Steak is not something I eat every day, but when I do treat myself, it’s a wonderful luxury: unctuous, flavorful meat, ideally served with a compound butter and a glass of dry red wine to “cut” through the richness of the meat.
When I enjoy a steak, I want it to be cooked right. Unfortunately, steak is all too often not cooked properly, and turns out over or under-done, flavorless or stringy. Not exactly a treat. Fortunately, you can prevent these pitfalls in your own kitchen once you’ve learned some key cooking tips for preparing steak.
What makes a good steak? While what constitutes a “good” steak can be up to some debate, there are certain characteristics that most will agree play into a fine steak experience. First, the meat has to be of good quality, from a reputable source. It should have a nice bit of marbling, enough to make the flavor interesting, but not too much that the meat is too chewy or fatty. It should have a perfectly seared exterior, and tender interior.
10 Common Mistakes to Avoid when Cooking Steaks. Often, it’s one of these common mistakes that is to blame for steak that doesn’t come out well. Here, we’ll discuss these common mistakes and how to remedy each one.
- You use low quality meat. The quality of your finished steak is directly tied to the quality of the meat you use for cooking. This might sound like common sense, but it’s worth mentioning so that you aren’t tempted to just buy whatever’s on sale in the steak department.
If the meat you use is of questionable quality, then your finished result is a roll of the dice. By using quality meat from a trusted source, such as your local butcher, will vastly improve your chances of success.
This doesn’t mean you can’t buy meat at the supermarket, but if you do, be a savvy shopper: look for meat that is the brightest red, with little or no brown or grey areas.
- You don’t let the meat rest before cooking it. Do you transfer your steak directly from your fridge to your cooking surface? This could lead to uneven cooking, as the meat will thaw and cook far faster on the outside than on the interior. This means that by the time your meat has reached the USDA-suggested “safe” interior temperature of 145 degrees F, the outside may already be charred and crispy.
Let the steak rest at room temperature for 20-30 minutes before cooking. This will even out the interior and exterior temperatures, allowing for more even cooking.
- You choose a cooking method inappropriate for the steak cut in question. Not all cuts of steak are the same, and they shouldn’t all be cooked the same way. More tender premier cuts are best suited to cooking simply, over dry heat, whereas tougher cuts will require a marinade to tenderize the meat, and in terms of direct cooking, are better suited to slow cooking methods. This is to say that if you try to pan-fry a tougher cut of meat that is more suitable for stew, it isn’t magically going to become tender.
When in doubt, ask your butcher what the best cooking method is for the type of cut you’re considering purchasing.
- You under-season the meat. Use plenty of kosher salt–a lot more salt than you think you need to season your steak. Why so much? Chef Danilo Alfaro explains it thusly: “you’re only seasoning the surface of the steak, which means there’s a significant portion of the meat that has no salt on it at all. You want to make sure there’s enough salt on the surface to properly season each bite.”
It’s best to salt the meat before cooking, but exactly when is up to you. Some chefs will salt the steak the night before cooking; others will season it right before putting it in the pan. There isn’t a huge difference between either method, it’s a matter of preference and how much time you have before cooking.
- You don’t let the pan get hot enough. Hot, hot, hot! You want your cooking surface (I like to use a cast iron pan) sizzling hot before you add the steak–this will help it develop a nice seared crust on either side. This is especially important for thinner or more tender cuts of meat. Yes, there might be a little smoke, so have the windows open and the vent fan on, if applicable.
Of course, for very thick steaks, you’ll want to turn down the heat a little bit after you get that initial sear on the exterior, so that it doesn’t overcook on the outside before it fully cooks on the inside.
- You don’t use an appropriate cooking fat. Remember how I casually mentioned that there “might be a little smoke” above? Well, you can minimize the possibility of a little–or a lot–of smoke by using an appropriate cooking fat for your steak.
Extra virgin olive oil is a great thing, but not for cooking steak. It’s too delicate and has too low of a smoke point for making steak. Choosing an oil with a higher smoke point will keep things safe in your kitchen.
This doesn’t mean you can’t use the more sensitive, fine quality fats as finishing ingredients–in fact, adding a pat of butter to the top of your steak right at the end of the cooking or on top of it right after removing it from heat, is a decadent and highly delicious way to enjoy steak.
- You rely solely on visual cues for doneness. If you’re able to visually detect when a steak is done with great accuracy, then you just keep on doing what you’re doing. But for the rest of us mere mortals, use a meat thermometer.
There’s no bigger bummer than cooking what looks like a perfect steak only to find it’s all but raw on the inside. By using a meat thermometer you can make sure that your steak is cooked through.
- You overcook. It’s easy to overcook a steak–it can progress quite quickly from perfectly done to overdone. As noted above, the USDA-suggested interior temperature of a steak is 145 degrees F–when your steak is at 140 degrees F or slightly above, remove the steak from heat, as the internal temperature will continue to rise a few degrees once it is removed from heat and this should take you right to the perfect temperature.
- You don’t let the meat rest before cutting into it. Letting the meat rest for a few minutes before cutting in not only allows the full cooking process to finish its arc, but it helps seal in moisture. Do yourself a favor by waiting three to five minutes before cutting into the meat–you’ll be rewarded with a superior flavor.
- You cut with the grain. Now that it’s time to eat, be sure to serve it right. There is a proper way to slice your steak, and it is against the grain. You can detect the grain fairly easily on most pieces of meat–but be aware that sometimes, depending on the cut, the grain can shift. Keep your knife perpendicular to the grain as much as you can as you cut for the most pleasurable eating experience.
Conclusion: Cooking steak can be intimidating. It’s expensive to buy a good cut of steak, and the last thing you want to do is mess up the preparation. But cooking steak doesn’t need to be a fear-inducing prospect. By following the tips in this post, you’ll be well on your way to cooking perfect steak with confidence and ease.
What is your favorite cut of steak?