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The Food Lab's Complete Guide To Pan-Seared Steaks

Slideshow SLIDESHOW: The Food Lab's Complete Guide To Pan-Seared Steaks

[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

It's time for another round of The Food Lab. Got a suggestion for an upcoming topic? Email Kenji here, and he'll do his best to answer your queries in a future post. Become a fan of The Food Lab on Facebook or follow it on Twitter for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.

Summers are made for the grill, but what's a steak lover to do when the weather's too cold and wet to light the suckers up? Just cook them indoors. Indeed, pan-seared steaks have several distinct advantages over grilled steaks—enough that there are times when given the two choices, I'll choose pan-seared just for the sake of it. While grilling will get you a rapid-fire crust on your steak with all those delightfully crisp, on-the-verge-of-burnt bits and a good smoky flavor, I find that the even golden brown crust you can develop in a hot cast-iron pan really accentuates the flavor of the beef itself, letting it shine. On top of that, pan-searing affords you the opportunity to add your own flavorings in the form of aromatics. Pan-seared steaks come out about 4 percent moister to boot.

Of course, you gotta know how to do it before you can git 'er done.

If you want to jump straight into the action, check out the step-by-step illustrated slideshow above, or go straight to the recipe here.

The Basic Method

When I've got plenty of time to kill, I occasionally employ a low-and-slow cooking method, such as sous-vide, or perhaps the reverse sear method I developed at Cook's Illustrated, in which you start the steak in a very low oven and finish it off on the stovetop.

But you know what happens 99 percent of the time? I've got a steak, I want to get it on the table, and I don't want to fuss with it. After all, a steak is a quick-cooking thing. The king of fast food, if you will. I don't want to have to heat up a water bath or my oven, I don't want to have to wait for hours. That means I want to do it start to finish on the stovetop. Luckily, this is very easy to do.

The TL/DR version: start with a good, thick, well-marbled steak. Season it well. Sear it in hot oil in cast iron, flipping as often as you'd like. Add butter and aromatics. Keep flipping and basting. Rest. Carve. DIG IN.

Read on for the long version.

What Steak Should I Use?

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You can't end up with a great cooked steak if you start with a crummy raw steak. For the record, we're talking high-end steaks here—those are the tender ones cut from the loin of the cow that generally command the highest prices at the market.

There are four different high-end steaks that you should know and each one is a little different.

  • Ribeye, also known as a Delmonico or entrecôte, is my personal favorite. It comes with a large, tender eye of meat surrounded by a swath of fat and a cap that comes from the spinalis muscle. This cap is far and away the juiciest, most flavorful piece of meat that you'll find on any steak. Some folks might find a ribeye to be a little too rich and fatty. Some folks may well be lacking joy in their life.
  • Strip, also known as New York Strip, Kansas City Strip, or contre-filet, is similar in texture to that central eye of meat in a ribeye steak. That's because it comes from the exact same muscle, just a little further back down along the cow. People enjoy strip steak for its relatively tender texture and good amount of marbling (more on that in a minute).
  • Tenderloin, also known as filet mignon, is the most tender cut of meat on the cow. When cooked, it has a buttery, almost spoon-tender texture. But what it has in tenderness, it lacks in flavor. As a nearly unused muscle in the cow, the tenderloin generally has very little fat, and almost no flavor to speak of, despite its crazy price tag.
  • T-Bone, also known as Porterhouse when the tenderloin section is at least 1 1/2-inches wide, is simply a slice of rib with both the strip and the tenderloin still attached. It's certainly an impressive and daunting cut of meat, but I recommend avoiding it. See, the problem is that with relative little fat and a smaller profile, that small tenderloin section ends up cooking much faster than the larger strip section. What this means is that by the time your strip is perfectly medium rare, your tenderloin is overcooked. You're better off cooking your strip and tenderloin separately if you want both. That said, basting can help even out this dilemma.

Here are more tips for choosing a cut of steak.

