Do you poke or pierce?
Do you flip more than once?
And do you like it bloody red, or with a blush of pink, or bulletproof and brown?
Cooking steak is serious business. Whaddya think - you can just throw that T-bone on the grill and cook it till the cows come home?
“I hear people say, ‘You put it on, you turn it over and you eat it,’ but that doesn’t work for every cut,” says William Rice, a Chicago Tribune food writer and author of the new “Steak Lovers Cookbook” (Workman).
Sure, cooking a steak is simple. But cooking it right - so that you don’t dry it out, or burn it, or leave it still mooing in the middle - that takes a little more skill.
Should you turn your steak with tongs, which don’t pierce the meat, or can you use a fork?
Should you salt the meat right before you cook it, or after it’s done? Or maybe while it’s cooking?
And how do you know when the steak is done? Do you stick it with an instant-read thermometer? Or do you poke it with your finger? Or do you just make a little cut in the center and take a look? If you’ve just spent $10 to $15 a pound on a prime tenderloin or New York strip, making sure you don’t overcook it becomes a matter of economics as well as taste.
So before you light up that grill, turn on that broiler, or preheat that cast-iron skillet (the preferred perfect-steak method for many connoisseurs), consider these key points that get to the meat of the matter:
Fork vs. tongs: Many experts believe that turning a steak with a fork releases too many juices. Just as many experts say that’s a bunch of hooey.
“Those people who say, ‘Never turn meat with a fork’ - it’s a myth!” sputters Merle Ellis, author of a syndicated newspaper column, “The Butcher,” and “The Great American Meat Book” (Knopf).
“Meat is not a balloon that bursts when you poke it. It’s multicellular, like a sponge. Think about sticking a fork into a wet sponge. How much water leaks out? Not much.”
Rice opts for a nice, long pair of tongs. He feels that jabbing meat with a fork “will do irreparable harm.” Tongs, he says, are gentler - “like an extension of my hand.”
“Forks, tongs, it’s not that important,” argues Bruce Aidells, owner of a San Francisco sausage company and the author of “The Good Meat Cookbook” (Scribner, due out in November). “Use what you’re most comfortable with - you’re not going to lose that much moisture if you turn with a fork.”
Still can’t decide? Consider the grade and cut of meat you’re cooking, suggests Marlys Bielunski, who has run the test kitchens of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association for nearly 20 years.
Select-grade meats that are very lean can’t afford to lose any of their juices or they’ll taste dry. “That’s why, in general, we recommend turning with tongs,” she says.
Flip once? Twice? More? First you cook one side, then you flip it and cook the other, then you serve it, right?
Wrong. Although some disagree, the consensus still seems to be: Turn often.
“The more you turn it, the better it is for appearance and flavor,” says Roger Hancock, the chief grill cook at Smokehouse Blues in Centreville, Va. “If you leave it on one side for too long, that side gets too hard.”
Ellis has been saying the same thing to his cooking students for 25 years - and for scientific reasons, he notes.
“Heat forces the juices to the uncooked surface of a steak,” he explains. As the steak cooks, a big puddle of juices forms on the top, uncooked surface. When you flip it to cook the other side, those valuable juices get dumped on the coals. “What a waste!” Ellis says.
Instead, he recommends searing the steak first on both sides over high heat. Then lower the heat (or move the meat to a cooler part of the grill) and continue cooking, turning every three to four minutes until the meat is done to your liking.
“That way, just when the juices start to rise is when you turn the steak. It keeps all the juices in the meat,” Ellis says.
The Cattlemen’s Beef Association agrees - assuming you’re grilling a nice, thick steak.
“If it’s a steak from the supermarket that’s only -inch thick, you probably only have to turn it once,” says Bielunski.
But if it’s an inch thick or more, like a nice sirloin or porterhouse, turning it about four times keeps it from getting burned on the outside and keeps the cooking even, she says.
Salt - before or after? Recently, Aidells wanted to prove to a group of cooking teachers that sprinkling a steak with salt and pepper before cooking will result in much better taste than seasoning it afterward.
