Friday, January 21, 2011

Man Can Cook #6 - Raising The "Steaks"

Few things are more purely delicious than a good steak. A fine hunk of meat, cooked perfectly is damned tough to beat. A steak appeals to our primal core both in method of preparation and consumption. It’s a basis for a quick and simple meal, but simple food done right can be fantastic and as good, if not better than what you are used to paying $20-$30 (if not more) for in a restaurant. The keys to achieving carnivorous nirvana are a quality hunk of cow flesh (duh) and the right technique.
The first part is easily addressed. Pay a little more for the highest grade beef you can get your grubby little mitts on. It’s worth it. If you can find organically raised and hormone free, ABSOLUTELY buy that! If you can find grass-fed, buy that. If you can find dry-aged, buy that, but that might be getting a little pricey for a Wednesday night dinner. The point is, find good beef. There really is a difference.
The second, and more important part is the method of preparation, because no matter how good the meat is, if you cook it like a mouth-breather at an Applebee’s it’ll taste like it was cooked by a mouth-breather at an Applebee’s….and I think we can all agree, you’ve never had a really great steak at a national chain restaurant that resides in a parking lot in front of a Home Depot & PetsMart. If you don’t agree, stop reading this…seriously…go away. 

Ok, now that we’ve relieved ourselves of the people Europeans make fun of we can continue.

So what makes a well cooked steak so great? A lot of it is the meat itself, a good portion is in the seasoning (less is more here IMO) but in my mind, how the meat is cooked is what really makes or breaks a steak. A steak is best cooked via the application of intense dry heat to brown the meat followed by continued cooking at a lower (but still dry) heat to complete cooking and of equal importance, resting the meat before eating.
The initial browning, or more accurately “searing” is absolutely critical. Seems simple enough, but there is actually some complex biochemistry at play here. By searing the meat we are getting a look at what’s called The Maillard Reaction which is the combination of amino acids in the form of protein and carbohydrates contained in the meat. The raw steak sitting on your counter contains both compounds and through the application of heat as a catalyst the carbon molecules contained in the sugars, or carbohydrates, combine with the amino acids of the proteins. This combination cannot occur without the additional heat source. The end result of this chemical reaction is the Maillard Reaction. The surface of the heated meat becomes brown. The same reaction occurs in bread when cooked or toasted as the dough contains proteins (usually eggs, but wheat contains a bit too) and carbohydrates in the flour.
Not only do the combined sugars and amino acids change the appearance of the food, but they change the flavor as well. The Maillard Reaction is responsible for the mouth watering, savory flavor of roasted meats. With the science out of the way, let's examine the various methods of applying said biochemical wizardry.
The two most common ways to prepare a steak are as follows;
Grilling on a gas grille - It’s quick and can be quite hot which provides good searing of the meat and aesthetically pleasing “grille marks”. But, because a byproduct of the burning of propane is water vapor the texture of the outside of the meat can be a little rubbery and because the process lacks any type of wood combustion the result lacks any sort of smokey flavor which some folks are fond of.
Grilling over charcoal - This takes quite a bit longer than gas in order to get the coals up to temp. If you don’t use a lot of coals you run the risk of not getting enough heat. Using enough coals to get enough heat is a bit wasteful if you are only cooking a couple of steaks. Done right, in terms of heat you do get a nice result with a smokey flavor, good searing and a nice texture. But again, it takes a long time and you need to use a lot of coals for essentially 5min of cooking.
That said, we can improve on the common methods in terms of flavor, texture, uniformity of internal temperature and certainly speed.
The Fire Marshall Special
Not for the faint of heart or those who may be asthmatic, The Fire Marshall Special was related to me by Mr. Robert King and so named by my friend Mr. Lewis Tanner. The method is as brutal in it’s simplicity as it is simple in its brutality. Rob’s method is called The Fire Marshall Special as performing it in a small apartment such as the one Lewis used to reside in, is practically an invitation to have him over for dinner. According to Lewis, “Be sure to cook two steaks, because when the Fire Marshall is done chewing your ass he's probably going to be hungry.” 

But, if you desire a perfectly cooked steak and don't mind completely freaking out your spouse and perhaps a dinner guest or two you should read on my fellow carnivore.....
The Hardware:
  • Cast Iron Skillet (no Teflon for this, seriously)
  • Metal tongs
  • Silicon oven mitt (the cloth one won’t work – don’t try it)
  • Meat thermometer
  • Optional - Oven safe baking dish (pyrex)
I want to reiterate the “no Teflon” mentioned above. When you heat Teflon above 450 degrees (and you will) it breaks down and gives off very toxic gasses. Don’t and I mean DON’T do this with anything other than cast iron. Also, most stainless pans will deform at this heat, use cast iron.
The Software:
  • One 8-12oz steak per person, at least 1.5 - 2” thick (I prefer ribeye but try a hefty veal chop if you are feeling saucy)
  • Kosher Salt
  • Fresh Ground Pepper
  • Olive Oil
  • Lemon
  • Optional – 1 glass red wine
Get your steak up to room temperature and season liberally with kosher salt and fresh ground pepper. No marinade, and no other “spices”. As mentioned in other entries, the spices will burn during your sear and taste awful. Pre-heat your oven to as high as it will go short of being on broil. Usually 500deg. If you want to make a pan-sauce for your steak then put the oven safe baking dish in the oven as well. If not, carry on….Place your skillet on the hottest burner you have and turn it on as high as it will go. Leave it alone until you are certain it is as hot as it can possibly get, then wait 2 more minutes because you were probably’ll get hotter. 

