Tuesday, September 5, 2006

Perfect steak at last!

After sprinkling parmesan on the Swiss chard, and tossing the carrots with butter, I grabbed my media pass and re-entered my kitchen in a capacity of a journalist. My mission was to document the making of a steak by a man.

“We are ready, chef. Would you like to trim the steak?” I asked.
“Oh, you are welcome to do that part,” Jason said with a shy smile. “Actually, if you want, you can even season it for me.”
“But I thought I was only allowed in the kitchen as a fly on the wall!”
“Hey, all I said was that I’ll try to put the steak in the oven and take it out of the oven at the right time. I never claimed I can do all that other stuff.”

Oh well, so much for being the media. I put down my notepad, rolled up my sleeves, trimmed the steak, and sprinkled it with plenty of salt and pepper. The cast iron skillet was already preheating in the oven.

“The steak is ready for you, chef. What’s your timing plan?” I asked.
“30 second sear on one side, 30 second sear on the other side, and then 6 1/2 minutes in the oven at 500F.” This sounded reasonable considering the fact that our last steak was practically raw inside. Although the timing was barely longer than what we used last time, the steak was much thinner (only 1 inch instead of 1-2/3), so it all sounded about right.

7 1/2 minutes later we were closely studying the finished steak like a team of doctors and fretting that its temperature was a tad too high (130F instead of our intended 120F). The 3 bites in the thicker part that came out medium-rare were excellent, but the rest of the steak that came out medium was on the dry side. This was grass-fed rib-eye, which is leaner than the usual grain-fed beef and terribly unforgiving. A few degrees under and you are chewing on raw meat. A few degrees over and all the moisture is sucked out of it. And with this high heat method, it was almost impossible to get the right doneness in more than 25% of the steak.

The bad news was that we still didn’t have the ultimate steak recipe even with the man at the stove. The good news was that I, representing all the meat-loving women of the world, still had a chance to redeem myself. Unfortunately (or fortunately) we were leaving for Montreal the next day and I had to wait whole 4 days for a rematch.

As we were driving back to Boston, I formulated my plan. It involved getting a ton of steak and beating this problem into submission. In computer science terms, this would be called “brute force”. Buying a ton of grass-fed rib-eye for $22/Lb seemed ridiculous, so I opted for a much cheaper grain-fed hanger steak for $7/Lb. It's a shame that hanger steak is not widely available because it is a superb cut of meat that combines flavor with tenderness. In the Boston area, Savenor’s market carries it on regular basis.

My strategy was to cause the meat as little heat disturbance as possible. I got this idea from the slow-roasted salmon that is cooked at 250F for 20 minutes (that’s long for a fish). This technique is not big on flavor (so it should only be done to very flavorful proteins), but it produces the most delicate melt-in-the-mouth texture. The connective tissue melts completely, leaving the flakes rare throughout and very tender. Since hanger steak does not need much help in the flavor department, I thought this idea stood a chance.

After a quick sear in a super hot pan, I removed the steak to a plate and let both the steak and the pan cool down for 10 minutes while preheating the oven to 250F.

I then seasoned the steak with salt and pepper, returned it to the pan and placed it in the oven for 14 minutes. Hanger steak is one of those cuts that are best medium-rare to medium. If left completely rare, the connective tissue does not have a chance to melt and the steak tastes chewy.

When I pulled it out of the oven, the thermometer was registering 125F on thicker parts and 130F on thinner ones. But the temperature didn’t go up as much during resting since the surface of the steak was not nearly as hot coming out of 250F oven as it was coming out of 500F oven. I made a small cut in one of the pieces to test for doneness, and left the other one untouched just to see if there would be a difference in taste between the cut and uncut piece. In a blind taste test, Jason couldn’t tell the difference between the two pieces and neither could I (though it was not a blind test for me). The juices leak out of the steak regardless of searing or leaving it intact. Even the butcher at Savenor’s market in Cambridge confirmed that not cutting into meat to save the juices is an old wife’s tale.

