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Crisp and caramelized on the outside, but never burnt. A first bite that melts in your mouth as the savory, perfectly seasoned flavor of beef hits your palate. The rich, smoky aroma of animal fat dripping onto an open fire.
That, my friends, is a perfect steak. You don’t have to make reservations at an expensive steakhouse to reach this sort of steak nirvana. It can be yours any night of week in your own kitchen by following a few simple and painless steps.
Navigating the Meat Case
First things first — you’ve got to buy the steak. To understand the meat case at a butcher shop, you must first understand your cuts of meat. Close your eyes and visualize standing in a field while looking at the side of a cow or steer. The first cut of meat behind the head is the shoulder, known in butchery terms as the chuck. Although flavorful, the often-used shoulder muscle is mostly tough and full of connective tissue. The meat from this section of a cow is less expensive and primarily used for slow-cooked roasts. However, if you’re looking for a bargain, a top blade steak, also called a flatiron, is a flavorful, fairly tender chuck steak to throw on the grill.
Next in the line-up, anatomically speaking, are the portions of a cow that butchers call the rib, short loin and sirloin. The meat from this top, middle area of the cow is the most tender, since the muscles move the least during a cow’s life (as compared to the shoulder, hind end and shank). From these three larger cuts come most of the steaks you see at the market.
These steaks are basically a prime rib roast cut into smaller pieces. A rib steak has the bone attached, but the more popular rib eye steak has had the bone removed.
The rib eye is also sold as a Spencer steak (in the West) and Delmonico steak (on the East coast). Rib steaks usually have large pockets of fat, which add flavor and give the steak a moist, juicy texture.
Short Loin Steaks
Some people find a long, narrow and slightly triangular top loin steak to be less tender than a rib eye and miss the extra ripples of fat. Others think a top loin steak has just the right balance of flavor and tenderness, without being too fatty. When it has a bone, a top loin steak is known as a shell steak. When the bone is removed it goes by many names: a strip steak, Kansas City strip, New York strip and sirloin strip steak, (which, confusingly, comes from the short loin, not the sirloin) are all the same cut of steak.
Also cut from the short loin portion of a cow is the tenderloin, a portion of meat considered to be extremely tender (hence the name). Tenderloins are easy to recognize in the meat case, due to a long, cylindrical shape that’s thicker on one end then tapers down. A tenderloin is cut into many different types of steak, and all are pretty pricey. The thickest part (usually about 3 inches thick) of the tenderloin is cut into a steak known as chateaubriand. Filet mignon (also known as tenderloin steak) is cut from the meat behind the chateaubriand and is slightly less thick. Filet Mignon is thought to be the most tender part of the tenderloin, but on the downside, the flavor can be pretty mild.
Last but not least, the short loin gives us the t-bone, a steak named for, you guessed it, a “T” shaped bone that runs down the middle. On one side of the bone is meat from the top loin, and on the other is a thin strip of tenderloin. Some say this steak combines the best of both worlds: the tenderness of a tenderloin steak and the rich, “meaty” flavor of a top loin steak. If you’re really hungry or feeling particularly manly, skip the T-bone and go straight for the porterhouse, which is simply a t-bone steak with a bigger portion of tenderloin attached.
The sirloin is basically the cow’s hip. Sirloin steaks are usually fairly large but thin, and the meat is both moderately flavorful and moderately tender. Steaks from this region of a cow tend to be a good value. The most well-known among them are the top sirloin steak and the tri-tip, both boneless. Lesser-known steaks cut from the sirloin are the pin-bone, flat-bone, round-bone and wedge-bone steaks.
Directly below the loin and sirloin, on the underside of the cow’s belly, is the flank. Flank steak is a thin, wide, boneless cut with a texture (grain) that looks very stringy. Cooked very quickly to medium-rare and sliced thinly against the grain, the chewy texture is less noticeable and you will be rewarded with rich flavor.
Seasoning the Meat
If a high-quality cut of meat is cooked correctly, you really don’t need much more than salt and pepper. Which makes one think that seasoning a steak is a very short topic, until of course, you consider the hotly debated “salt early” and “salt late” theories.
The Salt Early Theory: Salting meat many hours or even days before cooking breaks down the protein in meat and makes it more tender. Initially, the salt draws out moisture, but over time the meat re-absorbs the moisture, which is now flavored with salt and therefore adds more succulent flavor to the meat.
The Salt Late Theory: Salt dries meat out. Period. Don’t add it until immediately before cooking.
In this debate, we take the middle road. In our experience, the salt early theory rings true with larger or tougher cuts of beef. For your average steak, salting about a half-hour before cooking is ideal and seasoning right before cooking works just fine, too.
Before seasoning, always make sure to pat the steak dry. Some people like to brush the steak with oil (avoid olive oil, which can become bitter at high heats) or a combination of melted butter and oil before seasoning to help the outside of the steak brown. Season both sides of the steak, using a teaspoon or less of both salt and pepper. Remember, you can always add more seasoning after the steak cooks, but you can’t un-salt the meat.
After seasoning, let the meat sit on the counter for a bit so it comes up to room temperature (a good rule of thumb is at least 10 minutes for every inch of thickness).
What we love about cooking steak on the stove is how easy it is to get a crisp, caramelized coating on the outside of the steak without over-cooking the middle. More often than not, this is harder to achieve on a grill. Using a combination of the stove-top and the oven is a tried and true method for perfect steak. The question is, which comes first?