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The Food Lab: 7 Old Wives' Tales About Cooking Steak That Need To Go Away
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.
I dread the summer. I truly do. It's not that I don't like the weather (who doesn't like sunshine in the day and breezy decks in the evening?). It's not the hordes of school kids roaming the streets with abandon. And it's certainly not the food—extra sweet corn, ripe tomatoes, and every meal cooked on the grill? Yes please!
No. It's one thing that seems to happen every single year about the same time: the hordes of "X tips for perfect steak!" articles that crowd the internet, packed with misinformation, old wives' tales, and outdated knowledge that, in some cases, has been outright disproven for decades.
Whenever I see these articles, I get the irrepressible, uncontrollable urge to scream at people Wait! Stop! This is all wrong! I know your steak will probably still come out just fine if you follow these tips, and perhaps these myths have been perpetuated for as long as they have, because people are happy with "good enough" and don't really need "perfect" or "better," and if it ain't broke don't fix it, right? But for chrissake how can someone sit idly by and watch the spreading of misinformationamirite?!
*Doesn't a relevant XKCD comic always come to mind?
I'm not generally a negative person, and my normal reaction to seeing misinformation spread through the internet is to simply try and dilute it by spreading some verity and beauty—I've produced more than my share of articles about how to grill steaks (baked up and backed up by real science and research, no less!) in the name of truth and pageviews, and if you want to take a look at those, you can scroll on down to the bottom of this article for some links.
But today, I'm fighting back for once. We're going to put to rest seven of the most stubborn myths about grilling steaks, and hopefully come out the other end as better—or at the very least, slightly less frustrated—people.
For the record, pretty much all of these tips apply to pan-seared steaks and roasts as well.
Myth #1: "You should let a thick steak rest at room temperature before you cook it."
The Theory: You want your meat to cook evenly from edge to center. Therefore, the closer it is to its final eating temperature, the more evenly it will cook. Letting it sit on the counter for 20 to 30 minutes will bring the steak up to room temperature—a good 20 to 25°F closer to your final serving temperature. In addition, the warmer meat will brown better because you don't need to waste energy from the pan to take the chill off of its surface.
The Reality: Let's break this down one issue at a time. First, the internal temperature. While it's true that slowly bringing a steak up to its final serving temperature will promote more even cooking, the reality is that letting it rest at room temperature accomplishes almost nothing.
To test this, I pulled a single 15-ounce New York strip steak out of the refrigerator, cut it in half, placed half back in the fridge, and the other half on a ceramic plate on the counter. The steak started at 38°F and the ambient air in my kitchen was at 70°F. I then took temperature readings of its core every ten minutes.
After the first 20 minutes—the time that many chefs and books will recommend you let a steak rest at room temperature—the center of the steak had risen to a whopping 39.8°F. Not even a full two degrees. So I let it go longer. 30 minutes. 50 minutes. 1 hour and 20 minutes. After 1 hour and 50 minutes, the steak was up to 49.6°F in the center. Still colder than the cold water comes out of my tap in the summer, and only about 13% closer to its target temperature of a medium-rare 130°F than the steak in the fridge.
You can increase the rate at which it warms by placing it on a highly conductive metal, like aluminum,* but even so, it'd take you at least an hour or so to get up to room temperature—an hour that would be better spent by, say, actively warming your steak sous-vide style in a beer cooler.
*protip: thaw frozen meat in an aluminum skillet to cut your thaw time in half!
After two hours, I decided I'd reached the limit of what is practical, and had gone far beyond what any book or chef recommends, so I cooked the two steaks side by side. For the sake of this test, I cooked them directly over hot coals until seared, then shifted them over to the cool side to finish.* Not only did they come up to their final temperature at nearly the same time (I was aiming for 130°F), but they also showed the same relative evenness of cooking, and they both seared at the same rate.
*Normally I'd start them on the cool side and finish them on the hot like in this recipe, but that method would have obscured the results of this test.
