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The Food Lab: Flip Your Steaks Multiple Times For Better Results
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.
Let's start this post with the most basic of statements: Flipping your steak often during grilling or pan-searing will result in the best, most evenly cooked meat. Okay, it's probably not a big spoiler to anyone around here anymore. But it's the why that really make the statement interesting.
We multi-flippers are a sad, often-marginalized lot. Mocked at backyard cookouts. Disparaged on internet forums. Made fun of to our faces when we express our belief that nervously flipping your meat as often as every 30 seconds will not only NOT ruin it, but will actually improve it. Well folks, science will prevail, and I've vowed not to rest until every backyard chef in the country has come over to the light side (or, at the very least, is allowing us to practice our multi-flippant grillery in peace).
I can hear you regular Food Lab readers groaning already. Another post about flipping steak? Hasn't this dead horse been beaten enough times yet? And to each of you, I deeply apologize. But I'm nothing if not thorough, and it turns out that I've never actually written a post that goes into detail about flipping (or not flipping) steaks on the grill or in a skillet?
Let's start with the premise. Anybody who's ever grilled in their backyard with an overbearing uncle can tell you that if there's one rule about steaks that gets bandied about more than others, it's to not play with your meat once it's placed on the grill. That is, once steak hits heat, you should at most flip it just once, perhaps rotating it 90 degrees on each side in order to get yourself some nice cross-hatched grill marks.
The idea sort of makes sense at first glance: flipping it only once will give your steak plenty of chance to brown and char properly on each side. But the reality is that flipping a steak repeatedly during cooking—as often as every 30 seconds or so—will produce a crust that is just as good (provided you start with meat with a good, dry surface, as you always should), give you a more evenly cooked interior, and cook in about 30% less time to boot!
Need proof? Here we go.
Special thanks to our friends over at the Snake River Farms who provided the Manhattan-cut New York strips for this testing.
First off, browning. Also known as the Maillard reaction (named after the French scientist who first studied them), it's similar to caramelization in that the process begins with a set of relatively simple organic precursors that get treated with heat to induce a cascade of chemical reactions that produce hundreds (or thousands) of end products. In the case of caramelization, these precursors are sugars; with Maillard browning, it's a combination of proteins, their amino acid building blocks, and sugars.
It's this reaction, along with a controlled amount of actual charring, that produces the deep flavors that are desirable in a well-cooked steak, and they require plenty of heat to create.
Some folks claim that by flipping a steak repeatedly, you end up reducing the amount of browning that occurs, thus reducing flavor. And this can be true, but only in certain, very easily avoidable cases. The main culprit of reduced browning is a lack of heat and an overabundance of moisture—that is, the surface moisture on a steak needs to evaporate before it can begin browning in earnest.
When you flip a steak multiple times, the surface being cooked will cool every time it faces upwards, inhibiting browning. This effect is mitigated by the fact that repeated flipping allows for a more efficient evaporation of surface moisture. Dryness alone is not sufficient to counter the effect of a cooling surface, so when cooking relatively thin steaks with not-very-dry surfaces in not-too-hot skillets or grills, it's possible that your steak will begin to overcook in the center before they've browned sufficiently on their surfaces.
There's a simple solution to this problem: Just don't cook thin, wet steaks on low-powered grills or skillets. Provided you cook over the highest heat possible, your steak is at least an inch thick (the minimum thickness for any self-respecting steak-eater), and the surface of the meat has been dried effectively,* you'll find that your steak will brown faster than you likely want it to, requiring you to reduce the heat to prevent them over-browning.**
*You can dry steaks by wrapping them in paper towels and giving them a few hard presses. But it's even better to salt them at least 40 minutes in advance and let them sit on a rack until the salt gets re-absorbed into their surfaces (more on that here). Your very best option is to salt them and let them air-dry overnight (or longer) on a rack set in a rimmed baking sheet in the fridge. You'll be amazed at how efficiently they brown the next day.
**Or better yet, bring them up to temp before you start searing them, either by starting them on the cool side of a grill, or by using a sous-vide setup, like our beer cooler hack.
