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How to Cook a Steak

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How to cook steak so that it’s perfectly tender, juicy and medium-rare? I wrestled with this question for years, faithfully following authoritative recipes. Then I discovered that nearly everything I’d ever learned about how to cook a steak was wrong.

Once I realized that, I was able to figure out how to cook steaks in a way that has given me consistent results over and over: perfectly done, flavorful steak with an edge-to-edge pink interior and a beautifully seared outside.

Using this knowledge, I came up with my own method. In many ways it is the opposite of what you’ll read just about anywhere else.

I even came up with a name for it: “faux vide.” That’s because it’s sorta, kinda, but not really like something called sous-vide cooking (more on what that is a little later). But you don’t need to care about trendy culinary buzzwords and gadgets to make use of the way I’ve turned the fundamental steak cooking recipe upside down and backwards. The proof will be in how much better your ribeyes, porterhouses and T-bones turn out.

It’s so easy. It’s soooooo tasty. And I came up with it myself!

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How to cook steak
What’s wrong with steak recipes

How to cook steak has been covered zillions of times in countless books, shows and websites. The basic approach to how to cook steak can be summarized like this: First, quickly sear the outside, next finish cooking the inside, and finally, let it rest.

If you’ve looked up how to cook steak, you’ve surely found instructions that go something like this:

  • Heat up a pan (or grill) until it’s really, really hot.
  • Put the steak on it. Wait a couple of minutes.
  • Flip the steak over. Wait a couple of minutes.
  • Put the steak in a medium-hot oven. Wait a couple of minutes.
  • Pull the steak out of the oven. Remove it to a dish and cover it. Wait several minutes.

I tried that. Over and over, with whatever permutations I could find. But not too frequently, because experimenting with how to cook steak is expensive!

Overdone or underseared. What did I get? An interior that was tough, brown and overcooked by the time the exterior was lovely, dark and tasty. A steak that was a jaw-tiring chore to chew. A steak that seemed to mock me with the thought of how much more pleasure a pot roast would’ve given for a third the price!

Overcooking during the resting phase. Even if the interior was just right when I pulled the steak from the oven, it would continue cooking during the resting period, until it was no longer medium rare.

Soggy exterior. The beautifully seared, dry exterior would inevitably become moist and sodden during the resting period. The covered dish created a steam chamber that undid the searing work of the skillet.

Tough result if resting is skipped. But if we tried skipping the resting period that is key in the standard method of how to cook steak, the steak would be tough, because the proteins would be coiled tight from having been in high heat.

Flavor lost during resting. Several tablespoons of rich, flavorful juice flow from each portion of steak during the resting period. You can make a pan sauce from the juice so that you don’t waste it — but wouldn’t it be nice it all that flavor and juicy just stayed within the steak in the first place?

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How to cook steak
Key elements

The key to this method of how to cook steak is low, slow cooking. You slowly bring the steak up towards the desired final temperature. Then sear it. Then serve it.

That’s all there is to it.

You see, the problems all stem from cooking the steak from the outside in.

The solution is to turn it around: cook the outside last. That’s the opposite of the standard order in how to cook steak.

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How to cook steak
Perks

A more tender steak. Because the interior of the steak is cooked at a relatively low temperature, it stays tender. It’s low, slow cooking — the same as with your slow cooker. But because you’re cooking a more tender piece of meat to begin with, it only takes a portion of an hour, instead of all day.

Edge-to-edge pink. The gold standard of steak is medium-rare: seared on the outside with a cooked, pink center. Not a mushy, raw, red center, of course, but cooked to deep pink perfection, at 125° to 130° F. With the standard method of how to cook steak, the best you can hope for is a center ribbon of this tender pink portion, darkening gradually to brown towards the outer edge. When you follow these instructions how to cook steak, however, you can expect the rosy pink portion to extend all the way through, until, about a millimeter or two from the edge, the color abruptly turns brown, just before reaching the outside sear.

No resting required. The reason for resting steak is so that the tightly coiled proteins throughout the meat can relax as they cool off. But if you follow my instructions for how to cook steak, the interior of the steak is cooked at low, slow heat. So the proteins never clench up to begin with.