Making the Grade

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All beef that's sold in the U.S. is graded by the United States Department of Agriculture on a scale according to its tenderness and degree of marbling. At the top of the heap is Prime, which denotes an abundant degree of marbling in a cow under 42 months of age. Only about 2 percent of the beef sold in this country is designated Prime, and most of it goes to restaurants, specialty butchers, and high end supermarkets. Below that is Choice, followed by Select, which are the two grades you'll find in most supermarkets.

The grades continue to go down all the way to Canner, which generally comes from very old cows with little fat in their tough meat. Luckily for us, you won't find that grade in stores (it's reserved for such savory applications as school lunches and dog food).

While checking the grade is a quick and easy indicator of the quality of the meat, what you should really be checking for is the degree of marbling—that's the interstitial fat that shows up in white spiderwebs throughout the meat.

Why, you might ask, is marbling important? Two reasons: moisture and flavor. As well-marbled meat cooks, the fat will slowly melt, adding juiciness built right into the meat. Non-marbled meat might have plenty of fat on the exterior, but it doesn't enhance the steak in the same way. Sort of like the difference between drinking a glass of chocolate milk or drinking the milk then shooting the chocolate syrup.

Flavorwise, almost all of the compounds our tongues sense that give us the thought, "Ooh, that's beefy," are found in the fat. In fact, if you take the fat out of a piece of beef and replace it with lamb fat, it'll taste like lamb. Want chicken-flavored beef? Cook lean beef in chicken fat.

If flavor is what you're after, fat is your friend. Look for meat that's got plenty of marbling.

Size Matters

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The thickness of a steak is not just about portion control. Without an adequately thick steak, it's very difficult to get that contrast between exterior and interior that is so desirable. Thin, thin steaks will tend to overcook before they can finish developing a nice crust, even over the hottest fire you can muster.

I try to get steaks that are at least an inch and a half thick, if not two inches. This does mean that each steak ends up weighing in at between 12 ounces and a pound—that's big, even for someone with a big appetite for red meat. But remember this: It's better to cook one large steak for every two people than to cook two smaller steaks. Learn how to share.

Aging?

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There are two types of aging. So-called wet-aged meat is meat that has been placed in a vacuum-sealed bag and allowed to rest for a few weeks (usually while in transit from packing plant to distributor to supermarket). A wet aged steak shows some improvement over a standard non-aged steak in terms of tenderness—there are enzymes present in the meat that will break down tough connective tissue over time.

Dry-aged meat is meat that has been stored in a temperature and humidity-controlled room for anywhere from a week and up to 10 weeks or longer. During this time, three things happen:

  • Moisture loss is a major factor. A dry-aged piece of beef can lose up to around 30 percent of its initial volume in water loss, which concentrates its flavor.
  • Tenderization occurs when enzymes naturally present in the meat act to break down some of the tougher muscle fibers.
  • Flavor change is probably the most relevant. Due to numerous reasons including enzymatic and bacterial action, properly dry-aged meat will develop deep nutty, cheesy aromas.

Whether you want dry-aged meat or not is a matter of personal choice. I personally love the funky, blue cheese notes of a very old dry-aged steak and am willing to shell out the extra 20 to 25 percent it costs. Others prefer the cleaner flavor of fresh beef.

And despite what some folks may tell you, it is pretty much impossible to dry age properly at home. To age a steak, you require an intact, untrimmed portion of beef (the outer layers become inedible and must be trimmed off). You can leave a steak in the fridge for a few days and some amount of tenderization will occur, but this is hardly the same thing, and in side-by-side taste tests between fresh steaks and steaks "aged" in a home refrigerator, the differences were nearly undetectable.

Bone In, or Out?

Talk to most chefs and they'll tell you that it's always better to cook meat with the bone-in because it adds flavor. I've always been pretty skeptical of this one for a number of reasons. First of all, the exterior of a bone does not have much flavor in it at all—you have to dig down into the marrow to get at it (just ask my dogs). Secondly, meat muscle fibers are pretty tough customers when it comes to allowing molecules to move around within them.

