HOW TO COOK A STEAK
- Pat your steak dry with a paper towel
- Season the steak with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
- Put a dab of vegetable oil on your steak
- Place your steak on a very hot skillet
- Flip your steak every 30 seconds or so to monitor crust formation
- Throw butter, rosemary and garlic into the skillet, use a spoon to baste
- Use a meat thermometer to check for doneness
- Let the steak rest for 5 minutes before cutting into it
WHAT YOU’LL LEARN
- What technically counts as a steak?
- What temperature should a steak be?
- How to cook steak on a grill
- How to cook steak in a pan
- How to cook steak using the reverse sear method
- How to cook steak sous vide
- Frequently asked questions
Few meals are so decadent, so delectable, so deliciously satisfying at a base level as a good piece of steak. Its simplicity is part of its appeal; there is no complex recipe, no elaborate list of ingredients, nothing particularly fancy about most preparation methods: it is simply a piece of meat placed on heat and brought to a specific temperature.
It’s a surprisingly versatile dish in terms of where it fits within our day-to-day. It can serve as a quick utilitarian meal to throw together on any weekday, and it can also be reserved for special occasions.
And though it’s extremely ubiquitous, the number of home cooks who have truly mastered the art of cooking the perfect steak is lower than you might imagine. People overcook it, people overcomplicate it, people use the wrong methods and end up with an expensive piece of meat that didn’t quite reach its full potential. A mismanaged steak is truly disheartening to see, especially when it’s a high-quality cut of beef.
The fact that steak is simple also means it’s somewhat easy to mess up. Knowing how to cook a perfect steak is a kitchen skill that will impress any dinner guest and bump your meal up from merely “good” to “exquisite”. Let’s talk about how to cook steak in an oven, pan, grill, or sous vide machine.
1. What technically counts as a steak?
The dictionary definition
If you’re thinking that “steak” just means a piece of meat, congratulations! You’re about to tear down your first preconception in this article. That’s how most of us start off -- unaware of the myriad of little differences and variables that come into play when it comes to steak. So let’s start by addressing the technical definition.
What we know as steak is usually defined as a relatively thin piece of beef cut across the grain. If you hold up a ribeye and examine it closely, you’ll see lines running up and down its side. That is what people call the “grain” of the meat; the muscle fibers that run parallel to each other. A steak, under the narrow definition of the word, should have very short muscle fibers running up and down its side instead of long ones running across it.
Of course, language is flexible and definitions are imperfect, so of course there are cuts that don’t fit within this narrow definition of the word and still are commonly referred to as “steak”. Take the flank steak, for instance; a piece that comes from the belly of the cow. It’s so thin that you can only cut it into a steak with the grain, resulting in long muscle fibers running side-to-side.
Does this mean the flank steak, and other cuts like it, are not technically steaks? If we want to adhere to the technical definition of the word, then yes, that’s exactly what this means. However, if they’re commonly referred to and understood as steaks in everyday parlance, we start to get into a murky argument about what determines meaning, and I’m not sure a chefs’ blog is the best place to do that.
Different cuts of steak
For the purposes of this article, we are going to stick to cuts that are unambiguously and universally considered steaks. We’re talking classics like ribeye steak, strip steak, sirloin steak, tenderloin, tomahawk, filet mignon, etc. These are relatively thin pieces of meat that are cut against the grain, made up of one or a couple muscles.
That said, even within this accepted category, there is a world of variety. Different cuts of steak come from different parts of the cow, and they each have their own idiosyncrasies, strengths, and weaknesses.
Not only that, but different countries have different terms for the same cuts, as well as different cuts altogether! Above is a chart detailing the American cuts and the names for them.
If we went into the individual differences between these different cuts of beef, we’d be here all day; ultimately, learning what sets these steaks apart and how to handle each one will be a matter of hands-on experience. You’ll learn more about them the more you come in contact with them.
If the cut of meat you’re preparing requires a bit of prep -- say, boning or cutting into smaller pieces -- make sure you’re ready with the right knife for the job.
While the methods for maximizing each cut’s flavor and tenderness will vary, the steps we will go through in this article will generally hold true for the majority of steaks you come across.
2. What temperature should a steak be?
Ah yes, the ever-contentious debate about levels of doneness. Few things get folks more up-in-arms than the topic of how people like their beef cooked. For some, it’s a more controversial dinner table topic than the hot-button political issue of the day!
What are the levels of doneness?
First, let’s establish what these commonly-accepted levels are. Note that the table below is a rough idea; there actually is no “official” consensus on this topic, and some folks disagree on specific temperature measurements, but this is more or less what these levels refer to.
LEVEL OF DONENESS
Seared on the outside, completely red throughout
Seared on the outside, 75% red through the center
Seared outside, 50% red center
Seared outside, 25% pink inside
Mostly brown with a slight hint of pink
Completely brown throughout
For best accuracy, I recommend using a meat thermometer -- they really are game-changers when it comes to getting meat to your desired internal temperature. If you don’t have a meat thermometer, that’s totally fine. There are ways to gauge doneness without it (see Frequently Asked Questions section below).
