The Food Lab: 61-Day Dry-Aged, Sous-Vide, Torched-and-Seared Bone-in Ribeyes (AKA The Ultimate Steak)
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Last week I showed you how it's not only possible, but actually quite easy to dry-age your own beef at home, using nothing but a mini fridge, a fan, and a bit of patience.
So you got your tender, well-marbled, expensive-as-all-get-out, funky-smelling, thick-cut steak. What's the best way to cook it? And I'm not just talking "the best" way to cook it. I'm talking THE ALL OUT, NO HOLDS BARRED, TAKE NO PRISONERS, THIS IS THE BEST FREAKING STEAK YOU'LL EVER HAVE IN YOUR LIFE BEST way to cook it. What does that mean? It means we'll have to do better than we've done in the past.
Well butter-basting and pan-searing produces a nice, even, golden brown crust. But when I've got a steak this good, I want to get some real steakhouse-quality char on it. I want the edges of the bones to be lightly blackened, the meat aromatic with the smell of singed fat; These are the kinds of smells you can only achieve with either a blazing hot grill or under a 1,200°F broiler.
So why not just grill it? Well that's an option, and I've got a great technique for grilling steak. The key is to start out low and slow, then to transfer it over to the hot side of the grill for the final few moments, resulting in meat that's relatively evenly cooked from edge to center.
Relatively evenly cooked—not perfectly evenly cooked. You still end up with a temperature gradient from the medium-rare center to the more well done outer layers. The other problem with grilling is that rendering fat and juices drip off the meat and through the grate below. I prefer the extra juiciness that pan-searing or broiling gets you, where the meat stay in contact with its own juices the whole time.
So the question is, how can you get the flavor and juiciness of a pan-seared steak with the heavy charring of a grilled or broiled steak, while simultaneously getting it to cook perfectly evenly from edge to edge?
This was gonna call for some special equipment and careful planning.
Phase 1: The Slow Start
The key to even edge-to-edge cooking is to go low and slow. You see, when a heat source is applied to a steak, the meat cooks from the outside in. That fact may rank pretty high on official the "things so obvious they don't even need to be stated" list, but it's the implications of the statement that matter. Because heat travels from the outside in, and it does so relatively slowly, it means that the higher your external heat source, the greater the temperature gradient between the very center of your meat and the very outside of your meat will be.
So, for example, imagine you're starting with a steak that's a consistent 40°F through and through. Place it in a 500°F pan, and the outer layers will almost immediately reach around 212°F, the temperature at which the internal moisture at the surface of the steak starts to evaporate. Eventually, the moisture will all dissipate and the temperature of the outer layers of steak will continue to increase. It's quite easy for those outer layers to achieve temperatures in excess of 200°F (that's beyond the well-done 160°F stage for steak) while the core temperature has not even begun to shift. By the time the center reaches 130°F (medium-rare), the outer layers are hopelessly overcooked.
On the other hand, imagine cooking the same steak in a 130°F environment. Sure, it'll take much longer for the center to get up to 130°F, but it'll get there eventually, and in the meantime, the outer layers have no chance of overcooking.
That's precisely what sous-vide cooking is all about. By sealing the meat in an air-tight vacuum-sealed pouch and submerging it in a water bath, the water very efficiently transfers heat energy to the steak while being maintained at a very precisely controlled temperature. The result is meat that's cooked evenly from edge to edge.
As an added bonus, meat naturally contains enzymes called cathepsins. These cathepsins will slowly break down tough muscle tissue and work faster and faster as temperature increases. By giving the meat extra time in this warm temperature range, the cathepsins work overtime, making the already tender steak even more tender. And tender meat is not just about texture—the more loosely packed muscle fibers, the less they'll contract upon cooking and the fewer juices they'll expel, making slow-cooked meat both more tender and more juicy.
Want a more inexpensive, hacked-together home DIY version? Well that's easy. If you've got plastic zipper-lock bags and a decent beer cooler, then you've got all you need to perform nearly the exact same task. Check out this post for more on how to turn your cooler into a home sous-vide set-up.
Once you've got your seasoned steak in the bag, all you need to do is drop it in the water, wait at least an hour for it to come up to temperature (if you're using a beer cooler, you'll probably need to top up with boiling water occasionally), then take them out. Your beef is now perfectly cooked. Almost.
