There’s more than one way to skin a cat, the saying goes. The same is true for cooking a steak. Most of the time the way we cook at home is dictated by circumstance: grill when the weather permits; pan fry if it doesn’t (or if we live in an apartment); broil, uh, when the oven’s looking appealing; and cook sous-vide during wet dreams.
The cooking medium plays an important role in the end product: the texture, the way it tastes and the ease with which it arrives at the desired done-ness. So while weather and your kitchen gear may often dictate your dinner plans, it’s a good idea to know your cooking options — remember, you are the master of your own beefy destiny.
With the GP crew assembled and hungry, we cooked three ribeyes available from Heritage Foods USA — two Wagyu steaks (Akaushi-Angus cross) and one from a White Oak Pastures grass-fed Angus cow — to see how three different methods stacked up.
A Month of Beef three-way, after the jump.
Rib-eye is a well-marbled steak, cut from the center of the rib roast that sits on top of the rib primal. With Wagyu the marbling is even more pronounced. Because it has such great fat content, our goal was to cook it to medium-rare, further along the done-ness scale than we might cook a super lean strip steak or tenderloin. The idea is to melt down the fat, which won’t happen if the steak is still cool in the middle.
Beef science lesson of the day: fat is also less conductive than muscle fibers. This means that the steak will cook marginally slower than a very lean cut and give us a little more room for error. However, the internal temperature of any steak moves quickly over fire, so in all cases we’d prefer to undercook and return to heat if needed (a wise lesson), rather than overcooking and returning to the table with piece of meat resembling charcoal.
The ideal steak will be brown and crispy on the outside, pink and juicy on the inside. We grilled the steak over an open gas flame, which is hot enough to brown the meat (also called the Maillard reaction) very quickly. The point here is to develop a char and not, as is dubiously claimed, to seal in the juices. The browning reaction gives the nutty, savory, earthy and complex flavors that we identify with a classically great steak. After searing the steak on both sides, we moved it away from the direct flame and closed the grill. This second step is key to giving yourself a longer window in which to hit the medium-rare mark. Cooking the steak over high heat the entire time it’s on the grill can result in an overcooked outside and undercooked inside.
Note: Some cooks will suggest reversing the order of the two-step process, which is to say cooking the steak over low heat first and then searing at the end. The logic is that the steak is already hot and will sear much more quickly. This is a good idea; but our concern is that it leaves no room for error. If the steak is near medium-rare by the time it hits a super hot flame, the likelihood of overcooking seems high.
Pros: Nice grill marks, smokey flavor, man credit, possibility of cigar smoking while cooking high.
Cons: Easy to overcook if you don’t observe the two-step process.
Broiling is essentially reverse-grilling: cooking the steak in the oven on high heat, on a pan near the heat source at the top of the oven with the oven door ajar, and flipping half-way through cooking. In theory, this makes sense, but in practice it’s a little more difficult. We were able to achieve the desired level of doneness, but we didn’t get the char we had hoped for.
Pros: Simplest method to execute.
Cons: Hard to get desired char.
Next to grilling, this was our favorite method for cooking a ribeye. The method is simple: heat a cast iron pan or griddle over high heat, add a thin layer of oil (it should smoke), sear steak on both sides. Like grilling, this is a two-step process. After flipping the steak, we put the whole pan in the oven set to 350 degrees. The bottom of the steak browns, plus the radiant heat of the oven gives us the ability to cook the steak evenly and more slowly than over a flame.
Pros: Nice crust, with a very rich flavor from cooking in its own fat. Two-step process helps prevent overcooking.
Cons: Smokey kitchen (and not in the good way, like the grill).
Thoughts on Done-ness
These methods are only as good as the cook employing them, and in the end, the most important thing about a steak is that it’s cooked to the desired level of done-ness. Some people use a meat thermometer, but the accuracy on a relatively thin cut of meat (as opposed to a roast) is questionable: it’s hard to match exactly where the thermometer is measuring to the center of the steak. A better method is to touch it, poke it and sniff it. Rare meat is said to feel like the muscle between thumb and forefinger then the fingers are stretched apart. Another way is to cut into it, which will leak some juices, but only locally. Remember: You can always throw a steak back on the grill — our pan-fried steak went back in the oven — but overdone is game over.