You know that feeling you get when your mom tells you to do one thing and your dad tells you to do the opposite, so you end up doing neither?
If you've followed my work for a while or have read my book, you'll know that I'm a big fan of resting meat in order to help it retain juices as you eat it. You'll also know that I'm a big fan of Meathead Goldwyn, author of the best book around on the science of barbecue and grilling and the founder of AmazingRibs.com.
And finally, if you read Meathead's work, you'll know that he is a vocal advocate of not resting your meat, claiming that by doing so, you end up losing the wonderful crisp crust of a well-seared steak or chop.
So where does that leave us? Is it better to rest steak or not? Do you pick sides, or do you hem and haw so long that your steak gets cold enough to not be worth eating anymore? And who's the mom and who's the dad in this situation, anyway?
What if I told you that there's a way to get the best of both worlds? To get perfectly rested, juicy, tender meat with a crispy, crackly, straight-off-the-fire crust? There is a way to do it, and it's gonna save this family even if it destroys it.
If you want to cut straight to the chase, jump to the bottom of this article. But if you want a little more detail first, let's quickly recap some of the science here.
Why I Rest My Steak
There's no question that resting meat helps it to retain juices, though the exact degree to which it does so is up for debate. I've tested dozens of steaks over the years, and I've found significant variation.
Sometimes even a well-rested steak will lose juices when you cut into it. Sometimes a completely un-rested steak won't spill a drop. But as a general rule, resting meat for about one-third of its total cooking time guarantees that more juices will stay inside than on your cutting board or plate. This is a good thing in my book (literally).
The exact mechanism by which this happens is also up for debate. Unless you're using certain more modern techniques (like sous vide or the reverse sear), cooking a piece of meat invariably produces a temperature gradient: The meat will be coolest at the center and increasingly hot toward the edges.
The old theories say that this temperature gradient causes juices to get trapped under pressure in the cooler parts near the center of the meat, which means they're forced out when you cut into it, much like the water wrung out of a sponge. Nowadays, most folks agree that this is probably not what's happening.
More likely is the simpler theory I first read about in Modernist Cuisine: Hotter juices are thinner and thus run more freely. A steak fresh from the grill may be 120°F (49°C) in the center, where the juices are firmly in place, but it will also have much hotter areas—in the 185 to 200°F (85 to 93°C) range—where hot juices run freely. When that steak is allowed to rest, it reaches a stable equilibrium at a lower temperature—not as much hot juice leaking out.
Why Meathead Doesn't Rest His Steak
Meathead argues that the benefits of resting meat are overshadowed by its problems.
First of all, what's the big deal if your meat leaks juices onto the plate? Can't you always just sop them up with individual bites as you eat? Are you really gonna notice that one bite has a fraction of a teaspoon less juice?
He also explains that if you're not careful about the way you cook, resting can lead to excessive carryover cooking—the hot exterior of the steak essentially causes the cooler interior to overcook as the heat from the outside transfers inward. Over-resting will leave meat cold and fats rubbery.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, resting causes a steak to lose what meat expert Adam Perry Lang describes as the "alive and snappy" crust. He has a good point.
There's something magical about that crackling, crispy blend of rendered fat, salt, and juices that's characteristic of a steak coming straight off the grill or a prime rib coming out of the oven. Even I admit that I always pick off a scrap or two of that crispy fat before setting the meat aside to rest, and no, that crust does not get better with time: It's as good as it's gonna get right when you pull it from the heat.
Meathead also makes another good point, which is that measurable juiciness within a steak is not the same as the juiciness we perceive in our mouths. The perception of juiciness involves a complex jumble of things, including how quickly juices are squeezed out of meat fibers by our teeth, how much saliva we produce, and the ratio of liquid fat to water-based liquid. You can make a strong argument that a delicious, crispy crust with liquid fat can get us salivating so much that the meat will taste juicier, even if you're actually leaving more juices behind on the plate.
The Fat-Flash Method for Finishing Your Steak (or, How to Get the Best of Both Worlds)
So, if resting can deliver a measurably juicier interior, but eating immediately delivers better crust, the ideal steak would have both of those things, right? Thankfully, there's a pretty simple and obvious way to get there: Rest the steak, then re-crisp the crust just before eating.
Restaurant cooks may recognize this technique—it's very similar to what they do when they "flash" a steak or other cut of meat right before serving it. Usually, they use a cranked-up oven or salamander (a broiler on steroids) to rapidly reheat and crisp up the exterior, especially if the cut has been sitting around a few minutes longer than ideal. (Hey, slow appetizer-eaters: We're looking at you.) This kind of post-rest exposure to intense heat isn't intended to cook the meat more; it's simply meant to revive the exterior, get it sizzling again, as if it's just finished cooking.
If I'm grilling steaks or chops outdoors at home, I use a very similar approach: I cook the meat, then let it rest. Just before serving, I flash it on the hottest fire I can muster for about 15 seconds per side. If I'm cooking indoors, I sear the steak in hot fat, then let the meat rest on a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet.
Then, just before serving, I reheat the fat and juices left over in the skillet until they're smoking-hot and pour them right over the steaks—you'll see them sizzle and sputter as they crisp up. This is similar to the restaurant hot-oven flash, but it works even better: Hot fat is a more efficient means of heat transfer than hot air, which means faster crisping with less chance of overcooking. It also adds a final shot of flavor to the surface of the steak.
This technique works with larger roasts as well, though, for best results, I suggest heating up some fresh oil or butter with some aromatics, like thyme or shallots, in a skillet until it's sizzling hot. That's because the drippings from roasts can often be too watery to effectively crisp the crust.
What'd I tell ya? We can all be one big, happy, and well-fed family again...that is, if that guy Meathead ever lets someone else near the grill for a change. Some people. Sheesh.