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A&E >  Food

Water Cooler: Beginners guide to steak

Steaks come in a variety of cuts for a variety of uses.  (Shutterstock)
Steaks come in a variety of cuts for a variety of uses. (Shutterstock)

Cooking a steak dinner at home can seem intimidating, but learn the basics and you’ll fear no more. A steak entrée at a restaurant will almost always leave you out $20, so learning to cook steak has a huge financial perk. Not only that, you also get more control over the cut of steaks and its source. There will always be debate over the best way to choose and cook steak, but start with the basics and cater to your preference.

Steak can be confusing because there are several cuts – sometimes different names for the same cut. Cuts can be chosen based on what you intend to make, such as grilling or making stew, and by personal preference. Most steaks come from the upper back region of the cow. From front to back, the main sections are rib, short loin and sirloin.

This region is one of the most tender because those muscles are only used when the cow is moving from side to side. More functional parts of a cow’s muscles like the shoulders and rear are tougher, whereas lesser used muscles are more tender. Tougher cuts are often cheaper and usually used in recipes that call for slow cooking, such as a roast or a stew, which gives the meat time to break down and become tender. For shorter cooking times, you want to choose something that is tender from the start.

Steaks come from more areas than just the upper back, but for beginner home cooks, stick to four main cuts – sirloin, ribeye, filet and strip (aka the New York strip). These four cuts can be used for a classic steak dinner, and your choice of cut is often based on preference and budget.

For example, a ribeye has a lot of fat content and marbling, or streaks of fat within the meat. If you don’t like a fatty steak, opt for a filet, which is very tender but doesn’t offer as much fat to protect it from over cooking. A strip steak is very tender and is sourced from a single muscle, so they have a good amount of marbling but not a lot of chewy connective tissue and exterior fat. A T-bone is actually two cuts of steak in one, with the strip on one side and tenderloin on the other. A sirloin is an affordable choice that balances value and flavor. A top sirloin is more tender than the bottom sirloin that sits closer to a cow’s rear legs and is tougher.

The first thing you want to do with steak is pat it dry. If it’s wet from the packaging, your steak will boil when cooked instead of forming a golden crust. Next in the preparation, make the call on trimming the fat. Some people dislike fat on the exterior because it is a bit chewy, so feel free to trim it. This fat doesn’t render down and keep your steak juicy like the intramuscular marbling, so trimming it won’t make a big difference. This trimmed fat can be repurposed. Slowly cook the trimmings in a frying pan to render out the fat, and it gives you a flavorful and free cooking oil for frying the steak.

Next ,salt the steak. If you’re cooking your steak right away, none of the salt will make it to the interior so don’t shy away from heavily salting the exterior to make up for it. If you decide to brine your steak – letting the steak sit with salt on it or soaked in salty water for anywhere from a half hour to several days, you may not need as much salt. Brining draws moisture to the surface while allowing the salt to be reabsorbed into the center of the meat.

Once the steak is salted, leave it out until it becomes room temperature. Some may shy away from this due to safety recommendations, but if you take a cold steak and throw it in a hot pan, the temperature of the pan will lower, not allowing you to get a nice crust. Leaving it out for a bit will also initiate a short brine, which benefits crust development. On that note, make sure to preheat the pan before putting the steak on, again for the sake of the crust and to also help avoid the steak sticking to the pan.

From this point, there are endless opinions and techniques on how to best cook steak, from reverse searing to frequent flipping. A hassle free method for beginners is to sear the steak on both sides until the crust is developed, then finish it on a low heat in the oven until it is cooked to your liking. Let the steak sit on one side until it is browned evenly, then flip and repeat. Once browned, finish it off with convection heat at about 250 degrees. You can check how done the steak is by pressing it with your finger and feeling how firm it is, or you can use a meat thermometer – 125-130 degrees is rare, 130-140 degrees is medium rare, 140-150 degrees is medium, 150-160 degrees is medium-well and 160-210 degrees is well done.

Most important – let the steak rest. It allows the juices to reabsorb into the meat. If you cut into it too soon, all the juices will run out, leaving your meat after all this hard work. Five minutes of rest is usually enough for a steak.

Don’t be too hard on yourself because learning to cook steak may require a bit of trial and error, but now that you have the basics you are on your way to mastering your personal take on a steak dinner.

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