The Ultimate Guide To Steak
Grilling the perfect steak is an art that can take years to master. Unfortunately many men fail to grasp even the most basic fundamentals of cooking a fantastic steak. They slather on marinades, buy poor quality meats, and use improper or ineffective cooking techniques. This leads to steak that is dry, leathery, or just downright inedible. Most of us have had a fantastic steak at a high dollar steakhouse, or know someone who is a prodigy on the grill, but what is the difference between those steaks and the tough strips of leather the average person cooks? The answer is in the quality, cut, and preparation of the meat. This Ultimate Guide to Steak will give you all of the knowledge you need to cook steakhouse quality steak on your own grill.
The quality of the meat is the single most important factor in creating the flavor of your steak. There is no seasoning, cooking temperature, or technique that will save a poor quality cut of steak. One mistake that many beginners make is buying a cheap low quality cut of steak, and then buying a $5 marinade to mask the poor flavor of the meat. If you are buying quality cuts of meat then no marinade should ever be needed, spend the money on the meat, and skip the marinades. The only time a marinade should be used is if you are forced into buying low quality meats, either by financial or geographic constraints.
The grading of the meat is performed either by a 3rd party organization, or a government agency. In the United States, grading is performed by the USDA. The grade given is primarily determined by the age of the animal and the marbling, but other factors such as firmness,texture, and color also weigh in. Generally the higher the ratio of marbling and the younger the beef, the better the grade. The meat is usually graded on a whole-carcass basis, so there may be some variance in quality between the individual cuts of meat.
In the United States, the USDA provides 9 grades for beef, but there are only 3 you would find on steak:
Prime: This is the best quality beef available, accounting for just 2% of all beef in the United States. Most of it is sold to high quality steakhouses or is exported, so it can be difficult to get. It contains the highest amount of fat marbling, and is generally cut from younger animals. You will almost never find this at your local grocery store, it must be obtained from either a specialty store or a butcher. This is the grade you want to make your steaks with, and if you’re serious about your meat, it’s worth the trouble to find it.
Choice: This is the second best quality of beef available, and is the best quality you will find in most stores, and makes up just over 50% of the total beef output in the United States. It will have less fat marbling than prime, and will likely have a slightly coarser texture. If you live in a very rural area and do not have access to prime, this is the grade you should be using. Like prime, choice cuts cook well on dry heat, meaning they are still good for grilling at high temperatures.
Select: This is the lowest quality meat you will find commercially in a restaurant or supermarket in the United States. There are lower quality grades, but they are reserved for canning or mass market products. There is much less marbling in the select grade, creating less flavor and a much tougher overall texture. Meat at this grade often times needs to be marinated or tenderized before cooking. Only the most tender cuts like the rib or loin can be dry cooked effectively. Most other cuts at this grade would be better cooked using a moist heat technique like braising.
There are also several other factors to take into account when looking at the effect of quality on the flavor profile of the meat. Many people find that certified organic beef lends itself to creating a better quality steak. For beef to receive the certified organic label it cannot be injected with any type of antibiotic, and must be given a diet of 100% organically grown feed. Many people also feel that cows raised on an all grass diet instead of a corn diet also generally create a better flavor profile. Other factors such as breed (Wagyu is considered one of the best), water source, and geographic location of rearing can also contribute to the overall flavor.
One part of the preparation process that fine steak houses usually incorporate is aging the meat. This improves the flavor and tenderness of the cut, but can often be difficult to do at home safely. It is a delicate process involving very specific temperature controls and environments, and is very difficult for the home consumer to replicate without risking foodbourne illness. However, if you’re willing to pay a little extra, aged beef is often available at local meat markets and butcher shops.
One additional note about grading – Many stores and supermarkets will try to misrepresent the quality of the meat by using words like prime or choice when describing the meat on the package. The only official grade for meats will be in the USDA shield, all other uses of those words on the package are attempts at marketing misdirection.
Almost equally important to the quality of the steak is the cut. There are dozens of cuts of steak that may be available to you based on your geographic location. Not all cuts of beef create good steaks, and because we want to focus on the best quality steaks possible, we are going to focus on steaks that can be cooked quickly using dry heat. This eliminates steaks cut from highly exercised muscles which must be tenderized and cooked longer or with moist heat such as flank steak or cube steak. Even when buying high quality meat from a butcher, if you buy a round steak or flank steak looking for a tender flavorful steak you will be disappointed. Below are the most flavorful and sought after cuts for cooking the perfect steak
Ribeye: The ribeye is considered by many to be the best all round cut. The steak is cut from the upper portion of the rib which is an area of the muscle that does not support much of the cow’s weight, and does very little work. This results in a highly tender cut, which usually has the highest fat content and marbilization ratio of any cut, which creates a juicy and flavorful steak. The ribeye cut usually has no bone, however when it does it is referred to as a cowboy steak or rib steak. If you are just getting started and are looking for the best cut, you can’t go wrong with a ribeye.