Ah, perfection at last. The steak was beautifully rosy from the surface to the center without a trace of chewiness. I specially didn’t put anything on this steak besides salt and pepper to really test the difference in texture and flavor. But I am sure that a nice red wine reduction or a generous pat of herb butter would have made it even better.

Another thing I liked about this method is that the difference in doneness between thick parts and thin parts of the steak was minimal. If your steak is not a perfectly rectangular block, you can still have every bite exactly as you like it.

Oh, and did I mention that testing for doneness was a breeze? Even if you thermometer does not end up perfectly in the center, you’ll get a close enough reading. Or you can “cheat” and simply cut half way into the center of the steak and take a peek. When steaks are cooked at high heat, they’ll cook much more during resting. So when you cut into a steak to test it for doneness, you have to do more guess work -- a steak that looks very rare at the time you take it off the heat might get to either medium or medium-rare during resting based on its thickness. But a steak cooked at low heat that looks rare at the time you take it off the heat will be just barely more done after resting than it was at the time you took it off the heat.

Whether this is the ultimate steak is the question only you can answer. As I now realize after 3 weeks of research and experimentation, there are two types of steak people –

Charred outside with rare inside also known as “black and blue” (big flavor but chewy)
Evenly red throughout (less flavor but tender)

Kind of like brownies – you are either a fudgy brownie person or a cakey brownie person. I tend to believe that food can be objectively evaluated, but even I have to admit that some things are a matter of taste. If you like your steak “black and blue,” slow-roasting is not a good technique for you. But if you want every bite to be juicy and smooth as butter, give this a try.

Slow-roasted Hanger Steak

Hanger steak has a grizzle running through its center. Ask your butcher to remove it and trim all the silver skin and outside fat. You’ll end up with two cylindrical muscles (a thick one and a thin one).

If you can’t find hanger steak, try this recipe with skirt steak, rib-eye, tenderloin, or pretty much any other steak. The timing will vary, so I suggest you start testing your steaks after 10 minutes in the oven per inch of thickness to be on the safe side.

Serves 2

3/4 Lb trimmed hanger steak
1 tsp canola oil
Salt and Pepper

1 hour and 15 minutes before serving
Take the steak out of the fridge and let it sit at room temperature for 45 minutes. This will help it cook more evenly.

25 minutes before serving
Preheat the oven to 250F.

Cut the steak into pieces that can fit comfortably into the skillet (about 4 inches long). Dry the steak very well on paper towels.

Set a heavy-bottomed skillet over high heat until very hot, at least 3 minutes. Add canola oil. As soon as it starts to smoke, place the steaks into the skillet in one layer without crowding. Cook without moving for 1 minute. Flip and cook without moving 1 more minute.

Remove the steaks to a plate and take the pan off heat. Cool the steaks and pan for 10 minutes. The steaks will release lots of juices – you can reserve them for making the sauce.

Season the steaks generously with salt and pepper on both sides. Return the steaks to the skillet and place in the oven for 12 minutes (for an average hanger steak). 5 minutes before estimated cooking time, put a plate in the oven to warm up.

Remove the skillet from the oven and test steaks for doneness with an instant read thermometer and/or by cutting half way down into the center of the steak. When the thermometer registers 125F, the steak is medium-rare. If you are cutting into the steak, it should look a tad more rare than your ideal doneness. If the steak is not done, return it to the oven and test every 2 minutes.

Remove steaks to a warm plate, optionally top with a dollop of garlic-herb butter, and cover with foil. Let rest 3 minutes. If you want to make a simple pan sauce, you can deglaze the pan set over high heat with steak juices, red wine, broth or water. After taking this reduction off the heat, swirl in a dollop of butter.

Slice the steak against the grain, fan out on the plate and serve with the juices accumulated on the plate where the steak was resting and the pan sauce.

