Rochelle Bilow, photo by Peden + Munk
We love a juicy, well-cooked (though not well-done!) steak. When you’ve got a quality piece of meat, you don’t have to gussy it up with complicated cooking techniques and extravagant sauces—and that’s precisely why we love it. It’s simplicity at its best: just good, old fashioned, unfussy eatin’. So why is cooking a steak so darn difficult? From a tragically gray exterior to an overly-cooked inside, there are so many ways to go wrong.
But fear not! Our test kitchen is here to help. Senior food editor Dawn Perry walks us through the art of cooking the perfect steak, whether it’s a porterhouse, a hanger, or filet. Ready to cook some seriously awesome beef? This is your time to shine.
1. Head to the Supermarket
A steak is not a steak is not a steak—meaning a butcher can really help you navigate the tricky waters of what cuts to try and how to cook them. Shopping for meat at a grocery store will leave you with the usual suspects, but a butcher can introduce you to newer, less popular cuts that boast huge flavor, like hanger and flatiron steaks. Don’t be afraid to ask your butcher questions about how he or she would cook the steak—that’s exactly what they’re there for!
2. Out of the Fridge, into the Frying Pan
Whether you’re cooking a thin strip steak or a thick porterhouse, you’ve gotta plan ahead, and that means taking it out well in advance of actually cooking it. So how long is “well in advance”? For the thinner cuts, a half-hour on the counter will do. If your steak is over an inch thick, plan on at least an hour—and even up to two. Why does this matter? If you dive right from the fridge into the pan, you’re risking an undercooked steak with a gray exterior: decidedly not delicious and definitely unappealing.
3. A Sprinkle Will Do
When it comes to seasoning, this is not the time to be shy. Perry explains that in addition to aiding in the formation of a gorgeous crust, it’s necessary for big, bold flavor. “You can’t season the inside of the steak,” she says. “So you’ve got to aggressively season the exterior.” This is not, however, a pass to get crazy with spice rubs and other “creative” seasonings. When you’ve got a good steak, you’re going to want to taste the steak, says assistant food editor Claire Saffitz. So go for coarse kosher salt and black pepper, and season with wild abandon: You should be able to actually see the salt and pepper.
4. Fear the Smoke
Don’t be afraid of a ripping hot (heavy-bottomed, cast iron) pan—Perry even allows for a little smoke. To make sure your fat doesn’t burn, sear in an oil with a high smoke point, like vegetable oil or grapeseed oil (you can always finish with a knob of butter in the last few minutes and baste the steak in it). Now, that said, don’t get crazy on us: for a thick steak, you’re going to want to turn down the heat a little; if you don’t, you’ll risk a gorgeous crust and a raw interior.
5. Cook by Touch
Some chefs can tell when a steak is done just by feeling it. Great! For the rest of us, however, that’s a little trickier; it takes a ton of practice. Perry is a big proponent of the thermometer. “Just take the steak’s temperature,” she says. “And know for sure.” On that note, what happens if the steak’s got a gorgeous crust, but the temperature clocks in at 90 degrees? First off, don’t sweat it. Second, take it off the stovetop and pop it in an oven set to 400 degrees on a roasting rack set over a baking sheet. It’ll finish cooking without getting too dark.
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6. It’s Gonna Get Cold!
You’ve heard it before, and we’re gonna say it again: Don’t slice into that steak right away. It absolutely needs time to rest, and let the juices redistribute. For thin cuts, 5 to 10 minutes will do; for larger, thicker steaks, plan for 10 to 15. Repeat after us: Your steak will not get cold.
7. Hack into It
You’ve come so far! Don’t saw at your steak like a lumberjack with a dull blade. Perry explains: Make sure you cut perpendicular to the steak’s natural grain. It’ll slice easier, look prettier, and taste better. Win-win-win.
8. Leave It to the Pros
Hey, we get it: There’s a lot of anxiety about cooking the perfect steak. And when you spend a fair amount of cash on a piece of meat, you want to treat it right. But a juicy, awesome steak isn’t just something for restaurant chefs—it’s something worth learning and having in your cooking repertoire. Says Perry: “Take a deep breath. Relax. It’s going to be fine.” (It’s also, we’re sure, going to be delicious).
Ready to make some magic happen? Try these great steak recipes.