New York Strip: Also known as the Kansas City cut, The New York strip is cut from the short loin, a muscle which does very little work, resulting in a tender flavorful cut of meat. This is often the go to steak for people who enjoy their steak rare because the softness of the unused muscle allows the steak to be exceptionally tender even when cooked rare. In the UK this steak is referred to as a Porterhouse, which can cause confusion if ordering abroad. In many other international countries it is simply known as a Club Steak.
T-Bone: The T-Bone is named for the T shaped bone running down the middle of the steak. It is cut from the middle of the short loin and contains meat from 2 separate cuts on opposite sides of the bone, a New York Strip on one side, and a Tenderloin on the other. A T-Bone is refered to as a Porterhouse when the Tenderloin side is thicker than 2 inches. Because they contain meat from 2 of the best cuts, they are often fairly expensive, with Porterhouses being even more so due to the larger Tenderloin. It is often a difficult steak to cook correctly because the meat directly touching the bone usually cooks at a different speed, and the Tenderloin side normally cooks faster than the Strip side. Because of this, when cooking on a grill the Strip side should face the heat more directly than the Tenderloin side.
Tenderloin: Called a fillet outside the United States, the tenderloin is an oblong shaped muscle that runs along the backbone in between the sirloins and into the short loin. The tip running into the short loin can be cut into a Filet Mignon, the most tender of all steaks. Many people and even restaurants incorrectly call any piece of tenderloin a Filet Mignon, but the Filet only comes from a very specific portion of the tenderloin. Many also incorrectly think that the Chateaubriand is a specific cut of Tenderloin, however it is as method of preparation, not a cut. The Psoas Major muscle from which the Tenderloin is cut has almost no strain put on it, resulting in unparalleled tenderness. Because of the tenderness of the Tenderloin, as well as it’s relatively small size in relation to the other muscles and sections of the cow, the Tenderloin and especially the Filet Mignon is often the most expensive cut of steak you can buy.
Sirloin: The sirloin is a go to steak for the common man because of its price, and wide availability. There are several sub-categories of sirloin differentiated by the location of the cut within the sirloin itself. Top Sirloin, which comes from just underneath the tenderloin in the hind quarter of the animal, is usually the most tender and desirable of these. The Bottom Sirloin is what you will find in many supermarkets labeled as Sirloin, and is what many cheaper restaurants serve as their house steak. The Sirloin is usually chosen for its price and not its quality, therefore it can’t be recommended to make the best steak. However don’t let that discourage you if you’re on a tight budget, with the proper preparation and cooking techniques you can still make a great tasting sirloin.
The method to cooking the perfect steak is one that is often hotly debated. The spices, seasonings, and marinades used on a steak are often a personal preference, but one that most people feel very passionate about and will argue that one way is correct over another.
Salt And Pepper – Most people agree that every good steak needs salt and pepper, however the timing of the application is usually debated. Some argue that salt and pepper should be applied hours ahead of time and allowed to soak into the meat in a cold environment prior to cooking. Others say that pre-salting is only for cheap cuts and shouldnt be done to fine meats. Many chefs skip salt prior to cooking because it draws moisture to the surface. This allows for the juice to run out of the steak through osmosis. However releasing some of the moisture makes it slightly easier to achieve a seared crust. Pepper is more a matter of preference depending on how much you enjoy the charred pepper flavor. If you want a charred pepper crust, apply before cooking, if not apply after. You can also add pepper at any point during the preparation to experiment with the level of pepper that gets charred.
Oil/Fat: Oil is another hotly contested topic among steak connoisseurs. Oil is not necessary on a steak unless you specifically enjoy the flavor it creates. Extra virgin olive oil provides a richer flavor, but it has a low smoking point causing it to burn faster, which makes it a poor choice for steak. Regular olive oil will allow you to impart some of the flavor without burning as quickly. Grapeseed oil can be used if you want the properties of oil without the flavor. Many steakhouses cook with butter instead of oil because butter’s flavor compliments a steak better than oil does. Butter can also be placed directly on the steak when you are finished cooking. When cooking a cut with a large amount of fat on one side, (such as a Ribeye) you have the option of searing the side with the fat on it for a few minutes until it melts and cook using the steak’s own fat. If you merely want to prevent sticking without changing the flavor of your steak, lightly brush oil or butter onto your cooking surface before cooking.