A juicier steak. Because the proteins don’t clench up and then release, these steaks do not exude puddles of juice as they rest, or while they are on your plate. The juice stays nicely distributed throughout your steak. Not only is this steak tender, but it’s also a juicy steak.

A better-tasting steak. I’ve thrown away my bottles of steak sauce. They actually taste less interesting than the steak itself. Their aggressive flavorings just mask the star of the show: the steak itself. Nor do I bother with pan sauces, marinades, or highly seasoned rubs. One of these days, I mean to rub on something besides good old salt and black and red pepper, but in practice, I find I don’t want anything to get in the way of the flavor of the steak.

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How to cook steak
The inspiration

Reading about sous-vide way is what got me thinking about developing a different way how to cook steak. To cook a steak sous-vide, you seal it in plastic wrap. Then you place it in a bath of water held at a precise goal temperature. Once the steak (or whatever you’re cooking) reaches this temp, you remove it from the wrap and sear it on a grill or skillet.

Sous-vide machines cost thousands of dollars, and so were only found in restaurants until the good DoctorsMary Dan and Michael Eades – best-selling authors of the best-selling series of Protein Power low-carb books — came out with their game-changing Sous-Vide Supremehome device in early 2010. It costs hundreds of dollars — not cheap, but certainly a more realistic choice for a home cook than an industrial, pro machine.

An SVS isn’t in our family’s budget, but I got to thinking about what’s behind the spectacular results people have been raving about. The key seems to be: low and slow. Don’t make the protein molecules clench and coil. Don’t make the food tough. Don’t work at cross-purposes.

I set about looking for the best way to achieve that goal without any special equipment. This recipe for how to cook steak is my happy result.

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How to cook steak
How sous-vide cooking works

sous-vide cookery uses low and slow cooking, which is the secret to so many fabulous meat dishes, including my beloved pot roasts.

When meat is cooked at a high temperature, the proteins coil up tight, and so the meat is tough. Resting meat allows the proteins to relax, meaning that the meat will be more tender. This is why resting steak is usually so important. (But there is no resting period needed with my how to cook steak method — another advantage! Read on.)

The internal temperature goal for medium-rare steak is 125° to 130° F. Therefore, to cook a steak medium-rare sous-vide, you place the plastic-sealed steak in a bath of 125° to 130° F water (recipe recommendations differ). In sous-vide cooking, the proteins of the meat’s interior are never subjected to high heat; therefore, they never tighten and thus never need relaxing.

The other advantage to cooking a steak sous-vide is the evenness of cooking. Bringing up the temperature slowly, via water immersion, ensures that the meat is the same perfect temperature throughout. When you start on a stovetop or grill, the exterior heats much faster than the interior. But with sous-vide, you get the whole thing near goal, then briefly sear the exterior at the end of cooking, just to trigger the Maillard (browning) reaction that will deliver the color and flavor you want on the outside of a steak.

A precision appliance is needed, however, to hold water at the precise temperature needed for sous-vide cooking. Crock pots won’t work, unless you buy an auxiliary controller.

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How to cook steak
The brainstorm: warm air

Now we have a great steak dinner, home-cooked with veggies or salad on the side, just about every week. Talk about luscious low-carb.

Thinking about the low and steady temperature of the water bath, I had a brainstorm. What if I placed a steak into 125° air, instead of 125° water?

What if I cooked my steak at its goal temperature of 125° in the oven rather than plastic-wrapped in a water bath? Oven temperatures fluctuate as widely as 50°, I read, but I thought it was worth a try.

Eagerly I seasoned a steak and fired up my oven. Right away I encountered a difficulty. The lowest setting on my oven was 150° F.

I decided to try anyway. The key, I found, was slowing down the heating-up process. Through multiple efforts, I came up with a series of tweaks that gave the slowest, steadiest cooking possible, with the nicest sear, including:

  • Taking the steaks out of the refrigerator long enough to take the chill off. before placing them in the oven.
  • Starting them in a cold oven.
  • Turning off the oven after a while and letting the residual heat continue to cook the meat.