The cooking rate makes sense—after all, the room temperature-rested steak was barely any warmer on the inside than the fridged-steak, but what about the searing? The outer layer of the rested steak must be warm enough to make a difference, right?
Here's the issue: Steak can't brown until most of the moisture has evaporated from the layers of meat closest to the surface, and it takes a hell of a lot of energy to evaporate moisture. To put it in perspective. It takes five times more energy to convert a single gram of water into steam than it does to raise the temperature of that water all the way from ice cold to boiling hot. So when searing a steak, the vast majority of energy that goes into it is used to evaporate moisture from its surface layers. Next to that energy requirement, a 20, 30, or even 40 degree difference in the temperature of the surface of the meat is a piddling affair.
The Takeaway: Don't bother letting your steaks rest at room temperature. Rather, dry them very thoroughly on paper towels before searing. Or better yet, salt them and let them rest uncovered on a rack in the fridge for a night or two, so that their surface moisture can evaporate. You'll get much more efficient browning that way.
Myth #2: "Sear your meat over high heat to lock in juices."
The Theory: Searing the surface of a cut piece of meat will precipitate the formation of an impenetrable barrier, allowing your meat to retain more juices as it cooks.
The Reality: Searing produces no such barrier—liquid can still pass freely in and out of the surface of a seared steak. To prove this, I cooked two steaks to the exact same internal temperature (130°F). One steak I seared first over hot coals and finished over the cooler side of the grill. The second steak I started on the cooler side, let it come to about ten degrees below its final target temperature, then finished it by giving it a sear over the hot side of a grill. If there is any truth to the searing story, then the steak that was seared first should retain more moisture.
What I found is actually the exact opposite: the steak that is cooked gently first and finished with a sear will not only develop a deeper, darker crust (due to slightly drier outer layers—see Myth #1), but it also cooks more evenly from center to edge, thus limiting the amount of overcooked meat and producing a finished product that is juicier and more flavorful.
The Takeaway: When cooking thick steaks, start them on the cooler side of the grill and cook with the lid on until they reach about ten degrees below final serving temperature. Finish them off on the hot side of the grill for a great crust. For thinner steaks (about an inch or less), just cook them over the hot side the entire time—they'll be cooked to medium rare by the time a good crust has developed.
Myth #3: "Bone-in steak has more flavor than boneless."
The Theory: Bones contain flavorful compounds that get transfered to the meat around them as the steak cooks. Thus, cooking with the bone in will give you more flavor than with the bone out.
The Reality: This one always sounded crazy to me—bones have more flavor than meat? And what's pushing that flavor into the meat? And if there really is this strange free flavor exchange between the two, then wouldn't flavor from the meat also be traveling into the bone? Why is it a one-way street? And how the heck do large, flavorful molecules get forced into the fairly tough, impermeable, solid matrix of muscle anyway, especially if they're cooking and actively forcing stuff out of them?
Well it turns out that there actually is no exchange of flavor between the meat and the muscle, and it's quite easy to prove. All you have to do is this:
Cook some identical roasts or steaks. Cook one bone-in, cook one with the bone removed but tied back on, and cook a third with the bone removed and tied back on with a layer of impermeable aluminum foil in between. Then cut them all up and taste them (preferably with a large group of people in a blind setting). You'll find that they all taste pretty much identical.
There are, however, some advantages to cooking with the bone is. First off, it looks cool, and if there's one thing you want to do while grilling, it's look cool. Secondly, bone will act as an insulator, which means that the bits of meat butting right up against the bone will cook a little bit less than the rest of the steak. This fact may be the source of the old wives' tale in the first place—meat that is cooked less will be a little bit more succulent and juicy.
Finally, I personally find the tiny bits of connective tissue-rich meat, fat, and gristle stuck to the bone to be the tastiest part of the steak (and if you don't want your bone, pass it on over, I'll gnaw on it).
The Takeaway: Cook your steak with the bone in. There won't be any flavor exchange between meat and bone, but the other advantages a bone lends does make it worthwhile.
Myth #4: "Only flip your steak once!"