Marinades: As we mentioned above, marinades should not be used on high quality steaks. Much like steak sauce, marinades are usually used to cover up the taste of a poor quality steak. The money spent on marinades would be much better spent going toward a higher quality cut of meat. If geographic or financial limitations force you into buying lower quality meats, then light marinades can be used. The marinade should be used to complement the flavor of the meat, and not to overpower it. Marinate your steak for a few hours in a cold environment, do not pierce the steak to allow marinade to seep in, you will lose valuable moisture when cooking. Wipe of any excess marinade before cooking.
Another difference between a steakhouse and home preparation is the method of cooking. Steakhouses normally broil their steaks, and often only slightly sear on a grill or pan at the end. Both broiling and grilling are forms of dry cooking using radiant heat, so this method can be replicated even without restaurant quality broiling equipment. The main point contested when cooking is the temperature. Some argue that the cooking surface should be as hot as possible before placing the steak on it. Another popular method is to cook on medium heat in fat or butter for longer durations. This is a matter of personal preference, however most people choose to go with ultra high heat. No matter what temperature you decide to use, steak is best cooked when starting at room temperature. This will allow the steak to cook quicker and more evenly. Steaks can either be cooked on a grill, on the stovetop in a pan, or in a broiler, and all three are viable methods to cooking a great steak.
Grilling: The main argument with grilling will always be charcoal vs. gas. Charcoal will impart a nice smoky flavor, and can be even further customized by the use of wood grilling planks. Grilling planks allow you to impart the flavors of certain woods such as cherry, maple, or cedar to your meat, and are a nice way to experiment with creating different flavors. When using charcoal, it is best to abstain from using lighter fluid to light the coals, it will affect the flavors of your meat adversely. Gas grills are faster to operate, but don’t impart any wood or smoke flavors. If you just want to taste the meat alone then gas is the best choice. It is usually best not to grill steak directly over open flames, but over embers. This allows the meat to cook more evenly and prevents soot from adhering to the steak.
Skillet: When cooking on a skillet you may need to cook in light oil, butter, or fat, depending on the amount of fat in the cut. Most restaurants use either butter or the steak’s own fat when cooking in a skillet. Make sure the entire surface of the meat is in contact with the bottom of the pan, do not use a pan that it too small which causes the meat to touch the sides. When cooking on a skillet, you should only need to flip one time. Cook on medium to high heat.
Broiling: Broiling is the prefered method of many fine restaurants, because it provides a very consistent and even cook. To start, get your broiling pan ready and make sure that your oven shelf is 4-5 inches away from the heating element in your broiler. Preheat your broiler while seasoning/preparing your steak because it can take several minutes to heat up. You will need to cook anywhere from 2-20 minutes depending on the wellness desired.
Wellness is the ultimate matter of personal preference. Less well done steaks are usually juicier and allow for more of the meats natural flavors to come through. Poorer cuts and qualities of meat often require slightly longer cooking times to achieve the desired tenderness. You can judge wellness either by thermometer or by touch. A thermometer is the most accurate way, but piercing the meat with a thermometer causes flavorful juices to escape, so ideally you will want to learn to judge wellness by touch. The easiest way to learn to judge wellness by touch is by using the thumb and finger method. Touch the tip of your thumb to each of the other four fingers on that hand, and using your other index finger, touch the meaty mound of skin below your thumb to feel the difference in stiffness. When touching your thumb to your index finger, it will feel very springy like a rare steak. When touching to your middle and ring fingers it will feel like medium rare and medium well respectively. You can get a good feel of what medium feels like by touching your thumb to both the middle and ring fingers at the same time. Finally, touching your thumb to your pinky will represent the firmness of a well done steak.
This chart will also assist you in determining how well done your steak is cooked. The times given are applicable when cooked on a grill at ultra high heat.
BLUE RARE – Steak so rare a good vet could bring it back to life – Seared outside – 1-2 minutes per side
99% Red Center- 70-100 degrees farenheit
RARE – Seared outside and still red in the middle – 2-3 minutes per side
80 % Red Center – 100-124 degrees farenheit
MEDIUM RARE -Seared outside and still red in the middle – 3-4 mins per side
50% Red Center – 125-145 degrees farenheit
MEDIUM – Seared outside, pink in the middle – 4 to 4 1/2 minutes per side
25% Red Center – 146-155 degrees farenheit
MEDIUM WELL – Cooked throughout-barely pink inside-5 to 6 mins per side
5% Pink Center – 156-170 degrees farenheit
WELL DONE – Fully cooked throughout – no pink – 6-7 minutes per side
100% brown throughout – 170+ degrees farenheit
After cooking you should allow the steak to rest for 5-10 minutes before piercing the meat. Keep in mind that the temperature may rise up to 10 degrees even after being removed from heat, so take this into account when cooking.
This should give you the tools you need to prepare the perfect steak. Even with all of this knowledge, practice and experimentation are ultimately a huge part to mastering the perfect steak. So get out there and get grilling.