Note on alternative timing
This recipe takes a bit of planning, but you can use the time lags to your advantage when making these steaks for company. Instead of bringing the steak up to room temperature before searing, sear steaks right out of the fridge, then cool, and refrigerate. When your guests arrive, remove steaks from the fridge and let them sit at room temperature for 45 minutes while serving drinks and appetizers. Then season the steaks and put them in 250F oven for 12-15 minutes. If cooking for a large crowd, you can sear steaks in batches and then finish them on a large baking sheet.


Anonymous said...

Oh my. That looks sodelicious. My mouth is watering. Thanks for sharing your "ultimate" steak method. :)

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a wonderfully helpful post! Thank you so much Helen, looks delicious!

Anonymous said...

Congratulations Helen!

If you ever want to cook that much meat, you should try repeating this method with a roast ... One (Italian) cookbook I have recommends cooking a 5-lb. roast (preliminarily pan-seared in butter) at 175F for about 4 hours!

Asa disclaimer, I never have tried this myself - because I never cook for so many people, and because I'm afraid I would not do it right and that's an awful lot of meat to spoil - but I have found that cookbook to be reliable in general.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to try that with my next Thai beef salad with the hanger steak. I've been having the exact chewiness vs rareness issue so i am really hoping this will do the trick.

Anonymous said...

Well, I've got a canidate for next week's red-meat dish. Thanks so much.

One friend of mine used to put his Standing rib-roasts in a 140F oven for 9+ hours. He claimed would be Med-Rare after 8-9 hours, and stay there. Never having owned an oven that could stay at 140F, I haven't actually tried it myself.

Helen said...

Hi guys,

So glad you enjoyed the steak post.

Giacomo, I know what you mean about large pieces of meat -- they are too huge for 2 people and too risky to make for company (at least the first time).

Jo, let me know how Thai beef salad comes out. Your comment inspired me to make a similar dish called Tiger's Tears salad. I had it in a Cambodian restaurant once and it was a revelation. Since I don't cook much meat, I used to make it with seared tuna, but now I am spired to try it with skirt or hanger steak. Thanks :)

Pam, your friend's idea of cooking a roast at 140F sounds almost like sous-vide (sp?) to me. It a technique of vacuume sealing the food and cooking it in 140F liquid for a very long time. One needs pretty expensive equipement to pull it off, so most home cooks don't have a chance to try it. I don't think setting a gas oven to 140F would work (I am not even sure if my oven goes that low). But it sounds like a cool concept ;)


42 said...

wow, this turned out great, and I even forgot to season the meat before it went into the oven! I've never even heard of hanger steak but I'm sold. it's also pretty cheap, even at Savenor's. next time I'm making a big mess of yum nua with it.

oh and I hate fish, but I might try some of your techniques. thanks!

Helen said...

Hi 42,

Glad you liked the steak. What's yum nua?


42 said...

yum nua (nuer, nuah, etc) is thai beef salad.

tonight I'm cooking a nice rib-eye this way. it was pretty thick so I sliced it into two steaks.

obviously I would rather grill but that isn't an option in an apartment.

Helen said...

Hi 42,

I think I had a Cambodian beef salad like that before. Yum :)

Happy cooking!


SteamyKitchen said...

What if you slow cooked it first and then seared on high heat? You'd be able to have the texture of slow cooking but also have the crust. I might just have to experiment this weekend.

Helen said...

Hi SteamyKitchen,

You are absolutely right. Slow roasting and then searing is a better way to do this. I've tried it about a month ago and it works great! Just haven't gotten around to blogging about it yet.


SteamyKitchen said...

Ok, I tried it and I should have re-read your directions and comments. My husband will never forget this and will never let ME forget the day that I took 2 perfect, beautiful filet mignons and slow cooked the hell outta them!!! I know you said to use flavorful meats like skirt or hanger AND I know you said 125F. But nope, I didn't listen. As my mom would say, "I told you so!"

I'm not giving up...will try again in a few days after my husband stops being mad at me. :-P

Helen said...