We've still got a crust to contend with.
Steak cooked sous-vide has the advantage of being evenly cooked, but the process does not get hot enough to produce the Maillard reaction. Not to be confused with caramelization* (what happens to sugar when you heat it). The Maillard browning reactions are a series of chemical reactions that take place between proteins and sugars that create the deep, savory, complex flavors we associate with well-browned meat. The don't start until well into the 200°F's, and don't really get kicking until upwards of 300 to 400°F.
*If I hear another steakhouse chef saying that their meat is caramelized, I swear I'll poke out somebody's eyes with a rib bone.
High heat is what we need, but remember: with high heat, you run the risk of overcooking the outer layers of meat. So the goal is to get a crust on that steak as fast as physically possible so that the interior has no chance of overcooking. I set myself an upper cap of 2 minutes total searing time for the sides of the steak.
Traditionally, steaks cooked sous-vide are finished via one of three different methods:
- Advantages: High heat leads to fast char and good flavor development.
- Disadvantages: Requires a grill. Steak loses moisture and flavor to drippings.
- Advantages: Easy, able to do indoors, pan drippings stay in contact with meat at all times.
- Disadvantages: Without ultra-powerful burners, crust can take a while to develop, leading to slightly overcooked meat underneath.
- Advantages: Very high heat makes it easy to char. You look badass doing it.
- Disadvantages: Charring can be uneven, resulting in blackened bits before the rest of the steak has even browned. If not careful, it can also leave your steak tasting like un-combusted fuel.
So if none of the three typical methods are perfect on their own, why settle for just one?
By combining the pan-searing and torching techniques into one hybrid technique, I solved all of the disadvantages of either one alone.
I started by first searing one side of the steak in smoking hot oil and butter (the browned butter solids help kickstart browning reactions on that side). As soon as the browning started, I flipped the steak over and immediately started cooking that top surface with the full blast of a propane torch. The layer of oil and butter clinging to its surface helped to distribute the heat of the flame evenly, leading to excellent, all-over browning and charring, creating an unbeatable, steakhouse broiler-quality crust in record time.
Finally, I flipped the steak back over and torched the second side.
What about the problem of uncombusted propane leaving its telltale aroma? Turns out to not be a problem in this case. Because of the heat of the skillet underneath and the increased convection caused by the shifting heat of the pan, the propane gets plenty of oxygen and heat, allowing it to fully combust, leaving behind nothing but sweet, succulent, charred beef.
And like I said: you totally look badass doing it.
You look badass. I, on the other hand, just look... I have no words, actually.
Before you take it out of the pan, make sure to crisp up those fatty edges as well.
Resting: The Great Debate
We all know that it's important to rest your meat before serving, right? It gives time for juices inside to settle and thicken slightly, preventing them from leaking out excessively when you cut into the steak.
However, since publishing that post back in 2009, I've heard it posited by many intelligent folks that there are advantages to not resting your steak; Namely, your steak will have a more significant, crusty, snappy, sizzling crust when it's fresh off the burner than after it's rested. This more appetizing crust will subsequently lead to greater production of saliva, which in turn will lead to a juicier sensation in your mouth when you chew the steak, so the theory goes.
I've got to admit, it's got merit. There is something very appealing about that sizzling crust you get just as the steak comes off the heat and I have to restrain myself while letting it rest.
Cooking a steak sous-vide and finishing it ultra-hot like this largely precludes the need to rest for an extended period of time, but I still like to let my steak rest for a few moments to allow heat to even out internally.
So the tradeoff is no resting = better crust but runnier internal juices. Resting = stable juices inside, softer crust.
The million dollar question is, wouldn't it be great is there was one single technique that gave us the best of both worlds and could end this debate once and for all?
Well fortunately for us, there is.
The trick is to allow the steak to rest as you would normally, then just before serving, reheat those pan drippings until they're smoking hot and pour them right back over the steak.
The steak sizzles and crisp, while the interior stays perfectly well-rested and juicy. Adding some aromatics to those pan drippings is never a bad idea, and collecting them and serving them alongside the steak in a little heated pitcher gives you a built-in sauce right there.
I propose that the resters and non-resters of the world now unite over some juicy, crusty, sizzling steaks to celebrate.
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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.