If an overnight marinade can only penetrate meat by a few millimeters, fat chance that flavor from a relatively flavorless bone is going to make much difference.

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Indeed, I tested this out with a few prime rib roasts a couple months back. One I roasted bone-in, another I removed the bone and tied it back on, a third I removed the bone and tied it back on with a layer of aluminum foil in between (to completely prevent any potential transfer of flavor), and the fourth I roasted boneless.

All three of the roasts with bones tied on them were indistinguishable from each other in both texture and flavor, so there's that myth smashed for ya. On the other hand, the boneless roast did come out a little dryer in the specific region where the bone was missing. Really, a bone accomplishes two things: It prevent some moisture loss by reducing the surface area of a steak, and it keeps that section of the steak from overcooking by acting as an insulator. Ok, three things if you count looking-really-awesome as an accomplishment.

I personally still go with bone-in cuts when I have the option because I enjoy chewing the crispy bits of fat around the bone, but don't let anyone force you to do it if you aren't interested.

With pan-seared steaks, bones pose another problem. As the meat heats, it contracts a bit, so while the meat of a raw, cut steak may be flush with the bone, as soon as you start cooking it, it shrinks away, causing the bone to protrude. This, in turn, elevates the meat from the pan, making it difficult to brown the areas of meat directly around the bone.

But there is a solution to this: basting. That is, pouring hot fat over the meat as it cooks. We'll get back to that in a moment.

Salt It Well

Should you salt your meat right before cooking, well before cooking, or how about after cooking? This is another point of contention amongst home cooks and chefs alike, and one of the ones for which steakhouse-methods often get cited as evidence. At (most) steakhouses, they salt the steak right before throwing it on the grill or under the broiler, so that must be the best way to do it at home, right?

Well, consider that at a steakhouse, when a customer places an order for that giant côte du bouef, It's gonna take a minimum of 20 minutes to get it to medium rare in the very center. That's a lot of minutes in waiting-at-a-restaurant-for-your-food-to-come time. They salt right before cooking because they don't have the time to let the meat sit after salting.

Truth of the matter is that you should salt your meat about 40 minutes before it hits the grill. When the salt first hits a steak, it sits on the surface. Through the process of osmosis, it'll slowly draw liquid out of the meat, which you'll see pool up in little droplets. As those droplets grow, the salt will dissolve in the meat juice, forming a concentrated brine. At this stage in the game—about 25 to 30 minutes in—your steak is in the absolute worst shape possible for grilling. That moisture will evaporate right off, leaving you with a tough, stringy crust.

Give it a bit more time, and eventually that brine will begin to break down some of the muscle tissue in the meat, allowing the juices to be re-absorbed, and taking the salt right along with it.

What does this lead to? Meat that is both better seasoned and more tender and moist when you cook it.

All that said, you will not be destroying anything delicious if you choose to salt your meat straight out of the fridge and into the pan.

Personally I season my steaks at least a few days in advance, to give the salt maximum time to work its way into the meat. Why steakhouses don't do this is a mystery to me.

And remember: USE KOSHER SALT, not regular table salt. The larger grains of kosher salt (which should more accurately be called "koshering salt," as salt itself is always kosher—kosher salt is coarse salt used in the koshering process) are easier to sprinkle evenly with your fingers, and will also draw more initial moisture out of the meat to dissolve than table salt.

Rest at Room Temprature Before Cooking? Don't Bother

You may have heard that it's a good idea to let your steak rest at room temperature before you sear it. Here's the truth: don't bother. A thick cut steak takes a long time to rise in temperature. After half an hour sitting on a plate in the kitchen, the internal temperature of my test models only rose by about 4°F. Even after an hour, they'd barely risen 9°F, not much of a difference. Cooked side-by-side against one straight from the fridge, the cooking time and eating qualities were nearly identical.

So while it won'y hurt you to let your steak sit at room temperature, you're not really doing yourself any favors (despite what a certain very angry chef may tell you).