What is the best temperature for steak?
Here’s the thing: the world is full of people who are all too happy to tell you that you’re doing it wrong. That you’re incorrect for liking certain things. That a thing that brings you joy is “inherently inferior”. That there are “bad takes” when it comes to taste. There’s no shortage of folks who use taste as a cudgel to hit other people over the head with, to assert some sort of dominance.
There is a certain level of snobbery present within steak enthusiasts. I call it The Tyranny of Doneness. The belief that anyone who cooks their steak north of medium rare is an uncultured rube. Watch out for it whenever someone dares order a steak “well done” at a restaurant. The glance is impossible to miss.
What makes a perfect steak will inevitably vary from individual to individual. This is a nuanced topic and I don’t want to come across as either preachy or fence-sitting, so I’ll put it this way: you should be free to like what you like, but you should also be open to trying new things.
In my personal opinion, steak is best enjoyed in the medium rare range. I think that doneness provides the perfect level of tenderness, delicious sear, and enjoyable bite. This is the range that I shoot for. It’s just a wonderfully juicy steak. Sometimes I go over. Sometimes I go a little under. That’s okay! Steak is delicious however you make it, and every time you cook it is a chance to get a little better at it.
The different methods of cooking steak
We’ve established what a steak is, taken a look at some of the cuts, and tentatively tackled the ever-controversial topic of doneness. Now let’s get into how to actually cook the steak yourself, the differences between the methods, and what is going to work best for your specific situation. There are many theories on how to cook steak. Below you’ll find some of our favorite methods.
We’ll be talking about cooking a steak on a grill, in a pan, in an oven using the reverse sear method, and sous vide.
For the steak recipes described below, you’ll need the following ingredients. You may not need them all for each steak recipe, but this is a general idea of what you’ll need.
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil (olive oil works well)
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 crushed cloves of garlic (optional)
- 2 sprigs of rosemary (not optional)
- A steak! (not optional)
3. How to cook steak on a grill
Let’s start with the method most people think of when they think about cooking steak: throwing it on the grill and cooking it to perfection. There’s just something so instantly familiar and wonderful about the taste of grilled steak. And this is the perfect method for a strip steak.
Grilling steak is very straightforward. The first thing you need to do is pre-heat your grill to a medium-high temperature. While it heats up, pat your steak dry with a paper towel. Season your steak with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Once your steak is seasoned and the grill is ready, simply throw it in and delight in the ever-so-satisfying sound of that sizzle.
When doing research, you’ll hear a lot of things about how often you should turn steaks over. A lot of this is “conventional knowledge” that has been passed down by chefs and media personalities without actually trying things out, and often doesn't hold up to scrutiny. Even the great Anthony Bourdain fell victim to this when he insisted that we don’t flip the steak over.
In truth, we’ve found that flipping the steak frequently is a great way to build a beautiful outside sear, to cook the steak more evenly throughout, and to have full control over what is happening to it. We’ll get into this more on the pan method but don’t be shy, go ahead and flip as many times as you need.
Now, if you’re cooking your steak to medium or over, you can close your grill after you’ve flipped it a few times to trap the heat in, so that it reaches your desired doneness (usually between 3 and 9 minutes, depending on your steak’s thickness).
Use your meat thermometer by introducing it at an angle on the thickest part of the steak. Once it’s a few degrees below your desired doneness, pull the steak out and let it rest -- it will actually continue cooking internally, as the heat from the surface continues to work its way inside. If you measure it just right, you’ll end up with a perfect steak.
4. How to cook steak in a pan
As an apartment dweller without much grill space, this is the method I default to. And truthfully, it’s become my favorite over the years, even though it presents a few challenges (especially if you have a sensitive smoke detector -- sorry, neighbors!). I love the taste and feel of a pan seared steak.
First, dry your steak with a paper towel to remove as much of its surface moisture as possible. Season both sides of the steak with kosher salt and freshly ground pepper; it’s good to be conservative here, as you don’t want to risk ruining your steak by putting too much, and you can always add more afterwards. Dab a little bit of oil on it -- in this recipe, we’ll be putting oil on the steak rather than on the pan.
In order to get a delicious outside crust while also avoiding the issue of overcooking the steak internally, we need to make our pan very very hot. Bring it up to the point where putting your hand just above the pan is actually uncomfortable. Once you’re there, put your oiled steak in the pan and enjoy the sizzle.
Once again, we are calling into question the supposed conventional wisdom of not turning your steaks. We actually want to flip it to ensure we get a nice crust on both sides, you’ll see it building as you flip every 30 seconds or so. Another reason the “flip often” method works is because it allows you to observe the process and retain more control over it, rather than letting it sit for a long time and then only realizing you’ve burnt your steak after you finally do flip it.
At this point we’re going to add in our butter, our rosemary, and our garlic. These will greatly enhance the flavor of our steak. The butter will melt and pool on the edge of the pan, mixing with the garlic and the rosemary, and you can use a spoon to baste the melted butter over your steak. Not only will the butter and aromatics add depth and complexity to the flavor, but it will also assist in the cooking of the beef. The butter is optional, but trust me: it will add a whole lot.