In the image above, the steak on the left was cooked with a single flip, while the steak on the right was flipped every thirty seconds. Do you see much difference in browning? I sure don't.
And here they are below, after browning on all surfaces. Again, the steak on the left was flipped just once, while the steak on the right was flipped multiple times. And again, pretty much indistinguishable browning levels.
So that's all well and good—all we've proven is that you can brown a steak well whether you flip it multiple times or not. We've still yet to answer the question of why you'd want to flip it multiple times. I mean, isn't it easier to just let it sit?
Well, to be honest, yes. It is a bit easier (unless you, like me, are the fidgety type who likes poking and prodding at all times), and if you are manning a grill station at a busy restaurant, or perhaps cooking a dozen steaks at a time on the backyard grill, then you won't do too much harm by only flipping once.
But provided you have the inclination and opportunity, multiple flips offer two distinct advantages:
Advantage #1: Faster Cooking
As food scientist and writer Harold McGee has pointed out, flipping steak repeatedly during cooking can result in a cooking time about 30% faster than flipping only once. The idea is that with repeated flips, each surface of the meat is exposed to heat relatively evenly, with very little time for it to cool down as it faces upwards. The faster you flip, the closer your setup comes to approximating a cooking device that would sear the meat from both sides simultaneously.
Two-sided cooking = faster cooking = less time to wait before your steak hits the table.
Advantage #2: More Even Cooking
And herein lies the true advantage to the mutiple-flip technique: your meat comes out more evenly cooked from edge to edge. Take a quick peep at this picture. Again, the steak on the left was cooked with a single flip, while the steak on the right was flipped multiple times. Both steaks were cooked to an internal temperature of 130°F (medium rare):
Notice how the steak on the left has a very distinct band of gray meat that circles around the rosy pink center? That gray meat is well-done, dry, overcooked steak and ought to be minimized.* The steak on the right, on the other hand, shows a relatively even pinkness from edge to edge. It's not quite at a sous-vide level of evenness, but it's pretty even nonetheless, especially considering that it took about 30% less time to cook than the standard single-flip steak on the left.
*There are those who would disagree and claim that they like this gray band. To you I offer my sympathies, but will not attempt to restrict your rights to practice whatever sort of grilling techniques you like, so long as they don't infringe on my rights to practice my own.
Why does this happen? By allowing each side to cool for a few moments after being heated for a few moments, the intense temperature gradient that can build up near the surface of the steak has time to dissipate. Some of that heat energy is released back into the air, while some of it dissipates into the steak. In either case, it rescues the outer layers from cooking more than they absolutely need to.
Of course, the proof with any theory is in the eating, not in the photos, and to be completely honest, the difference between the two steaks in terms of eating qualities is not huge. Small enough that when placed side by side in the island kitchen at Serious Eats World Headquarters, both plates were picked clean at about the same rate, with no questions asked and no preference stated by tasters, which means that the technique is really more about faster cooking than the advantages evenness gets you.
That said, what it does provide is something no less crucial. Because the next time one of those backyard backseat grillers starts to give you strife about flipping your steak repeatedly, you can calmly point them towards this article (preferably while menacingly brandishing a hot, beef fat-coated spatula), and ask them to reconsider their lives.
A Note on Grill Marks
The question of grill marks comes up often in this flipping debate. It's a fact: unless you are very careful about the orientation of your steaks when flipping them, flipping multiple times will not produce the picture-perfect cross-hatched grill marks you can get out of a single flip. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, I've heard it very effectively argued that grill marks are overrated and that better, more even browning should be your final goal. Check out this great post on Amazing Ribs for arguments in favor of no grill marks.
Personally, I still haven't come down on one side or the other. Certainly browning yields more flavor, but grill marks—if done properly—can provide distinct areas of char, not just browning, and one should not underestimate the importance of cosmetics when it comes to food. Good-looking food tastes better, period. Whether we can overcome our mental image of the "ideal" steak as having hatch marks is the more interesting question for me, because only then can we recommend a flavor-only approach to better grilling.
Don't you wish all of life's mysteries could be solved one steak at a time?
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