Use Cast Iron

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A good cast iron pan is thick, heavy, and designed to hold on to heat for a long, long time. Once properly pre-heated (that is, smoking hot), a good cast iron pan will practically sear a steak on its own, even if you lift it off its heat source. Fast searing is essential if you want to build a thick brown crust without overcooking the interior.

Start in Oil, Add Butter Later

What's the best medium to sear in? Butter, or oil? Some claim that a mixture of both is best, often using the excuse that butter alone has too low a smoke point—it begins to burn and turn black at temperature too low to properly sear meat in. Somehow, cutting the butter with a bit of oil is supposed to raise this smoke point. Unfortunately, that's not true. It's because when we say that "butter is burnt," we're not really talking about the butter as a whole—we're talking specifically about the milk proteins in butter, the little white specks you see when you melt it. It's these milk proteins that burn when you get them too hot, and believe me, they couldn't care less whether they're being cooked in butterfat or in oil. Either way, they burn.

What all this means is that the best cooking medium for a steak is actually plain old oil. And make sure to use plenty of it so that your steak cooks nice and evenly. I like to use at least a quarter cup in a 12-inch skillet.

Adding butter to the pan a few minutes before it's done cooking is a fine idea. This is just enough time to allow the buttery flavor and texture (butter is creamier tasting than oil because it has a higher percentage of saturated fat) to coat the meat, but not so long that it will burn excessively, producing acrid undertones.

Because it adds proteins to the mix, butter is a better medium for adding deep brown color to your steak as well, which means that even if your steak is looking a little pale after its initial sear, once you add that butter, it'll rapidly take on color.

Flip Out

If there's one piece of steak-grilling advice that people seem to get more persnickety about than anything, it's that your steak should only be flipped once.

False. This is another hang-on gleaned from steakhouses in which it's simply impractical for a cook to flip more than once given the number of steaks they have cooking on a grill at the same time. At home, you're probably only cooking a few steaks at a time, and it's ok—indeed, it's better—to flip your steaks more often.

You don't have to take my word for it either. Famed food scientist and author Harold McGee has been advocating this method for years (and has the data to prove its efficacy). Dave Arnold over at Cooking Issues has replicated his tests, as have I (with hamburgers). You can quite easily do the test for yourself.

By flipping a steak multiple times—as often as once every 15 seconds or so—you not only end up with meat that's more evenly cooked, you also cut down on your cook time by as much as a third, and develop a great crust on top of that. This is because with multiple flips, neither side is exposed to intense heat for too long, nor does it lose much heat to the relatively cool air above. It's the equivalent of cooking it from both directions simultaneously.

That said, the difference in the end result is not too pronounced, so if you want to leave the steak alone and enjoy your beer, or if you feel the need to placate that annoying uncle who gets visibly angered by mutli-flippers, go ahead and use the one-flip method—it won't destroy your steak.

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Fork It If You'd Like

Similarly, using a fork to lift and flip will absolutely not destroy it. To hear people balk at the fork-flippers, you'd think that a steak is something like a water balloon, ready to shed all its moisture from a single puncture. This is not how a steak behaves. Rather than a balloon filled with liquid, a steak is actually a series of many many thousands of long, skinny balloons filled with liquid. Puncturing a single one will have no effect on its neighbor, and the amount of juice contained in a fork-poke-ful of punctures is small enough not to be noticed.

Still, I find it easier to turn steaks with a combination of spatula-and-tong or spoon-and-tong.

Baste, Baste, Baste!

Basting is the real key to a perfect pan-seared steak. It performs two different functions.

When Ed walked by the kitchen in the office the other day and saw the big fat steak I was about to cook, his first question after hearing I was planning on cooking it stovetop was, "Isn't it going to burn before the inside cooks?"

And the answer is yes—IF you cook it the traditional one-flip, no-baste way, that is. See, the problem, as Ed pointed out, is that with a screaming hot skillet, you end up overcooking the outside to a black crisp before the center has had a chance to even warm up.

A combination of flipping and basting—that is, spooning hot fat over your meat—will help cook it more gently, and more importantly, from both sides simultaneously, drastically cutting down on its cooking time. A basted and flipped steak will hit its appropriate internal temperature a good 35 percent faster than a single-flip, no-baste steak. How's that for fast food?