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How to cook steak
Serving suggestions

I like to serve this with a side of vegetables, such as asparagus sauteed in butter and olive oil, or mustard greens with diced turnips and tomatillos. I don’t even make a pan sauce, because unless you add fat or oil to the skillet, there will be hardly anything in the pan. If you do use fat or oil, you can briefly toss the vegetables in the skillet to pick up the deep, caramelized flavors left behind.

I don’t put steak sauce or any other condiment on steak prepared this way. I find the flavor is so deep and rich on its own, a bottled sauce will just mask it.

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How to cook steak
Leftover suggestion

In the unlikely event of leftovers, you will find steak cooked faux vide to be perfect for stir fries. Just slice into thin strips and add to your pan or wok. Add the steak after the other ingredients are just about cooked. You will only need it to heat through. Serve.

You can also dice the leftovers and add them to omelets for a protein boost at breakfast.

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How to cook steak
Substitutions guide

Cuts of meat. The recipe calls for rib-eye steak. We’ve found that to be the tenderest, juiciest and best. However, you can use whatever type of steak you prefer, or can find. This method will also get the best results whether you’re looking for how to cook porterhouse steak, how to cook T-bone steak or how to cook sirloin steak.

Note that chuck and round steak are not suitable for this method. These are both tough cuts of beef best used in recipes that call for longer, moister cooking, like pot roasts and stews. The word “steak” in their name refers only to the direction of the cut –across the grain — and the shape — short and wide.

Thickness of steak. Unlike most steak recipes, this method works for a wide variety of thicknesses. I have specified 3/4 inch to 1 inch, but sometimes it’s not easy to find steak this thick in a standard supermarket. Or sometimes you want to splurge on a steak that’s thicker. As long as you monitor temperature, rather than time, this way of how to cook steak will work.

Thermometer. In this method, temperature, rather, than time provides the crucial cues. If you don’t have a thermometer, you can guess what’s going on by using the times and temperatures, thickness and cut that I give. However, results may vary depending on your oven and source of beef.

The thermometer should have a probe on a cable that plugs into the digital readout. You need to insert the probe into the steak and run the cable out the oven door, so that you can keep an eye on the temperature.

If your thermometer does not have a cable, you can keep an eye on the rising temperature by opening the oven door every few minutes to check.

If you have no thermometer, you can go by the times that work for my oven, noted in the recipe. Write down the times that work for you so you can tweak and duplicate it for your own situation.

I recommend that you get a probe thermometer, though, for this and many other useful purposes. A thermometer can help immensely as you learn how to cook.

Cast-iron skillet. The perfect tool for the stovetop portion of this job. A skillet is a shallow, flat-bottomed, round pan with a handle and slightly flared sides. (It’s the pan in my logo.)

If you don’t have a 12-inch skillet, you can heat two medium skillets, one for each steak. If you don’t have any cast-iron skillets, you can use any skillet that does not have a nonstick surface, such as a steel-clad pan (All-Clad is a great brand) or an aluminum-surfaced pan.

Notes on nonstick. If you do not have any skillets or pans without nonstick coating, I strongly urge you to get one or more. Nonstick coating is plastic. Plastic that comes off in your food. The hotter you make the pan, the more the coating comes off. This recipe calls for making the pan very, very hot.

The other problem with nonstick is that it doesn’t get as hot as metal. (Think about the way plastic — unless it’s melted — just doesn’t get very hot.) So you’re cheating yourself out of a nice, browned crust when you try to brown anything with nonstick.

If all you have is nonstick, try the recipe anyway. It won’t be quite as good, but we probably shouldn’t let the imperfect be the enemy of the good. Or however that saying goes.

Cooling rack. If you don’t have one, try putting the steak directly on the baking sheet. Turn the steaks over partway through the oven portion of the how to cook steak recipe. The rack ensures the most even cooking environment possible all over the surface of the steak. If you can think of something even more even, please let me know.

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How to cook steak
Low-carb notes

Low-carb. Steak. Low-starch vegetables on the side. That is, no potatoes or vegetables made of seeds, like corn or peas. There you have it: the quintessential low-carb meal.

