. I am a happy amateur home cook! Watch me tent! You will too!