Steak is surely the king of meats: big, bold, often expensive, and dominating any meal it’s in. On the surface, a steak appears to be simple fare, just a lump of cow exposed to high heat. But as with many monarchs throughout history, a steak will not give you its blessing if you don’t treat it right. That doesn’t just mean spending a lot of money on it, but paying attention to the details as well. Unfortunately, for many people, a “good” steak starts under cellophane with a large price tag and probably ends up underwhelming the guests. But don’t despair. Read on to find out what you should stop doing if you want to eat like a king.
There are lots of things that can go wrong to ruin your steak dinner: you can undercook the steak, overcook the steak, under season it, overseason it, have a few too many drinks and forget about it entirely … the list goes on. But don’t worry about all that just yet. In order to eat a good steak, you first have to buy a good steak.
While it’s easy to empty your wallet on the more fashionable cuts, like tenderloin or New York strip, with a little knowledge, you’ll find that other bits of the cow are super tasty without the premium price tag. So if you want steak but struggle with the price, instead of those classic, but expensive cuts, try throwing a hanger steak, a tri-tip, or one of these others on the grill. Since they are likely to have more connective tissue or naturally be a little tougher, they may require a little more attention to cook just right, but if you make the effort, you definitely won’t be sorry.
When given a choice between lean and fatty, most people will err on the side of lean. This is understandable if you’re looking to cut calories, but otherwise you’re probably better off buying a smaller, fattier piece of meat. This is because the fat often adds flavor and juiciness to the steak, especially when the fat is “marbled” throughout the steak.
Good marbling is an indicator of high-quality meat, and it is one of the things USDA inspectors look at when deciding on the rating. An even distribution of fine marbling is the best choice, and will earn the meat a USDA rating of “Prime” for the best cuts (usually sold in hotels and restaurants), “Choice” (good quality, less marbling), and finally “Select” (leaner cuts that have a little less flavor). If you go below “Select,” you’re getting into generic, store-brand, plastic-wrapped meats, and although they offer financial advantages for the budget-conscious consumer, you’ll probably incur net flavor losses if you go this route.
While the USDA rating system is an easy shortcut to choosing a great piece of cow, there is really no substitute for years of experience to help you get the most for your money. That isn’t to say you should struggle through years of hit-and-miss meals before you earn that experience for yourself; this is a reminder that although supermarkets and plastic-wrapped meat are convenient, there are other places you can go for your meat where good advice is included in the price per pound. So instead of just looking for a USDA label, trying to assess which fictional farm sounds more authentic, or simply poking at the meat through the cellophane, you can actually talk to someone to find the cut that suits your needs and learn something new along the way.
Good places to go are butcher shops, farmers markets, or the occasional supermarket with an actual in-house butcher (not just a local teenager wearing a bloody apron). The advice they can provide goes beyond the immediate questions like flavor and price, and can include information on the origin of the meat like where the cow was raised, its breed, whether it was grass-fed or corn fed, and so on. That way, you can go home actually knowing what you’re about to throw on the fire, rather than accepting the prepackaged fiction that can hide a whole host of culinary and ethical sins.
So you bought your steak on Monday and plan to eat it on Wednesday, and in the meantime it’s sensibly sitting in the fridge waiting patiently. With many of the other animal products that you probably have in your refrigerator or freezer, you’ll typically want to get them to room temperature before you cook them. With things like chicken and fish, which either need to be thoroughly cooked for safety, or just evenly cooked throughout, bringing them up to room temperature improves your odds of getting it right. But when it comes to steak, which neither needs to be cooked thoroughly, nor evenly, having the meat start out on the cold side will work in your favor.
Regardless of how you like the inside of your steak done (we’ll get to that later), you probably like the outside to be dark brown and lightly charred. If you also like the inside to be anywhere south of medium, you’ll probably go with the standard cooking practice of throwing it onto an insanely hot grill or pan for a couple minutes. If you time it right, this will sear the outside to crispy perfection without letting the heat do much to the inside. In the case of a rare steak, this can require as little as one minute per side, depending on the thickness. The internal temperature of a rare steak is around 125 degrees, so if you’re cooking it from room temperature, say 72 degrees, the grill only needs to raise the internal temperature 53 degrees to hit that mark. But if you leave your steak in the fridge at around 35 degrees, and throw it on the grill at that temperature, the grill now has to raise the inside temperature 90 degrees to get to the same place. This achieves two things: the extra time required to heat the steak to the ideal temperature makes it easier for you to hit the window of perfect doneness, and it also gives the outside a little extra time for the Maillard . to take effect, which uses the transformation of amino acids and sugars at high temperature to produce that mouth-watering grilled flavor you’re totally thinking about right now.
If you suddenly have a (very understandable) desire to cook steaks for dinner but only have frozen steaks on hand, fear not. According to Cook’s Illustrated, cooking steaks straight from frozen is better than thawing them before cooking because it results in more retained moisture and less overcooking. However, since the process works best when you freeze the steak in a specific way, you may still prefer to plan ahead and cook them straight from the butcher instead.