The Theory: EVERYBODY says this one, and they say it not just for steaks, but for burgers, lamb chops, pork chops, chicken breasts, you name it. And to be honest, I... I'm not sure what the theory behind it is. It's just something people are taught and do. Perhaps it's an extension of the "searing locks in juices" myth and the belief that one must form a tight seal on the first side so that they can then cook the second side without any juices leaking out the top. Perhaps it's the belief that a better crust can be formed by letting the meat sit longer on one side, or perhaps that the insides of the steak will cook more evenly. But...
The Reality: The reality is that multiple flipping will not only get your steak to cook faster—up to 30% faster!—but will actually cause it to cook more evenly, as well. This is because—as food scientist and writer Harold McGee has explained—by flipping frequently, the meat on any given side will neither heat up nor cool down significantly with each turn. If you imagine that you can flip your steak infinitely fast,* then you can see that what ends up happening is that you approximate cooking the steak simultaneously from both sides, but at a gentler pace. Gentler cooking = more even cooking.
*and we, for a moment, forget that physical properties such as air resistance, friction, and, oh, the speed of light exist.
While it's true that it takes a bit longer over the hot side of the grill to build up the same level of crust in a multi-flipper steak, the fact that it cooks more evenly means that you can cook over the hot side a bit longer, without the risk of burning the outside before the center cooks. You can also avoid creating a harsh temperature gradient inside the meat, as you would if you were to cook it entirely over the hot side without flipping.
What's more, as Russ Parson's noted in the LA Times, you'll also minimize the curling and cupping problems that can occur when fat and connective tissue shrinks faster than meat as it cooks.
There are two possible advantages to the single-flip method. The first is that if you like pretty grill marks, you won't get them with multi-flipping. The second is that multi-flipping can be a pain in the butt if you have a ton of meat on the grill.
The Takeaway: You don't have to flip your steaks multiple times, but if someone tells you that you're ruining your steak by flipping it over and over, you can assure them that science is on your side.
Myth #5: "Don't season your steak until after it's cooked!"
The Theory: Salting your meat early can dry it out and make it tough.
The Reality: A dry surface is a good thing for steak— that moisture has to go away for proper browning anyway, so the drier your steak is to begin with, the better it'll brown in the pan. Salting early can also help your meat maintain a bit more internal moisture in the long run.
Check out this old, slightly outdated video for a closer look at exactly what happens.
In the past, I've said that it's better to season your meat either immediately before you cook it, or at least 45 minutes ahead of time, so that the briny liquid drawn out by the salt has time to get reabsorbed and your steak won't dry out. I've since changed my tune a bit on the reasoning as to why you should wait, but not on the fact that you should wait the 45 minutes.
I now know that dryness is not an issue—you want the outer layers of your steak to dry out in order to brown properly. The issue is the seasoning itself. If you want to cook your steak while the brine is still beaded on the surface, you've got to wipe it away with a paper towel, blotting away much of the salt in the process. Instead, wait for that brine to be reabsorbed (and preferably for the salt to work its way even deeper into the meat) and you'll end up with steak that's more deeply seasoned and flavorful.
Salting your steak after it cooks is not a great idea. You end up with a surface layer of salt that comes across as, well, very salty, leaving blander meat underneath. You're better off salting well before cooking and then serving the steak with a chunky sea salt like Maldon or Fleur de Sel at the table, which can add texture to the meat without dissolving on contact, the way table or kosher salt does.
The Takeaway: You can get away with salting just before cooking, but for best results, salt at least 45 minutes—and up to a couple of days—in advance, letting your steak rest on a rack in the fridge so that its surface can dry and the salt can be absorbed into the meat. Serve the steak with crunchy sea salt at the table.
Myth #6a: "Don't use a fork to turn your steak."
The Theory: Poking a steak with a fork will cause it to leak valuable juices.
The Reality: This one is true... to a degree. A degree so small that it can't possibly be detected by the human mouth. The whole myth here is that people seem to think that a steak is like a water balloon; That is can be "popped," releasing juices. This is not actually the case.
