Imagine sitting down to a romantic candlelit dinner. Everything is perfect: The wine is open to breathe, the salad is gently dressed, and the dinner rolls are hot from the oven.
The one problem? As soon as you slice into that beautiful steak, you realize you've somehow rendered it bone dry and tasteless.
Whether you picked up a grass-fed filet mignon or a cut of sirloin on sale, the way you prepare your meat makes all the difference. Here's everything you need to know to prepare a restaurant-worthy steak dinner.
The first thing to do is allow the steak to come to room temperature. A cold steak right out of the freezer or refrigerator will cook unevenly, leaving you with a dry, gray exterior and too-rare interior. Thinner cuts of meat need to sit out for half an hour or so—thicker steaks may need an hour or two on the countertop to completely warm up.
Next, season your steak. Don't go overboard here—this cut of meat already has tons of flavor, and if you're splurging on a nice steak, you don't want to cover up the taste. Most chefs (including "grill master" Bobby Flay) recommend seasoning liberally with coarse black pepper and sea salt.
The next step is getting a pan (preferably cast iron) searing hot. Since you'll be cooking your steaks at a high temperature, you'll want to use an oil with a high smoke point and a neutral flavor. Grapeseed oil, canola oil, or sunflower oil will all work. When your pan is hot enough that a few drops of water evaporate instantly, it's time to add the oil.
When the oil starts to shimmer, toss your steak on there. If you like your meat well done, cook it for four to five minutes on each side. Reduce the length of cooking time on each side for a medium, medium-rare, or rare steak.
Even if you're carefully tracking how long you cook each side of the steak, it can be tricky to tell when the meat is done. Thankfully, there's a handy (pun intended) way to figure that out without slicing into the meat: Press your thumb and index finger together, and touch the pad of your thumb. That squishy, slightly firm feeling of the muscle should match the feeling of a rare steak. Feeling the same muscle with your middle finger and thumb pressed together will mimic the feeling of a medium-rare steak, the ring finger and thumb together will feel like a medium steak, and the pinky finger and thumb together, a well-done steak.
Want a more precise way to tell when your steak is perfectly cooked? Take its temperature. A medium-rare steak will reach an internal temperature of 135 degrees Fahrenheit. Consult this handy graph for a full list of temperatures by doneness.
Steak—or any large piece of meat, for that matter—needs to rest for a few minutes before serving. As meat cooks, the muscle fibers start to shrink and compress, forcing moisture out of the steak through the surface (and creating that delicious sizzling sound) and pushing the rest of the meat's juices to the center. Cutting into a steak immediately after taking it off the pan causes all those flavorful juices to run out—leaving a dry, bland cut of meat. Allowing the meat to rest for 10 minutes or so lets the muscle fibers widen slightly, redistributing the juices throughout the steak. Slicing into a well-rested steak will release very few juices, saving all that delicious moisture for each bite.
With all of these tips at your disposal, there's no excuse to serve an overcooked, gray slab of meat. It's only golden-brown crusts and the most tender steak from here on out!
Photo credit: Paul Delmont