The definitive guide to choosing and cooking the perfect steak
A great steak is a wonderful thing, but since it's a real treat and cut from the finest parts of the meat, cooking it to perfection can be a daunting prospect. Follow our fool-proof guide to cooking—and eating—the perfect steak at home.
Start with the best meat
Before you turn on the hob, the best way to make sure your steak will eat well is to buy the best meat you can. Probably the simplest dish in the world, steak consists of only one real ingredient – you want to taste the quality of the beef.
- Go for grass-fed It will have a richer, sweeter and fuller flavour than grain-fed beef, and it won’t leave a greasy feeling on your palate.
- Ensure the meat has been well hung As it hangs, enzymes in the meat start to break down its structure, leading to a more developed, beefy flavour, and much more tender texture. Traditionally matured meat is costlier, because the meat has been taking up valuable space as it hangs, without bringing the butcher any money. However, the results are well worth it—the meat will be succulent, not wet with blood, and a deep, ruby red with a buttery smell. Different steak cuts need different hanging times, anywhere from 21 days for naturally tender fillet, up to 35 days for tougher cuts such as rump.
- Make sure it has been properly butchered This can make a massive difference to how it eats. The cutting of a steak can even influence how tender a steak will be and how well it will cook. A good butcher will know how to get the best of each steak cut and will take the time to trim away silverskin, gristle and excess fat so you get more meat for your money and aren’t left with lots of inedible bits on your plate.
Read more: How to pair wine with meat dishes
Choose your steak
Mark Farquhar, head butcher with Donald Russell, who supply meat to Her Majesty The Queen, explains the difference between some of the most popular steak cuts.
Naturally the most tender. Look for 21-day matured fillet to bring out its subtle, buttery flavour. Serve it really rare if you like—it’ll still be tender.
The next steak in the list for tenderness. The best of both worlds, it has more flavour than fillet, as it has more fat. I would always hang sirloin for 28 days.
The ultimate steak for flavour. Swirled and marbled with fat, which is where its big, rich taste comes from. Should be hung for at least 28 days.
Really lean, with more of a "bite" to it, so don’t overcook it. A robust, beefy taste, finely honed by its long maturing, 35 days or more. Although not traditional, I prefer compact, continental-style rump steaks that don’t have any fat or gristle on them.
Ribeye on the bone. As with all bone-in steaks, these are best cooked until at least medium, to get the full flavour benefits of cooking on the bone. It’ll also help the fat get sweet and tasty as it browns in the pan.
A cross section of sirloin and fillet, with the dividing bone kept in. Because this, like the Rib Steak, is a larger cut, it’s best to brown it in the pan and finish it in a low to medium oven, to avoid over-charring it.
How "done" do you like your steak?
This can be the most nervous part, but must be decided upon so you know when to stop cooking. You can use a meat thermometer for really accurate results, but many chefs will have honed their sense of touch to reliably judge how far a steak is cooked. See what you’re aiming for in the following video, or table below.
How to cook your steak perfectly
1. Make sure your steaks are at room temperatureA cold steak won’t cook evenly. Pat the steak dry of any blood.
2. Heat your pan—a heavy bottomed one is best—until almost smoking hot Even a steak cooked really rare should still have a nice brown caramelised surface, and this won’t happen if the pan isn’t hot enough. Most domestic grills just aren’t hot enough to do a good job, so stick with a frying pan, or a griddle if you like.
3. Brush the oil onto your steaks instead of pouring it into the pan It’s healthier as you’ll use less, and the pan won’t smoke out your kitchen.
4. Put the steaks into the pan, they should sizzle immediatelyLet them cook fully on one side (see the approximate cooking times table above) before gently turning them with a pair of tongs. Avoid moving your steak around in the pan and never squash or flatten your steak with a spatula, or pierce it with a fork. You want to keep the meat intact and all the delicious juices inside.
5. Gauge the doneness using your sense of touch If in doubt, cook your steak for a little less time than you think, as the internal temperature will continue to rise a bit after the steak has been taken off the heat.
6. Transfer your steaks onto a wire rack or warmed plates and allow to rest loosely covered in foil It is always better to rest your meat for longer than for not long enough.
This stage is vital, as the fibres of the meat will have contracted with the heat of cooking. Once the muscle fibres have relaxed, the juices will have settled evenly throughout the steak. You can cut into it without all the juice running out onto your plate, and the meat will seem much more succulent and tender.
When to season?
Seasoning right at the end, just before you eat your steak, is safest, as salt can draw precious moisture out of your steak before or during cooking. If you’d like to add to the natural flavour of the beef, add rosemary and black pepper to the steak just before popping it in the pan.
Top tip: use the right knife
How you cut into your cooked and rested steak can also affect how it eats.
If you use a blunt knife you will be squashing the meat as you try to cut it. And by using a serrated knife, a sawing action is required, making a ragged edge and disturbing the fibres of the meat. Both approaches will lead the meat to feel tougher than it actually is when you come to chew it.
Use a razor-sharp, smooth-bladed knife and slice your steak across the grain of the meat to get the most tender experience.
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