Really, a steak is like a series of very very very very very very thin water balloons, all packed tightly into bundles. Poke your steak with a fork and a few of those balloons may indeed pop, but most will simply be pushed out of the way. It's like filling up an olympic-sized swimming pool with water balloons then throwing a needle into it. You may pop a a couple, but you'll hardly notice that they're gone.
It's by this very principle that a jaccard meat tenderizer works—it pokes a steak with dozens of thin prongs, pulling apart some of its muscle fibrils without actually rupturing too many of them.
The Takeaway: Go ahead and use that fork if your tongs or spatula are in the dishwasher. None of your guests will taste the difference.
Myth #6b: "If you cut it open to check doneness, it will lose all its juices."
The Theory: Similar to the fork theory, people say that by cutting a steak open, you lose valuable juices.
The Reality: Again, the amount of juice lost by a single slit-and-peek is completely inconsequential in comparison to the whole piece of meat. If you are careful and slit it in a very inconspicuous way, nobody will notice that you've done anything at all. That said, it's not always easy to tell how done a steak is by cutting into it—carryover cooking can be hard to account for visually, and peering into a steak over a grill is not easy, especially if the grill is as hot as it should be.
The Takeaway: Use the slice-and-peek doneness check only as a last resort if you don't have a thermometer handy. It won't affect the final quality of your meat, but it is difficult to gauge correctly.
Myth #7: "Use the "poke test" to check if your steak is done."
The Theory: A seasoned cook can tell how well-done a steak is by poking it with their finger. If it's rare, it should feel like the fleshy part of your hand at the base of your thumb when you touch your thumb to your index finger. Medium is if you touch it to your middle finger. Well-done is if you touch it to your ring finger. Capice?
The Reality: There are so many uncontrolled variables in this assay that it boggles the mind that anyone would think it's at all accurate. First off, not all hands are created equal. My thumb is squishier than my wife's thumb. Should I gauge my steak's doneness based on hers or mine? Or perhaps some Harry Potter-esque universal constant will make her steak conform to the rheological properties of her hand, and mine conform to mine.*
*Can you imagine how fun that'd be at a cook-out? Hey Jeff, would you mind coming over here for a second so I can poke your thumb? Yeah, I'm just checking if your steak is done. Oh, and bring Molly over for a good thumb-poking while you're at it, I think I might have overcooked hers. Yeesh!
Then we get to the meat itself. Thick steaks don't compress the same way as thin steaks. Fatty steaks don't compress the same way as lean steaks. Tenderloins don't compress like ribeyes. You get the picture. More than once I've seen a macho grill cook take an unfamiliar cut of meat, apply the poke test, and come out completely off the mark when the steak is sliced.*
*This usually happens when they are dealing with, say, an ultra-expensive, highly marbled true kobe steak for the first time, which has completely different compression properties than its leaner counterparts. The result is ruined steaks and ruined egos.
Truth is, if you work in a restaurant where you are cooking very similar cuts of meat on a regular basis, then you will eventually develop the ability to tell their doneness by poking. Throw some irregularity into that mix, and that ability quickly disappears.
The Takeaway: There's only one 100% reliable way that I know of to guarantee that your meat will be perfectly cooked every single time, and that's by using this piece of equipment here:
An accurate instant-read thermometer like the Thermapen by Thermoworks. Get one. It's a little pricey, but you will quickly make back that money by never overcooking another piece of expensive meat again, no matter how big it is, how fatty it is, or how squishy your thumb is.
And with that, I can finally come to bed, dear.
- The Food Lab: How to Grill a Steak, a Complete Guide
- How To Cook A Steak In A Beer Cooler (Video)
- The Food Lab's Guide to Inexpensive Steak for the Grill: 5 Cuts You Should Know
- The Food Lab: How to Pan Sear a Steak, a Complete Guide
- The Food Lab's Complete Guide to Dry-Aging Beef at Home
- The Food Lab: More Tips For Perfect Steaks
- The Food Lab: How To Grill a Gigantic Rib-Eye Steak