Basting also performs one more important function: It's a perfect way to perform touch-up jobs on your crust. Remember those pale spots that appear around the bones when you try and sear a bone-in steak? Spoon hot melted butter over them, and they'll quickly color in.

The easiest way to baste is to tilt your pan slightly so that hot butter collects near the handle, then use a spoon to pour it over the top of the steak.

Add Aromatics

Did I say that that's all basting does? There's one more function: distributing flavor from your aromatics. After the butter is melted, I add a handful of herbs such as thyme or rosemary, along with some sweet alliums like shallots or garlic. They pop and sputter, releasing their aromas and rapidly infusing the fat with their flavor. When you baste, you're adding that aroma with each spoonful.

USE A THERMOMETER!

I can't possibly emphasize this one enough. Use a thermometer! Use a thermometer! USE A THERMOMETER!

Yes, you may look a bit less macho when you whip out a nifty Thermapen Splash-Proof Instant Read Thermometer from your back pocket, swing out the slender probe and insert it gently into the very center of your steak to register a reading, but believe me: Perfectly cooked meat will earn you more praise and appreciation than macho posturing any day of the week.

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I like my meat at around 130°F—the medium-rare point. Many folks like their meat rare, but to me, that's a waste of a good, well-marbled cut of beef. You want your fat to be warm enough that it starts melting a bit, lubricating your meat and adding flavor and juice to every bite. With meat that's too rare, your fat remains solid. You end up with all the calories and not nearly as much flavor.

On the opposite end of the spectrum with medium-well to well-done meat, not only have your juices been squeezed dry like water from a sponge, but your liquefied fat has already bought itself a one way ticket to the bottom of your grill.

Remember: Thick steaks will continue to rise in temperature after you pull them off of the grill. Heat from the exterior layers will travel in as your steak rests. Make sure to pull it off the grill a good five degrees before you reach your final target.

But what if I don't have a thermometer?

I get it. Thermapens are pretty expensive. With the amount of use mine gets (pretty much every time I cook), it's worth the price, and you can always get a slightly slower, inexpensive model like the CDN ProAccurate Quick Read, but what if you're stuck in the woods with no thermometer in hand? Is there anything you can do?

Yes: Just go ahead and cut the sucker open to take a peek.

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Even slicing won't release too many juices.

I know that everyone tells you you shouldn't poke the meat lest you "risk losing valuable juices," but honestly, the loss is not much. Certainly not enough for you to notice once the steak is done. And given the alternative (overcooked meat that will have lost a noticeable amount of juice), it's the best alternative out there. (More on that subject here.)

Take a Rest

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Since I last wrote about resting your meat, there have been some questions called as to the validity of the science behind it. Here is the prevalent theory as to why resting your steak is important (pulled from an older article of mine):

As the steak cooks, the muscle fibers on its exterior tighten, squeezing juices out of its surface. This creates an imbalance of juice in its interior, with most of the liquid being concentrated at the center of the meat. If you cut the steak open as soon as it comes off the grill, the juice has only one place to go—onto your plate. On the other hand, allow the steak to rest until its temperature has normalized, and the juices will distribute themselves more evenly throughout its interior. Cut the steak open, and the juice stays put exactly where it's supposed to be: in the meat.

However, Nathan Myhrvold of the James Beard Best Cookbook winner Modernist Cuisine (see here for some behind-the-scenes shot of their lab) says otherwise. His claim is that it's not so much about redistribution of moisture, but that it's about the relative viscosity of hot vs. cool liquids. The juices stay in place because they've managed to thicken up a bit as they cool.

In either case, the fact remains: Resting your meat works. I recommend resting your steak until its internal temperature drops to about five degrees below its maximum temperature (That is, serves a medium-rare steak at 125°F, or a medium steak at 135°F).

Get The Recipe!

If you want to jump straight into the action, check out the step-by-step illustrated slideshow »

Or, get the recipe here »

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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