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The Perfect Steak, Pt. 2: How to Cook a Steak
An interview with Morgan Davis
This is part two of the interview. In it we discuss how to cook the perfect steak. For the introduction and part one, which dealt with how to select a good steak cut, click here.
Ok, we’ve covered the topic of choosing a good cut. How about cooking it--you said that a hot fire was the other key element of making a perfect steak?
That's right. I always cook steak on the grill because the broiler on my electric stove just can't get hot enough. Too low a cooking temperature will not properly caramelize and sear the outside surface, and the necessary longer cooking time will dry out the steak and overcook it.
How do you prepare the steak on the grill? Do you marinade it or prepare the meat in any special way?
There are lots of folks who take a very purist approach to steak and don't want any seasoning at all, whereas some folks eat it with sauce or ketchup. I fall somewhere in between, but I sure wouldn't bring a good steak near ketchup or A-1!
I prepare steaks by placing the meat on a cutting board or in a baking dish and brushing on some olive oil. I like to take course gray sea salt and whole peppercorns and crush them up with a mortar and pestle until they're just larger than you'd get out of a normal pepper mill. I rub this over the meat and then let it sit long enough to come to room temperature--usually about thirty to forty-five minutes.
After cooking the steak, I will sometimes put some truffle oil or a good, creamy blue cheese over it, but that's it. It's a pretty simple preparation and I think it compliments the flavor of the meat well.
Do you do anything special with the grill?
Grilling can be done in different ways. A gas grill will work, and a nice, robust charcoal grill can be used to burn wood, but I don't think that charcoal alone would really be hot enough. I suppose if you used plenty of coal and make sure there is a good, even coal bed under all of the meat, that might work.
Personally, I like a little smoky taste to my meat, so I use a large, barrel-shaped charcoal grill with wood. It's a Char-Griller brand grill--a nice, reasonably priced grill with cast iron plates. If I'm in a hurry, I get the fire going using a small bag of "light the bag" charcoal briquettes and add my wood later, once the charcoal is hot enough to ignite it easily. If I have time, then I can start a wood fire from scratch.
The key is having a hot fire with lots of good flame. You want to be able to seer the outside of the meat quickly so that it seals in the juice and gives you a delicious, almost crackly texture in places. If you have a gas grill or are using charcoal, make sure you have the grill plates close to the fire—you want the flames right on the meat. When I use wood, I like to get good, dry oak sticks that are about a quarter of the thickness you would normally put on a fire. I put them on about 5-10 minutes before the meat so that they have time to flame up and become fully engulfed and also heat the grill plates so that they are good and smoking.
Do you cook steaks rare, medium, or well?
I like mine pretty rare--just warm on the inside but still a good red. The hot fire makes this easy to accomplish. About three to four minutes on each side is all it takes. Don’t be surprised if the steak seems to catch fire in places, a little of that is okay.
It's easy to achieve medium and well also. For a medium steak, just move it out from the direct heat of the flames and let it cook for another two minutes a side or so. You'll need to learn to judge the softness of the meat. As it cooks inside, it gets harder and harder and begins to shrink at the edges. A rare steak won't change shape much at all and will be about as soft as the piece of muscle between your thumb and forefinger when it is relaxed. Medium is slightly harder than that, and the meat will have started to pull away from bone at the edges.
To get a steak well done (should you want to commit such a travesty), just toss it on the flames and then shut the grill. Make sure you have all the vents open so the fire doesn't die. The intense heat against the top of the steak should cook the inside faster. The meat will be very firm to the touch when it is done.
Do you have any favorite sides or finishing touches?
As I said before, a sprinkling of truffle oil is a wonderful thing on a hot steak--the aroma fills the room and is really intoxicating. If you have hungry guests, it will have them begging for the plate. I have also always enjoyed a good Roquefort or other soft, creamy blue cheese. I'm not a big fan of flavored butters, as the steak is pretty greasy to begin with, and I hate steak sauce or ketchup on a good steak. Try topping it with some Marsala-caramelized onions or sautéed oyster mushrooms.
My favorite side with steak is actually the mashed potato recipe that you've already written-up. Other than that, a nice garden-fresh salad in summer or some warm, green vegetables like asparagus or green beans in winter. With a one and a half pound steak, the sides really aren't that much of a concern.
What about beverages?
Heh. Could you elaborate?
Good beer. Really any kind of beer is going to complement a steak. In the summer, try something lighter like an Amber Ale or IPA. In the winter, I like a good Porter or Stout.
That's it, really. I spent a long time as a teenager trying to figure out how to cook steak. I ruined plenty of meat under the broiler or drowned in a red wine marinade just to learn that really all it takes is simplicity. A good cut and a hot fire.