Steak, Texas Style

[Reposted from original blog, by request. Originally posted on Jan 16, 2011.]

We had some friends over tonight as a followup to a promise to show off my Texan roots and make them a “really good steak,” and the first few bites led to questions of, “Wow, this is really tender. And tasty. And juicy. What’s your secret?”

Luckily for the rest of you, it’s not a secret. I’ve been working on my steak-making technique for a while and have no qualms about sharing it, including here.

I. Buying a Good Steak

The first step to cooking a good steak is having a good steak to cook in the first place.

You need to find a decent butcher or meat shop. Occasionally your corner grocery store will have some fairly decent steaks, and for every day “What’s for dinner?” kind of cooking, that’s okay, but you wouldn’t be reading this if you just wanted to make an ordinary steak. We’re making The Perfect Steak, remember?

What you want is a shop that has a large variety of fresh, high-quality meats, and whose staff is knowledgeable to answer your questions about them. The butcher I currently go to has three different grades of ribeye steaks alone, for example. More on that later.

So you’ve found a good butcher. Now you need a good cut of meat. Different people have different opinions on this, but I’m almost exclusively a ribeye fan. Some people like sirloins or filets or T-bone steaks, and those are okay, but for tenderness, taste, and quality, you can’t beat a ribeye. I’ve even been to a couple of premium steakhouses where it’s the only cut they will serve. If you trust me on this just once, and if you still don’t like it, you can go back to whatever you’re used to. The “loin” cuts like filet mignon, T-bone, and porterhouse are also quite good. However, sirloins (no matter what a store tells you) are a step below those, and absolutely do not settle for round steak, chuck steak, or nameless cuts of meat like “grilling steak” or “broiling steak” — these are basically hamburger in solid form, and certainly mean you didn’t follow my directions about finding a good shop.

Assuming you’ve trusted me so far and you’re after a ribeye, and you want The Perfect Steak, just getting the right cut alone isn’t everything. Grade matters, as does which specific variety of cut, and AAA (or Prime, in the US) is the best you can get. If the shop tells you they don’t carry AAA / Prime, it’s another sign you may not have succeeded in following my instructions about finding a good shop. You can settle for AA / Choice if that’s truly all you can find (the meat is still good, just less well-marbled — see below), but that’s a last resort.

Finally, to really take this steak purchase to the top (especially if you only need 1 or 2 steaks total) ask for the end cuts — the ends are the tenderest bits of the ribeye, which is already more or less the tenderest cut of beef overall. If the end cuts are already gone (ha, someone beat you to them), just go for the steaks with the heaviest marbling (in other words, lots of fat, but what you’re looking for isn’t the thick fat at the edges, but all the tiny lines of fat spread throughout the meat). Also, good steaks are usually aged for extra taste, and the best aged steaks will have a really dark maroon tint to them, possibly even a little bluish, like a red wine. Most people are turned off by the dark hue and ask for the really fire-engine red cuts of meat because they look “fresher,” but now you know better. Also if it’s a good butcher, they should be able to give you some guidance on which are the best ones.

So, in summary what you’re after is:
* Beef ribeye (or rib steak, if that’s the best you can find)
* Grade AAA (in Canada) or Prime (in the US)
* Cut about one inch thick – thinner steaks are too easy to accidentally overcook
* End cut, or at least the most heavily marbled, best aged cuts they have

Remember, if you’re paying a premium for highest quality steaks (and these will run you $10-$15 apiece, just to warn you), it’s a waste not to take the opportunity to get exactly the ones you want.

II. Preparation

What you’ll need:
* Your steaks
* A good heavy cast iron skillet, or if that doesn’t work, a heavy stainless steel pan with a steel handle (you’re going to be heating it in an oven, so no plastic handles or anything else which will melt).
* A good quality flaky sea salt (I like Maldon salt)
* A peppermill with whole black or assorted peppercorns in it
* Oregano (my choice is Mexican oregano because it tastes less pasta-like, but use what you can find). Other herb mixes are okay, too, but I keep coming back to simple oregano.
* Butter, lots of it
* Optional: garlic, or that garlic juice that comes in the spray bottle

You’ve got your carefully selected steaks home, and now you’re staring at them. What do you want to do?

First, dry them off. Paper towels work best. Get those things as dry as you can. It seems weird, I know, but every drop of moisture remaining on the steaks anywhere is going to boil that part of the steak as it cooks, and boiled meat is tough and tasteless, and that’s not what you’re after.

After the steaks are good and dry, you need to season them. On each side, give them a generous dose of sea salt, fresh cracked pepper, and oregano. You can use a lot of salt, especially if your butter is unsalted. Honestly, I’ve only overdone the salt once and even then the steaks were still very good. Once it’s all sprinkled, I like to rub and poke it into the meat with my fingers, to embed the spices into the steaks so they won’t fall off when cooking.

III. Cooking

Preheat your oven to 425F, with your skillet inside the oven on the middle rack. The skillet needs to be HOT when you drop those steaks onto it.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, melt the butter and get it plenty hot (you don’t want it cooling down the skillet later). You’ll want at least 1/4cup of it — more if you like. It’s even better if you can heat the butter long enough to boil most of the water out of it (remember what I said before about boiled meat?).

When the oven is at temperature, and possibly a little longer to make sure the skillet is all the way heated as well, turn on the oven’s top broiler if it has one. Then, pour enough of the butter into the skillet to coat the bottom. It’ll sizzle like crazy, and that’s okay. Quickly drop the steaks into the butter and close the door.

For a doneness just between rare and medium rare, it consistently takes about three minutes a side. For medium, it’s about four. If you want it more done than that, wrap up those really terrific steaks, take them back to the butcher, and tell them you just found out you don’t deserve steaks that good, and to give you some cheap round steaks instead. I’m serious. If you’re going to overcook your steaks, don’t waste your money: everything at medium-well or higher tastes the same as cheap meat, so it might as well be cheap meat. And even if you usually like your steaks a bit more done, just this once try them medium at four minutes a side, and I bet you’ll change your mind forever (if you still don’t like the steaks that way, I guess you can toss them back in for another minute or two to top them off).

IV. Post Cooking

Your steaks are going to come out of the broiler seeming really floppy and a bit underdone. That’s because they’re going to keep cooking for another minute or two on the plate as they cool down. With a pair of tongs lift the steaks onto plates and let them “rest” for a minute or two.

Lastly, immediately before serving, rub a halved garlic clove on the surface of each steak, or, if you’re slightly lazy like I am, give each steak a quick spritz of garlic juice. It’s a small touch, but it makes the aroma so much richer.

Serve. I always like pairing a good steak with mashed potatoes and some fresh steamed veggies.

Feel free to add a little extra salt or cracked pepper to the steaks to taste.

And it probably goes without saying that you didn’t go to this much cost and trouble just to cover the thing in barbecue sauce or steak sauce — those things were invented to hide the fact that you bought the cheapest steaks possible, which, this time, you did not.

Also, if you need anything other than a butter knife to cut your finished steaks, you either didn’t follow my instructions about the meat quality, the skillet, or the butter. I haven’t used a steak knife at home in years.

This is the kind of steak you would be paying $35 – $50 a plate for in a restaurant, and I’ve just taught you how easy it is to do it at home for less than a third of that.

And now that you’ve got the secret, practice it a few times, and then go impress somebody. That’s right — got a new boyfriend / girlfriend? Looking for a promotion from the boss? Give your husband or wife a special treat? There you go. And if they’re vegetarian, maybe one day I’ll post my secret recipes for non-carnivore treats, so I guess you’re out of luck for now.

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