He cut a steak in half, salted one half and left the other naked, and then cooked both. “They all preferred the preseasoned meat,” he says triumphantly.
“People say don’t salt a steak beforehand because it will leach out all the juices,” Aidells says. “That is a crock. It’s baloney.”
If you heavily salt the meat and then leave it for an hour before cooking, it will do that, Aidells admits. “So don’t do that,” he adds, laughing.
Instead, Aidells advises steak lovers to salt and pepper the meat right before you cook it. “The browning reactions that take place on the surface of the meat that give meat its flavor will only be helped by salt,” he says.
But Rice, and some chefs, take a middle ground, choosing to salt the meat while it cooks. “I only add salt to the cooked exterior of the meat,” Rice says.
When is it done? You have three options here: You can poke it with your finger (“the touch test”), you can pierce it with an instant-read thermometer or you can cut into it with a knife.
All three methods work, and all have their diehard fans - and foes.
Take the knife test. The idea of cutting into a steak to see if it’s done causes near apoplexy in some cooks.
“The worst,” says Rice. Cutting into the steak releases too many juices, he says - especially if you have to do it a couple times - and the steak, when it’s served, looks unattractive with all those little slits.
Others aren’t so picky.
“Cut into the center and look. Only a tiny amount of juices comes out. What’s the big deal?” says John Willoughby, co-author with Chris Schlesinger of “License to Grill” (Morrow).
Rice is a staunch supporter of the touch method, and his book includes a good description of what rare, medium rare and medium steak should feel like when you touch it. (Rare feels like the soft triangle of flesh between the thumb and forefinger when the hand is hanging limp; medium rare is how that same triangle feels when you spread your fingers and medium is the way it feels when you make a fist.) Rice writes that he dislikes a standard meat thermometer because it’s bulky and has to remain in the meat too long. He feels that even the slim instant-read thermometers can’t be used on thin steaks.
Also big on touching is chef Hancock, who teaches the skill to his customers. “Most of them have never heard of it before,” he says.
“Exactly,” says Ellis, “which is why it’s fine for a cook who cooks 650 steaks a day and knows what he’s doing. But most people don’t do that. That’s why I recommend an instantread thermometer.”
Bielunski also recommends that consumers use a thermometer to test for doneness, but she includes another tip: Insert it horizontally into the meat and you’ll be able to use it even on thin steaks.
For a steak cooked medium rare, the internal temperature should be 145 degrees, she says.
But - and this is important - meat continues cooking even after it is removed from the grill or broiler. The internal temperature will increase by about 10 degrees as it sits. If you’re aiming for 145, remove the meat from the heat when the thermometer reads 135. If you want it more rare or more well-done, adjust accordingly.
“It’s important to let the meat rest so that the juices can settle,” adds Aidells. “Once you’re finished cooking your steak, let it sit for 5 minutes, then serve. Any longer and the meat will begin to cool.”
Red Flag Flank Steak
From “Steak Lovers Cookbook,” by William Rice (Workman Publishing). You can turn down the heat by removing most of the seeds from the jalapenos. The meat is just as tasty served cold the next day in a sandwich or in a main-course salad.
1 flank steak, about 1-1/2 pounds
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
3 tablespoons peanut oil
1 tablespoon finely chopped jalapeno pepper (seeds included to taste)
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon coriander seeds, crushed
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Pat the steak dry and place in a shallow nonreactive pan or dish just large enough to hold it.
In a small bowl, combine the lime juice, oil, jalapeno, garlic, chili powder, coriander seeds, 1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper. Whisk the mixture together, then pour over the meat. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight, turning once.
About 30 minutes before cooking, prepare coals for grilling (or preheat broiler about 10 minutes beforehand).
Remove the meat, discarding the marinade, and pat dry. Grill or broil until seared and nicely browned on one side, about 4 minutes. Turn and cook 3 minutes more for rare or 4 minutes for medium-rare. Transfer the steak to a cutting board. Let rest 5 minutes.
