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How to Make Great Steaks from the Skillet

The best steak you’ve ever tasted might not be from the grill

Fine Cooking Issue 80
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Come summer, the path to the grill gets well worn, especially when steak is on the menu. But there are times when I get such a hankering for the uniform and beautifully browned crust on a perfectly seared steak that I stay put in the kitchen and heat up a cast-iron pan. In fact, some of my favorite steak dinners include little more than a good cut of beef, some salt and pepper, and a hot sauté pan.

Start with the right steak

In order to get that good sear and keep the meat rare (the way I like it), I need steaks that are at least 1 inch thick, preferably 1-1/2 inches. If you don’t see such a steak packaged at the supermarket, ask the butcher behind the counter to custom cut one for you. My favorite cuts for sautéing include rib-eye, New York strip, and filet. 

This exceedingly tender steak is cut from the tenderloin. Ask for center-cut filets, rather than ones from the tail or head; 6 to 8 oz. per person is a good serving. Filet has a bit less flavor than other cuts, but it’s perfectly suited for the sauté pan, especially because its tender texture is an excellent match for a rich pan sauce. Serve this cut rare or medium rare; when cooked past that, its flavor can become livery.

New York strip
The official name for this steak is top loin, and it comes from the middle back, called the short loin, which is located on the exterior surface of the spinal column. Confusingly, it goes by at least 20 names that I know of. (In California, we call it New York steak. In New York, it’s often called shell steak or strip steak or sirloin strip—despite its not coming from the sirloin.) Whatever it’s called, this steak is tender and well flavored and you will pay accordingly. It takes especially well to dry rubs and compound butters. For evenly seared steaks, buy one or two large, thick steaks (rather than several thin ones), and cut them into servings after cooking, especially if you like meat rare or medium rare. Since they’re quite tender, I rarely use acidic wet marinades with these steaks.

A rib-eye is my all-time favorite steak for pan-searing. It’s cut from the prime rib area of the upper back and is the most flavorful and fattiest of the common steaks. Rib-eye comes boneless or bone-in; both are great, though I think bone-in offers more flavor. Butchers often cut this steak too thin so that a single steak will weigh a pound or less. But it’s better to buy it thick, preferably at least 1-1/2 inches, because it cooks better. The deep, beefy flavor of rib-eye holds up well to most dry rubs or wet marinades and is especially well suited to strong flavors like soy, garlic, ginger, and chiles.

Is it Prime, Choice, or Select?

All meat processed in this country is done so under the inspection of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If a meat packer chooses, the USDA will also grade the meat for quality. The top grades are Prime, Choice, and Select. Because it’s expensive to do so, not all packers choose to have their meat graded. If a steak isn’t labeled, chances are that if it were graded by the USDA, it would be stamped Select. Unfortunately, Prime beef, which has the best marbling, texture, and flavor, rarely reaches the markets where you and I shop, instead going straight to restaurants or overseas. Your best quality guarantee? Buy steak labeled Choice, though bear in mind that within this designation there’s great variation in quality. Taste and compare the offerings from different markets and stick with what you like.

Let the steak warm up a bit

A steak close to room temperature will cook more evenly than a cold one; when you slice into it, most of the interior will be cooked to the same reddish-pink color and tenderness. By contrast, if the meat is seared while very cold, you may end up with a grayish area between the browned crust and the red center. Season the steaks with ample kosher salt and a little freshly ground black pepper as they sit; this lets some of the salt melt and blend with the meat, improving its flavor (but without making it taste salty).

Pick the perfect pan

A good, heavy-based pan is crucial for a well-seared steak. In my house, I have 25 skillets from which to choose, but my most heavily used pans by far are two cast-iron skillets I’ve had forever. I love cast-iron because you can really heat up the pan without ruining either the pan or the steak. Cast-iron cooks evenly and allows foods like steak to release easily but leave just enough browned bits on the surface of the skillet to flavor a sauce made in the pan.

My absolute favorite pan is a 9-inch cast-iron skillet left behind by a college roommate back in the days of wraparound windshields on two-tone Olds 88s; in other words, its age is indeterminate. It comfortably holds a thick ribeye, porterhouse, or a couple of New York strip steaks (as would a 10-inch pan). When I’m cooking for a larger crowd, I reach for my 12-inch skillet (which I do remember buying about 30 years ago); it fits three New York steaks or a couple of rib-eyes, easily enough to feed six people. When choosing the size of the pan, think about accommodating the meat with just a little space between the steaks (if you’re cooking more than one) and the edge of the pan. If too tightly packed, the meat will steam and you won’t get good browning. Too much empty space, however, can cause any rendered fat to burn on the exposed surface of the pan.

If you don’t already have cast iron in your pan collection, look to p. 28 for more information on them. Until you get one, you can use a heavy-based metal pan like the sandwiched metal pans from All-Clad, which heat evenly and give you those browned bits for sauce. Such pans need a little fat inthe pan before the steak goes in to keep the meat from sticking; either rub the pan with some of the beef fat trimmings or coat it very lightly with a little olive oil. Never, ever use a cheap, thin metal pan—unless you like your steak burned.

Sear, flip, and let rest

Before you crank up the heat, crank up the exhaust fan. Searing steak is a multi-sensory experience: You’ll hear the sizzle, see the browning, and smell the caramelizing taking place. Without good ventilation, however, you may see and smell a little more smoke than you might like to.

Get the pan good and hot before the steak goes in. A hot pan is the key to keeping the meat from sticking to the cast iron. Don’t move the steak at all for at least 3 minutes; as the steak sears and contracts, it will naturally release; be patient and most of the browned exterior will stay on the steak and not on the bottom of the pan. Once both sides are well browned, turn down the heat and cook on both sides until the steak is done to your liking.

Use an instant-read thermometer to check for doneness, but also press on the steak with your finger so you can get a feel for a perfectly cooked steak. Take the steak out of the pan when it reaches 120° to 125°F, which may seem low, but that’s because I expect you to do the final but important last step to cooking a perfect steak: Let it rest off the heat before serving. A rest allows juices to be reabsorbed from the exterior of the steak back to the center; meanwhile the steak completes its cooking by allowing the heat from the hotter exterior to equilibrate with the cooler interior. The result is a perfectly cooked and juicy steak.

Finally, a beautifully marbled USDA prime grade steak needs nothing more than salt and pepper, but most steaks get just a little tastier with a little added something, which is why the recipes here include a spice rub, a pan sauce, and a flavored butter.

Wine with beef

Robust reds are the traditional match with beef and for good reason: The intense fruit flavors and drying tannins are perfectly matched to the richness of the meat, making every bite a moment of food-wine harmony. The richness of the Filet Steaks with Irish Whisky & Cream Pan Sauce calls for a full-bodied red with spice notes and plenty of acidity. A Petite Sirah would be perfect; try the 2004 Bogle California ($14) and the 2003 David Bruce Central Coast ($16).

A ripe, juicy Australian Shiraz —such as the 2003 Peter Lehmann Barossa Shiraz ($16) or the 2003 d’Arenberg Laughing Magpie Shiraz-Viognier, McLaren Vale ($18)— would be delicious with the New York Strip Steak.

Finally, the herbal notes of the Star Anise & Rosemary Rib-Eye call for a straight-ahead Cabernet Sauvignon like the 2003 Hess Select Cabernet Sauvignon California ($15) or the 2001 Beringer Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($24).


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