How to cook steak
The recipe

Yield

Steaks for two. This quantity can easily be adjusted for your purposes.

Temperature and time

Do not preheat oven. Then: Your lowest oven setting 20 minutes, oven off 10 minutes, hot skillet 2 minutes.

Ingredients

  • 1 to 4 rib-eye steaks, each at least .66 pounds and 3/4″ to 1″ thick
  • salt (1/2 teaspoon per pound of meat)
  • black pepper, six grindings per pound of meat, freshly ground
  • red pepper flakes, to taste (optional)
  • coconut oil or other cooking fat/oil of your choice

Equipment worth noting

  • Thermometer with probe attached to a cable
  • Metal cooling rack
  • Heavy skillet (cast iron or a good stainless brand like All-Clad)
    You will need at least one 8″ skillet for every two steaks, or one 12″ skillet for up to four steaks.
    Nonstick pans or skillets are not recommended.

In a nutshell

  1. Rub steaks with seasoning.
  2. In an oven, bring them to 100° as slowly as you can, over the course of about 20 minutes to a half-hour.
  3. Sear them off in a super-hot skillet.
  4. Serve immediately; no resting required.

Detailed instructions

Season your steaks
Rub steaks with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes.In a small bowl, mix together salt and peppers. Remove steaks from packaging and turn them onto a clean dish cloth or a paper towel. Pat steaks dry. Rub half the salt-and-peppers seasoning mix onto the tops of the steaks. Place the cooling rack into the baking sheet. Place the steaks on the cooling rack, seasoned side down. Rub the remaining seasoning mix over the steaks. (Place the dish cloth to be laundered.)

Optionally, leave these prepped steaks out on the counter for a half hour or so to warm slightly to room temperature.

Step 2: Slow-cook your steaks

Insert your thermometer probe laterally.Insert the probe of your thermometer into the thickest point of your thickest steak. Start from the side of the steak, so that it’s inserted laterally.

Place the pan with the steaks into a cold oven. Only after the steaks are in, turn on your oven. Set it to 125°, or the lowest temperature possible. (My oven goes as low as 150°, so that’s what I use.)

When the thermometer reads 90° F (after about 15 to 20 minutes), turn off the oven. The temperature of the steak will continue to rise.

When the thermometer reads 100° F (after another 5 to 10 minutes), remove the steaks from the oven. Remove the thermometer probe.

Step 3: Heat skillet(s)

The steaks will be a ruddy maroon -- but not "browned" -- when you take them from the oven.Around the time the steaks reach 90°, begin to heat your skillet(s). Set the skillet over medium heat for some minutes. When you’re closer to pulling the steaks from the oven, turn the heat all the way up. They should be blazing hot, as hot as you can possibly get them.

(The reason for not turning the heat up to max from the get-go is that you don’t want to warp your pan by heating it empty for a prolonged period.)

If you are adding fat or oil to the pan to enhance the steak’s browning: Add it after the pan is at hot as it’s going to get, then give it about 20 seconds to get up to temperature. I usually skip this step, as the steak seems to brown better without it.

However, if you’re trying to find a way to get coconut oil into your diet, this is as good a way as any to do so. (And much more pleasant than eating it off a spoon like medicine, as some recommend!)

If you’re using a nonstick skillet, the oil will help with the browning. That’s because the oil is a better conductor of heat than the nonstick plastic coating is.

Step 4: Sear steaks

Place the steaks in the skillet. Be watchful of how you place them, because, especially if you aren’t using additional oil, you won’t be able to move them right away. They will temporarily stick to the surface of the pan.

You can press down on the steaks to ensure even browning. As they cook, look for corners that are springing up. That’s where you should press.

Cook them for 1 minute on each side. Pick up the steak with tongs and press the edges into the hot pan, to get a little extra sear on the sides.

When I test by reinserting the thermometer probe, I find that the internal temperature has risen to between 125° and 130° during this amount of searing. Because individual stovetops and skillets vary in their heating properties, I recommend that you test temperature, too, the first couple of times you try this.

Step 5: Serve

Serve immediately. No resting period is required.

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