Carve the steak on the bias across the grain into thin slices. Arrange on warm plates or a platter. If desired, sprinkle the slices lightly with salt before serving.
Yield: 6 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 198 calories, 22 grams protein, trace carbohydrate, 11 grams fat (50 percent fat calories), 58 milligrams cholesterol, 87 milligrams sodium.
Bloody Mary Steak & Sauce
Also from “Steak Lovers Cookbook,” by William Rice (Workman Publishing). Rice likes to make a highly seasoned Bloody Mary mix and use it as a marinade, a sauce and a round of drinks.
1 bone-in sirloin steak (about 1-3/4 pounds), cut 3/4-inch thick
1/3 cup Worcestershire sauce
3/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons celery salt
1/2 teaspoon hot pepper sauce, preferably Tabasco, or to taste
2 tablespoons vodka
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
3/4 cup tomato juice
2 teaspoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon cornstarch
Bring the sirloin to room temperature and pat it dry.
For Bloody Mary base, combine the Worcestershire, lemon juice, pepper, salt, celery salt, hot pepper sauce and vodka in a small bowl; you should have about 1-1/4 cups. Stir well.
Combine 1/3 cup of the mixture with the vegetable oil in a large dish or bowl. Add the steak and turn to coat on both sides. Marinate for 30 minutes at room temperature, turning once. (Steak may be prepared up to 4 hours ahead; cover and refrigerate until 30 minutes before cooking.)
Combine another 1/3 cup of the Bloody Mary base with the tomato juice in a nonaluminum saucepan. Stir in the tomato paste to make a sauce and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring often. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Preheat broiler or prepare coals for grilling.
Ten minutes before serving, make a slurry by stirring 1 tablespoon of water into the cornstarch in a small bowl. Reheat the sauce to a boil, pour the slurry into it and stir until the sauce thickens, about 1 minute.
When ready to cook, remove the steak from the marinade and pat dry. Discard the marinade. Broil or grill the steak until seared and nicely browned on one side, about 4 minutes. Turn and cook for 3 minutes more for medium-rare or 4 minutes more for medium.
Transfer the steak to a cutting board, let it rest for 5 minutes, then slice into 1-inch-thick strips. Spoon 2 tablespoons of the sauce onto each of 4 plates; pass the rest in a sauceboat.
Yield: 4 servings.
Nutrition information per serving, with sauce: 343 calories, 40 grams protein, 5 grams carbohydrate, 16 grams fat (42 percent fat calories), 119 milligrams cholesterol, 607 milligrams sodium.
Note: For the drinks, combine the remaining Bloody Mary base with 2 cups tomato juice and vodka, to taste, in a pitcher. Stir and pour over ice in each of 4 glasses. Garnish with celery or pickled okra.
Top Sirloin Mexicana
From “The New Meat Lover’s Cookbook,” by Janeen Sarlin and Diane Porter (Macmillan), who suggest serving it with a good-quality store-bought salsa. This has to marinate for at least a day; two is even better.
Juice of 1 lime
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano, thyme or marjoram or 1/2 teaspoon dried
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 shallot, chopped (about 1 heaping tablespoon)
1 well-trimmed, lean top sirloin steak, 1 inch thick (about 2 pounds)
Combine lime juice, salt, sugar, pepper, oil, oregano, vinegar and shallot in a nonreactive pan. Coat the steak with the marinade, cover and marinate for at least 24 or up to 48 hours in the refrigerator, turning occasionally.
Bring the steak to room temperature. Preheat the grill.
Remove the steak; discard the marinade. Grill over high heat for 3 to 4 minutes per side, or until done to taste. Let the steak rest for 10 to 15 minutes, then cut at a sharp angle into thin slices.
Yield: 6 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 224 calories, 30 grams protein, trace carbohydrate, 11 grams fat (44 percent fat calories), 91 milligrams cholesterol, 101 milligrams sodium.
The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = BY Candy Sagon The Washington Post
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