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How do you cook the perfect steak? That’s the meatiest question of all. And the stakes, if you’ll excuse the pun, couldn’t be higher. Just ask the French philosopher Roland Barthes: ‘Like wine, steak is a basic element’ he drools. ‘Yet it is ancient ambrosia.”
No wonder, then, that every single chef on the planet has put forth their own favoured method at one time or another. In an effort to settled the debate once and for all, we’ve trawled the cooking canon and picked out some searing insights from a number of decorated chefs. Here is our guide to cooking the perfect steak, according to the men who really ought to know.
There’s a reason the big names – sirloin, fillet, rib-eye and rump – get all the headlines. They’re good to work with, have excellent distribution of fat, and – coming as they do from lesser-strained muscles – are often more tender. But it’s sometimes worth looking beyond the old boys club and towards the lovable rogues of the beef world.
Fernando Larroude, the master steaksman over at Argentinian barbacoa joint Gaucho, recommends flank and skirt as two worthy alternatives. ‘The marbling on these cuts means they’ll be succulent and juicy, perfect for a summer barbecue.’ he says. Aware that filet mignon is probably off the cards for a weekly treat, the chefs in our survey opt largely for a rib-eye. The cut has excellent fat marbling, holds together well, and is especially life-affirming when thickly butchered.
As any good boy scout will tell you, preparation is all. Harold McGee, the American food scientist, believes that the secret to a good steak is twofold: ‘warm meat and frequent flips.’ To achieve the former, McGee recommends mummifying the steak in cling film and then submerging it in a bath of warm water for about an hour before you’re due to start cooking.
Elias Iglesias, veteran chef at the legendary Morton’s steakhouse in New York City, used to shock diners by leaving his steaks out by the open kitchen grill for about an hour before cooking, or as long as the food standards agencies would allow (‘at home I let them sit for two hours’, he admits). But now letting your meat breath is the norm.
Alain Ducasse – the Michelin star spattered meat master – says that this stage is the most important in cooking a good steak. The thinking is that this processes relaxes the fibres in the meat slightly, making the end product more tender. But it’s also designed to raise the internal temperature a little, so that the center of the steak doesn’t stay cold while the exterior burns.
Elias Iglesis and Alain Ducasse both recommend patting the meat try before cooking. Ducasse says that too damp a steak will ‘struggle to form a decent crust and pick up some unpleasant boiled meat flavour’. A certain dryness also encourages the Maillard reaction, that heaven-sent piece of chemistry that occurs when meat protein browns.
Hervé This, an eccentric french food chemist, advises against putting salt on your meat. “The phenomenon of osmosis causes the juices to escape the meat when muscular fibres are cut and open” he says, as they are in the butchering of a steak. On the other hand, Ducasse, Iglesias, Maciej Truskolask of Peter Luger in NYC, and April Bloomfield of the Spotted Pig are all strong advocates of salting.
Bloomfield believes that a generous salting will ‘help the steaks cook evenly’, while Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall advocates salting about halfway through the cooking process. Over at the Hawskmoor, meanwhile, they subscribe to the view that we should all salt our meat liberally beforehand: ‘More than you probably think sensible. It will help build up a delicious salty crust. Some say you shouldn’t season the steak until after you’ve cooked it. We think they’re wrong.’
Fat – whether in the meat itself or added during cooking – has long been crucial to the success of a good steak. Nigel Slater suggests brushing the meat with clarified butter just before it hits the pan (‘not too much, just enough to give it a good gloss.’) Fearnley-Whittingstall and Bloomfield would rather that you greased the pan beforehand. Truskolask insists on the flavourless canola oil, while Fearnley-Whittingstall plumps for lard.
Ducasse uses butter, but adds it to the pan once the meat is browned instead of slipping it in at the start. He then uses the melted butter, flavoured with crushed garlic, to baste the steak as the cooking comes to an end. This basting, Ducasse believes, adds a savoury punch to the crust.
The temperature of the pan itself is the source of, um, heated debate. Slater, Ducasse and Hervé This all hymn the virtues of a very high heat, while Bloomfield, Iglesias of Morton’s and Fearnley-Whittingstall prefer something more moderate. The debate falls between those in the Hawksmoor school of thought who prefer a rugged char; and those who believe over browning is simply a distraction from the wonderful natural flavours of the beef.
It ought to be noted that the ‘high heat’ school of thought works a lot better for thick cut pieces of meat (the Hawksmoor chaps advise about 4cm) than thinner ones. Too weedy a cut, and you’ll cook it through before you’ve had a chance to enact any of the crucial caramelisation, Ducasse says.
Again, the flip is a major bone of contention in the steak world. Food scientist McGee is convinced that frequent flipping is what keeps the best steaks moist: ‘frequent turns mean that neither side has the time either to absorb or to release large amounts of heat. The meat cooks faster, and its outer layers end up less overdone.’
There may be a secondary advantage advantage, however, if Ducasse and Bloomfield are to be believed: that it allows you to keep a track on the progress of your char. Slater throws another gem into the pan when he suggest pressing down on the steak with a spatula to ‘improve thermal contact’. This, he believes, gives a superior caramelised crust.
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