A few weeks ago a friend called me and asked, “Nick! How do I cook steak?” It was hard for me to explain over the phone, but I promised a post showing a really good way to cook a steak using a stove top.
The home cook is at a disadvantage when it comes to cooking steak. Restaurants have tons of tricks to give steak a great taste. They let it age (which can be reproduced at home, but that is a separate post) and they have high heat devices which is tough to impossible to replicate. My favorite way to cook a steak is actually on the grill, but I don’t have a grill these days so the stove top is all I have to work with.
But that does not mean I cannot make a good steak. In fact, I argue that I can make a near-restaurant quality steak on the stove top. With a few tips and tricks, it is actually really simple to cook a beautiful steak. One like this!
There are a few things I want to address before we jump into the cooking. First, when I say steak in this post, I’m taking about a steak at least 1/2 inch thick and with good marbling. The process I’m using in this post would do nothing on a skirt steak (one that is very thin) or any lean cut. By steak, I mean a ribeye, T-bone, or something of that nature.
Second, fat is the key in this cooking method. You would not want to cook Filet Mignon like this. It is too lean. When I say that the steak should have good marbling, I mean that it should have veins of fat within the tissue. Like this:
Now, you may already know this, but this is not an economical meal. If you are going to get a real steak like the Prime grade ribeye above, you are going to pay for it. The good news is that it is so tasty, that I never need a full steak to get full. Could I eat a full 1 pound steak? Probably. But Betsy and I usually split one and it makes for a perfect meal.
Cooking a Steak in the Oven: Low Heat First
The first key to cooking a good steak in your kitchen is to relax the steak. If you were to feel the above steak, it is rigid and hard. That’s because all of that marbling in the meat is solid. We want this fat to relax a little bit. There are a few ways to do this. First, you could just let it sit at room temperature for at least 30-45 minutes. I don’t like this option because I don’t always have that kind of time and it still doesn’t get the meat very relaxed.
Second, and the method that I use, is to actually put the steak in the oven on the lowest possible setting, with the door slightly open. If you are a seasoned chef, this may sound completely blasphemous, but trust me, it works. It actually perfectly simulates a real restaurant kitchen. Typically, a steak house will take the meat out as soon as the order comes in, but they will let it sit for 15-20 minutes by the stove before cooking it. The difference being that in an industrial kitchen, it is much hotter than your room temperature house.
A low setting (200 degrees F. or lower) oven approximates this setting. It needs 3-4 minutes on each side. Again, you are not cooking the steak at this point, you are just getting it ready.
When you pull your steak out, you will notice immediately that it is much more tender. It’s almost like your steak has had a few cocktails. It’s just having a good time.
Compare the below photo to the one above to see how just a few minutes in a low heat oven (like 200 or under) can really start to melt those veins of fat.
The next step is to season this guy. I’m a complete purist when it comes to this. If you have a quality cut of meat, all it needs is salt and pepper. Feel free to give it a liberal amount of both, but I have no desire to put anything else on it.
Your steak is now seasoned and relaxed. It’s time to do our best to give it that characteristic steakhouse char on the outside. The way to do this is blazing heat. If you don’t have an industrial strength salamander (who does?), there is no better way to do this than a cast iron skillet. Put it over high heat with a few Tablespoons of butter in it and let it get hot until the butter is just starting to smoke.
Then toss in your steak. If you are cooking more than one, be sure not to crowd them. If you crowd them then the heat will not transfer well and you will end up with a strange gray hunk of meat.
Once your steak is in the pan, don’t touch it. Seriously don’t touch it. It will smoke and steam and hiss and be generally unhappy about the situation. That’s fine. Just let it complain, but don’t touch it!
When to turn it is when experience comes in a bit. For a perfect medium rare steak that is a bit under 1 inch thick (like mine in this post), I do 4-5 minutes on the first side. When in doubt, I always shoot low as I despise overcooked steak.
Flip it and forget it for another 4 minutes. By forget it, I mean don’t touch it!
After four minutes on the second side, you can touch it. Notice I didn’t say move it. Don’t move it! But you can touch it. By touching the meat, you can tell a general level of doneness. This has never failed me with steak. It’s slightly different with other meats but with steak it tends to be right on.
If you push your thumb and your fingers together lightly, the section of muscle right below the thumb feels almost identical to a steak at different levels of doneness.
This is because as it cooks, the proteins in the meat tighten and the fat melts away. If you poke a well done steak it will feel like Arnold’s flexed bicep.
Rest the steak
After you pull this off the heat, let it rest for five minutes before chopping into it. This will let the juices redistribute through the meat.
Then serve it up! I served these with some of the tarragon compound butter I made a few weeks ago.
Like I said at the beginning of this post, there are a lot of ways to cook steak. This is one of them that I think is very accessible to most people and results in a perfectly cooked steak time and time again.