One of the good traits I picked up from my father (and there are few) was an understanding of how food should be cooked, particularly meat. We would eat steaks, typically on Saturday nights after mass (assuming I was not at work) during the summer. He would let them sit out for an hour or two, letting them come to room temperature, grill them then let them sit so the juices would collect.
He likes his beef rare. Whenever we’d go out for dinner, he would order burgers medium rare (you never know what happens in the kitchen) and steaks rare. Because my mother was under the delusion that blood meant imminent disease and death, those Saturday night steaks were almost always medium well.
The best steak I ever had was cooked just below rare, which is called Pittsburgh or blood rare depending on where you are — browned on the outside, but red and cool in the middle. Very few restaurants will do this, but those like The Old Library in Olean do it well.
I’m by no means a training cook or an expert on the subject, however these are my irrefutable laws of cooking steaks:
- Never cook a piece of meat well done. I have a friend, Phil, who I love like my own brother. Like any sibling, he confounds me. Phil refuses to eat anything unless it has a sufficient crust of char. Steak, burgers, chicken…doesn’t matter. His wife knows better, but like any good wife she realizes that there are some fights not worth fighting. I once watched her cook a filet well done because it was the path of least resistance. It broke my fucking heart. If you order a steak well done, you might as well let the chef cook it on the engine block of a car because it doesn’t matter.
- Keep your marinades to yourself. This comes with an asterisk, of course. Finer cuts of meat — tenderloin, sirloin, ribeye or anything from the dorsal or upper back of the cow — should never be seasoned with more than just salt and pepper. Beef is cow muscle. Good beef comes from the muscles that have not been worked. This is why tenderloins take no time to cook and short ribs must be braised for hours. Good beef has just enough fat to keep the steak from drying out. London broils, flank steaks and the like come from the shoulder and, well, flank. These are well worked muscles. Cook them at a lower temperature and a little longer, and by all means marinate the meat to keep it from drying out.
Throw out the A-1. I know someone who refuses to eat steaks without a bottle of A-1 nearby. Think about this. How is a $1.99 bottle of glorified ketchup going to make your steak taste better? It’s not. It’s going to make the steak taste like the steak sauce. Peter Luger’s makes a nice steak sauce, but again, if you need a sauce to appreciate a steak, you don’t deserve it. You deserve the steak they cook for the menu at Taco Bell. That said, butter is an approved topping.
- Think about the pan. I like my grill. It’s a four-burner stainless steel Char-Broil that I bought four years ago at Lowe’s. During the summer, I use it all of the time…except when I’m cooking a steak. Why? After 10 minutes of preheat, it can’t get past 350 degrees. No good. The more expensive infrared gas grills can reach 700 degrees. Even charcoal can’t get much past 500 degrees. Cooking a steak should be a quick process so you do not dry it out. Blast it with heat, then serve. It’s not a roast. Think about what happens at Ruth Chris and The Palm. Their steaks are cooked in ovens that reach 1,000 degrees. Unless you know a glassblower that will lend you their oven, you’re out of luck. Your oven can get up to 550 degrees. You can go from pan sear to oven to plate in 15 minutes. You’ll spend just as long on the preheat.
- Look at the size. A good butcher will cut his steaks at about 1 1/2 inches thick, as will most grocery store meat counters. Today while at Wegmans, I saw their new product — thin steaks. Listen…you’re not cooking a Steakumm. It’s a steak. Thickness preserves a juicy core with a searing around the outside.