Now that your skillet is hot enough to melt lead it’s time to get cooking. Using your tongs, drop your steaks into the skillet and leave them for 2 minutes. Don’t touch, don’t check, just leave them. Right about now you’ll be thinking, “OH MY GOD WHAT HAVE I DONE?” Read the following from Lewis and relax,
“When that steak hit the pan, the smoke was dense, copious, and immediate. Having closed and sealed off the room with the smoke detector, I carried on, surrounded by clouds and clouds of smoke that the oven fan was just plain ignoring. After my 2 minutes on one side, I could no longer see the TV across the room, then I flipped the bitch. Amazingly enough, with a dry pan to begin with, there was absolutely no adhesion. It just slipped off the pan and flipped like magic. At that point, any additional smoke wasn't going to make things worse, so I let it ride.”

If you have a higher-end hood and exhaust fan over your cooktop you’ve nothing to worry about here. It will exhaust the byproduct of this process without much fuss. I do however recommend closing any doors between your kitchen and the nearest smoke detector the first time…just in case. If you live in a small apartment or condo and your exhaust hood has one of those crap-tastic fans that just blows the smoke back at your forehead while you stand in front of the stove you are in for a slightly more exciting experience. Open any and all nearby windows. Seriously. If there is an exhaust fan in a nearby restroom, turn that on too…seriously.
Back to were patient and waited 2 minutes, right? Good. Now flip the steaks and wait another 2 full minutes. While doing so take a second to look at your steaks.

That lovely brown crust is the result of the Maillard Reaction we discussed earlier. It’s the reason for this process and it cannot be achieved to this degree by any other means. Now don’t spend too much time admiring your recent accomplishments in biochemistry you’ve still got work to do here. Get your silicon oven mitt and meat thermometer ready.
Once your second 2 minutes has elapsed carefully remove your steak to a nearby cutting board and stab the thermometer into the center of the thickest part of the meat. If you are going to make a pan sauce, place the steaks into your oven safe baking pan. If not, place them back into the skillet and VERY CAREFULLY move your screaming hot skillet from the stove top to the oven.
Continue cooking your steaks in the oven until the internal temperature has reached the correct point for your desired doneness.
  • Rare – 120-125deg
  • Medium Rare – 125-130deg
  • Medium  -  130-135deg
  • Medium well & beyond – I don’t want to know you.
Once your meat has reached the desired internal temperature remove it to your cutting board and let it sit there. If your room is particularly cool or your steak is thin you can tent a sheet of foil over it but don’t wrap it tightly. Leave it to rest for at least 10min. Resting the meat is critical. When you heat the muscle fiber it contracts and forces the juices out of the muscle fibers and into the spaces between. Allowing it to rest lets those juices back into the individual fibers and makes for a juicy piece of meat, while not resting will result in a juicy plate as those juices run out of the meat when you cut into it.

Now, the reason for this process is to give us the highly desirable brown crust on the outside that can only be achieved by direct application of intense dry heat. But if we try to cook the steak entirely at this temp the outside would be burnt so we transfer it to a cooler environment to get the heat into the majority of the meat at a much slower pace. This allows for a uniformly cooked steak with a nicely seared exterior. Perfection.
If you want a pan sauce you can whip one up easily while your steak is resting. Put your skillet back on the cooktop at a medium heat and pour that glass of wine in. Use the wine to deglace the pan stirring liberally with a flat edged wooden spoon to get all the crusty goodies off the surface of the pan while you reduce the wine. When the wine has reduced to the point where it coats the back of the spoon rather than pouring off, add a tbsp or two of butter and combine. You’ll pour this over your steak and it’ll be awesome. I prefer a bit of olive oil and a small squeeze of lemon on mine. 

Granted, this method does not give the smokey flavor that can only be achieved via grilling over wood coals, but quite frankly I prefer to not have that flavor in a steak. Beef ribs, brisket or any pork product absolutely, but less so in a steak. This method is much faster than a charcoal grille and I think much better tasting than charcoal or gas. Honestly, I haven’t cooked a steak on my grille in over four years since learning this method.
Give it a try and let me know how you like it. Just remember to open a window….
Sincere thanks to Robert King & Lewis Tanner

1 comment:

  1. Yum. And you're right, you need to start with a great steak to begin with. If you know what the name of the farm/butcher/breed/feed/aging, etc. is, too, you can also repeat the experiment and get the same great flavor the next time!