Use your meat thermometer on the thickest part of the steak, and remove from the steak once it’s a few degrees below your desired doneness. We’ll let the steak rest for a few minutes so it finishes cooking and so the juices settle for a bit -- otherwise, we’ll be met with a lot of splatter the minute we cut into it. This butter-basted method is incredible.
5. How to cook steak using the reverse sear method
The reverse sear method is the brainchild of chef J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, and it is absolutely genius. The idea is to combine the evenness of cooking the steak in an oven with the delicious crust formation you only get from placing the meat directly on a hot surface.
Note that this method takes some time. It’s not something you can quickly whip up for dinner. Instead, since we’re cooking our steak in an oven at a low temperature for a long time, you’re going to need to plan ahead a little bit for this one.
For this recipe, we’ll be shooting for medium rare -- you can adjust your temperatures to your own desired doneness. Remember: a thinner steak will cook quicker than a thick steak.
Just like in the previous methods, season your steak with salt and freshly ground pepper. Preheat your oven to 275° F. Place your steak in the oven using indirect heat. Cook the steak in the oven (it will likely take a few hours, depending on starting temperature and surface moisture) up to about 125° F. While that’s definitely still rare, that’s because we will actually continue the cooking process when we move the steak over to a hot pan. Remove from the oven.
Make sure your pan is very hot, because we want to blast it with heat to achieve that perfect sear. From this point on, you can continue the steps from the previous method, including butter-basting it if you like. Your finished steak should be beautifully medium rare on the inside, sporting a delicious crust on the outside. A perfect steak that melts like butter.
6. How to cook steak sous vide
Finally, we’re going to talk about sous vide, which is another process that requires a bit of planning ahead. There’s a lot of waiting involved with this process, but the results are worth it.
Think of this as the precursor to the reverse sear method. The principle is the same: we want to cook our steak perfectly and evenly at a low sustained temperature, while also achieving a glorious crust. Except instead of the oven we’ll be using a sous vide machine.
This process involves placing your raw, seasoned steak into an air-tight sealed plastic bag and immersing it in water, which uses a thermometer to control the temperature consistently. The meat will slowly rise to temperature -- it could be there for one or two hours, depending on your desired doneness and on the piece of meat. Thicker steaks will take longer. The sous vide machine works as your “oven” in this method.
When you remove the bag from the water, you’ll find a perfectly cooked steak. However, because it’s been cooking in an immersed plastic bag, it doesn’t look very appetizing. That’s where the sear comes in. And as our friend Guga says, “I know it doesn’t look so good right now… but watch this!”
From this point you can follow the instructions from the grill or the pan method to give your steak a beautiful crust; a sous vide butter-basted steak is absolute heaven. Just be mindful not to overcook it! Keep monitoring your steak’s temperature to avoid undoing all the effort you just went through with the sous vide machine.
7. Frequently Asked Questions About Steak
What is the best way to ensure the steak reaches my desired temperature without a meat thermometer?
A meat thermometer will be the best method to monitor a steak’s internal doneness. However, if you don’t have one of those, you can simply use your senses!
Some people swear by a method where you press down on the steak and compare it to the firmness of your own palm, with different parts of the palm representing various states of doneness. That doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense when we consider the fact that all hands are different, and all steaks are also different.
What you can do is poke the steak during different times of the cooking process and compare it with itself. Poke it when you know it’s still raw, so you can get a sense of how it feels. As it continues to cook, it will firm up, and if you continue to poke on it you’ll notice the difference. When it’s around medium rare, it will be bouncier to the touch.
Ultimately, a lot of this is learning by experience. I know you want to make the perfect steak on your first try, but the way we learn is by trial and error, and the more you try it the more you’ll be attuned to the subtle indicators of a steak’s doneness.
Should I get a bone-in or a boneless steak?
This is another eternal debate among steak enthusiasts. Personally, I tend to favor boneless cuts such as filet mignon, the strip steak, or the ribeye steak. But it comes down to personal preference.
It is absolutely true that bone-in steaks such as the T-bone steak or the tomahawk have a number of advantages, including, often, more intense flavor. But there are also drawbacks, including the fact that they will significantly increase the cooking time of your steak.
The piece of bone will change the way that heat is distributed during the cooking process. The good news is that it will help the steak cook more evenly, allowing you a little leeway when it comes to overcooking. You will also need to debone the steak at some point (you’ll need a good knife for that, and a solid honing steel).
You should take these factors into consideration when deciding what type of steak to pick.
What pan should I use to cook my steak?
Whether you’re going with a frying pan or a deeper skillet, a popular option seems to be a cast iron pan. It is sturdy, it distributes heat really well (and evenly), and it feels good to work with. You can also use a stainless steel pan or a sturdy aluminum pan.
Also: with a deeper iron skillet, you can use the fond which collected at the bottom from cooking the steak to make a quick pan sauce.
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Written by Jorge FarahBorn on the coast of Colombia and based in Buenos Aires, Jorge is a cooking enthusiast and kitchenware obsessive with a tremendous amount of opinions.