How to Cook the Perfect Steak

A perfectly cooked steak.

© Shutterstock

A perfectly cooked steak.

A perfectly cooked steak.

© Shutterstock

Quite apart from high quality meat, you also need the right equipment. We explain how to season, why you need a meat thermometer and why a cast iron pan is best.

Core Temperature:

The best investment for steak lovers is a meat thermometer. Every animal, every steak, every cooker and every pan is different – which is why stating cooking times is flawed and usually leads to disappointing results. The core temperature of the meat is a much better guide and lets you know exactly to which point the steak is cooked. Save yourself the hassle, buy a roasting thermometer and never overcook a steak again.

  • Below 48°C/118°F: Rare – the meat is just warm; the intramuscular fat has not melted. Liquid loss is lowest, but it still feels less juicy than medium rare. The flavour is not yet fully developed.
  • 54-60°C/129-140°F: Medium rare – for many, this is the ideal doneness because the meat tastes juiciest and strongest at this temperature. It changes colour, becoming more pink and firmer. It has hardly lost any liquid but is more chewable, the intramuscular fat has partially melted.
  • 60-65°C/140-149°F: Medium –  a similar taste to medium rare, but the fluid loss is already higher, and the meat starts to look dry.
  • 65-71°C/149-160°F: Medium - well done – the pink meat slowly turns grey and becomes drier.
  • From 71°C/160°F: Well done – highest liquid loss, the meat is hard and grey.

 

The Maillard Reactions:

The taste of your steak is not just down to the beef but also to the Maillard reactions. They are named after their discoverer, French doctor Louis Camille Maillard. Maillard reactions are an intricate series of chemical reactions between amino acids and sugars that produce the aromas and flavours of browned meat. This is why grilled and roasted meats taste completely different from boiled meats. This browning happens fastest and best at temperatures between 140-170°C (285-340°F). Medium heat is best for achieving a perfect crust.

A cast iron pan will result in a particularly nice crust. Cast iron retains heat: once the pan is properly hot, it retains its heat. It does not cool down much when the steak hits the pan and regains its heat quickly and your steak browns evenly. The thicker and heavier the pan, the better the heat retention, the better the steak.

Resting:

Proper resting of cooked meat is at least as important as proper cooking. If a steak is cut immediately without resting, the delicious juices simply run out. However, if the meat is allowed to rest, the muscle fibres relax and re-absorb the juices, plus the juice thickens a little. A good rule of thumb is to rest the steak for half the time you spent cooking it, ensuring a juicy steak.

Cooking Sequence:

Thick steaks should be cooked in the oven first or sous vide and then seared, not the other way round. The reason is simple: warm meat browns faster and better in the pan – it needs to be exposed to high heat for a shorter time and is less likely to overcook. Besides, its beautiful crust would be ruined during the slower subsequent oven cooking.

Salting does more than just alter the taste.

Salting does more than just alter the taste.

©Shutterstock

Juiciness:

When steaks  or other cuts of meat are seared, its fibres become firmer and liquid is lost. Initially, this is good for the diner: if the meat becomes firmer, it is easier to chew, if a little juice escapes, it gives the diner the feeling that the meat is juicier. But once the core temperature is greater than that required for a medium cooked steak, the loss of liquid becomes so great that the meat begins to dry out and lose its tenderness.

Objectively speaking, a well-done steak is a waste of money: Premium cuts for steak are more expensive than other cuts of beef because they are particularly tender. If you like steak well-done you could save yourself a lot of money by buying cuts for slower cooking such as chuck steak, skirt or shin, all of which are invariably cheaper than prime steaks such as sirloin, rib-eye and T-bone.

Undercooking is not satisfactory either. They steak must be cooked long and hot enough for the intramuscular fat to melt and the tough connective tissue to become tender. Serving rib-eye steak rare is less enjoyable because the intramuscular fat has not melted and all the lovely connective tissue flavours and juiciness fall by the wayside.

Salting:

There are three good ways to salt your steak: at least an hour before (the day before is preferable) or immediately before or after cooking. The day before is best because the salt draws out the moisture in the steak, the salt then dissolves in this moisture creating a brine that is re-absorbed back into the steak. In this process, the lean muscle proteins in the meat are broken down, making it juicier and more tender. For maximum tenderness, you need to give the salt time to work its magic. If you do not leave enough time for the salt to react, drops of liquid will form on the surface which will lower the temperature when cooking and thus prevent the steak from browning before it has cooked. If you have forgotten to salt early or simply don't have the time, salt your steak immediately before cooking. It is still worth doing this as salted meat is better able to retain liquid when heated, so pre-salted meat is therefore less likely to overcook or dry out during cooking.

Searing:

It is one of the most widespread and persistent myths that searing ‘seals’ the meat, making it juicier. This is complete nonsense. Hot searing merely achieves faster what slow searing achieves with more time – browning the surface of the meat during the above-mentioned Maillard reactions.