Hi Steamy Kitchen,

Wait! Before you try slow roasting steaks again, I have an even better method of roasting thick steaks (1.5-2 inches). I wish I could take credit for this great idea, but it's a method I just read about in Cook's Illustrated. First you slow roast your steaks on a rack at 275F until they reach an internal temperature of 90-95F for medium rare. Then you sear them in a hot skillet for 1-2 minutes on each side just until browned. This way you get the crust AND an evenly cooked inside. The temperatures are really crucial here, so don't try it unless you have an instant read thermometer.

And if your husband doesn't let you try again, have him give me a call :) I'll tell him all about my cooking disasters. You have to get it wrong sometimes in order to get it right eventually.


Katmiklo said...

Oh my gosh! That was the most delicious steak I have ever eaten!
I let the steak come to room temperature for 1 hr, then I salted and peppered the steak, got my cast iron skillet up to smoking temperature then added this fabulous basil dipping oil (pampered chef product)to the cast iron skillet, added 2 , 1/2" thick ribeyes and boy did they sizzle and splatter, after a minute I used tongs and turned them over to sear for a minute on the other side, then I put them in a glass dish on the counter and lest them rest for 10 minutes while the oven heated up to 250 degrees, I sliced a sweet onion and cooked it in a smaller cast iron skillet in some basil oil on the stove top ,I set the oven timer for 12 minutes, I put 2 dinner plates in the oven after 7 minutes, after the timer went off I took out the plates, then the cast iron skillet with the ribeyes and put them on the plates, I put the skillet on the stove top and dumped the smaller skillet with the sweet onions in it into the empty steak skillet and finished sauteeing the onions in the steak drippings and put them on a separate plate , I checked the temperature of the steaks and his was perfect, my husband loves his at about 110 degrees, rare! Mine I cooked a few minutes longer on the stove-top with the onions , I have never had such delicious onions!
I have to say Thank you for your fabulous steak recipe, we will never grill our ribeyes again, these were mouth wateringly indescribeably delicious !

Helen said...

Hi slord971,

So glad your steak came out well. I have found an even better cooking method (published in cook's illustrated).

It's similar to the one you tried, but results in a crisper outside crust :) Give it a shot next time.


Matt Colvin said...

Gave this a shot yesterday - I'm your typical bachelor that lives off of TV dinners a lot of the time. Decided to give this a shot after finding your page while looking for guides on pan cooking steak.

Tried this with a new york strip, came out GREAT, one of the better steaks I've ever had.

Sauteed some scallions and put them on top of the steak, awesome. Hard to believe a steak with JUST salt, pepper and scallions tasted this good. Thanks for the walk through.

Pictures of the steak (shows a bit rarer than it looked in real life)


Helen said...

Hi there airforcematt!

Your steak looks awesome. By the way, I found an even better method discovered by Kenji Alt from Cook's Illustrated.

Give it a shot next time you do a steak.


Matt Colvin said...

Read the new guide, will give it a shot next time. Got to buy a fan for my kitchen though, almost smoked myself out of it yesterday :) Nice side effect to this is that my apartment smells like steak, made me hungry when I walked in from work today.

Also read a bunch of your other posts. I'm in Iowa and am officially jealous of your great access to fresh fish. But it evens out a bit because I'm in love with the local beef and pork here.

andy said...

i tried this tonight with a hanger steak, without reading the comments and noticing the "revisited" post where you do the low-temp oven BEFORE the sear. still, it turned out great, so thanks! i addressed the crisp at the end thing by doing three stages, the final being a minute under a broiler. mostly i was getting impatient b/c it was taking a while to get to 125 degrees.

rubbed the steak with olive oil, chopped fresh rosemary, and garlic, and salt and black pepper after the sear. served with oven-roasted cauliflower with pistachios, and swiss chard with butter and lemon.

i'd do the whole thing again in a second. i'll have to try your new method next time to compare.

Anonymous said...

This is awesome!! I am going to give it a try. Oh,, one comment about fish. If you aren't crazy about the "fishiness" of fish, try bathing it in milk and then rinsing again before cooking it. Works like a charm! :)