How to Cook the Perfect Steak in 5 Easy Steps
When you’re craving something savory, few foods scratch that itch like steak.
A properly cooked steak, that is.
You know, one that bursts with flavor in every warm and tender bite.
Well, that’s what this article is going to be all about: how to cook a steak like an accomplished chef.
And don’t worry — you don’t have to actually be an accomplished chef to pull it off.
In fact, you don’t need any special knack for cooking whatsoever. All you need to do is follow the simple steps outlined below.
Let’s get to it.
How to Select the Perfect Steak
The first step to cooking the perfect steak is choosing the perfect steak.
And that means knowing your way around the many different cuts, like flank, porterhouse, loin, skirt, ribeye, strip, and so forth.
The first thing to know about steak cuts is tenderness is directly related to how much work the muscle (meat) had to do.
If it’s a cut from the leg, it’s going to be tougher than a cut from the mid section, which is where the most tender meat is found.
For example, the two steaks on the menus of all fancy steakhouses — ribeye and strip — come from the rib and short loin sections of the cow, respectively.
Next up is the grade of the meat, and rule of thumb here is simple: choose the best one that you can afford.
Look for USDA Prime, USDA Choice, or USDA Select.
If those are too pricey, don’t worry — you can still make a fantastic steak with ungraded meat.
Thick steaks cook better than thin ones.
Thin steaks tend to overcook before they can develop that crispy, delicious crust that we all love.
I like to go with steaks that are about an inch and a half thick, which ends up weighing around 12 ounces.
(If that’s too much meat for you, remember it’s better to cook one large steak for two than a couple smaller ones.)
Coloring matters, too.
When freshly cut meat is first exposed to oxygen, it’s bright red, and as it remains exposed, it takes on shades of brown.
While this makes it look less less appealing, it doesn’t necessarily affect taste.
More important is the color of the fat. You want to see white marbling and no brown spots in the fat or around the edges.
More marbling means more tenderness and taste.
“Marbling” refers to the streaks of fat found throughout the meat.
Super-lean cuts of steak are great for controlling your calories, but not so great for making a mindblowing steak.
There’s a reason steakhouses always choose cuts with more marbling — it makes for juicy, succulent steak with rich, deep flavor.
What you want to look for is evenly dispersed flecks of fat throughout the meat, rather than big chunks here and there.
This is going to give you the tenderest and tastiest steak.
The less connective tissue, the better.
Don’t mistake connective tissue — sinewy tendons and ligaments — for marbling, because it makes for tough, chewy bites.
Connective tissue is easy to spot because it runs through the meat from one side to the other, separating it into distinct regions.
This “gristle” is very hard to chew and not nearly as tender as as “center cut” steak like the one at the top of the picture.
Should you buy from a butcher or a store?
If you want the freshest and best-tasting meat, go with a butcher.
If that’s too much of a hassle, though, here’s what you should keep in mind when buying steak in a grocery store:
- If the meat tray has liquid on it, that’s a bad sign — the meats may have been frozen and thawed.
- Check the packaging is fully sealed and undamaged.
- Make sure the package label is in date.
How to Prepare the Perfect Steak
You’ve probably heard that the first thing you should do before cooking a steak is let it sit at room temperature.
This won’t hurt, but I wouldn’t bother because a thick steak will take several hours to rise to room temperature and it doesn’t really make much of a difference tastewise.
How you salt the meat matters, however, is important.
When salt first hits the meat, it begins drawing liquid out, and after about twenty minutes, a large amount of the moisture naturally present will be pooled on top of the steak.
This is the worst time to cook it because the droplets will evaporate off, leaving you with a tougher, stringier steak than you’d like.
Better, then, is either salting 40 to 60 minutes or directly before cooking.
Most people prefer the former over the latter, and some chefs even like to salt and season their meat a few days in advance, giving it time to reabsorb all its juices.
Also, some chefs prefer kosher salt because its larger, coarser grains do a better job sucking moisture out than table salt.
How to Cook the Perfect Steak
You can pan fry, grill, broil, slow cook, braise, and even bake steak.
My preferred choices are pan frying and grilling, though, because they’re the fastest way to get the job done.
Here’s how to get the most out of both methods:
1. Choose Your Doneness
Before getting started, first consider your preferred doneness.
If you’re like me and you want maximum tenderness and flavor, then you want your steak cooked medium rare.
And unless you absolutely must have yours fully cooked through, don’t go further than medium (the closer you get to well done, the more your steak is going to resemble shoe leather).
Now, you can assess the doneness of your steak in two ways.
First, you can go by temperature:
- 130°F – Medium rare
- 140°F – Medium
- 165°F – Well done
This requires a meat thermometer, of course.
Second, you can use your hands. Here’s how to do it:
Ironically, this doesn’t work as well for those of into weightlifting because, well, our hands are too swole.
If you’re in that boat, then you can still use the finger test with some trial and error — simply experiment with touch testing and checking doneness and within a few steaks, you’ll have “calibrated” to your hands.
2. Heat the Pan/Grill
You can make equally good steaks in a pan and on the grill.
People have their preferences, though, so you’ll have to try both methods and see which best strikes your fancy.
If you want the best results in a skillet, go with a cast iron one.
These thick, heavy pans are designed to retain heat for a long time, which makes easy and effective searing.
Also, when you’re cooking a steak in a pan, add a generous amount of oil first (I prefer olive oil over vegetable) — 3 to 4 tablespoons should be enough — and not butter, because butter will burn at the heat levels needed to cook a great steak.
Now, the first step to actually cooking your meat is getting the pan/grill hot.
You know it’s hot enough when water drops sizzle and evaporate immediately on contact.
This is important because when the meat hits the cooking surface, you need it to seal and retain its juices, and that requires a high heat.
3. Cook the Steak
Steaks requires 2 to 4 minutes per side, depending on the how lean and thick the meat is and how done you want your steak to be.
As you know, the key is touch testing as it cooks.
You should also flip your steak often (once every 15 to 20 seconds), which helps it cook faster and more evenly and develop a better crust.
(And yes, you can use a fork to flip it — a steak isn’t a balloon that will lose all of its liquids once punctured.)
If you’re cooking in a pan, basting regularly is an important part of cooking a great steak.
By spooning the hot liquids over the top of the steak each time you flip it, it helps prevent burning and speeds up the cooking time considerably.
And speaking of basting, if you want to add butter or spices to the pan, do so a few minutes before the steak is done cooking and baste liberally.
It’a also important to undercook your steak slightly because when you remove it from the pan to rest (the next step), it continues to cook.
If you cook it to the perfect doneness and then rest it, it’ll be too cooked.
4. Rest the Meat
This is one of those little cooking “tricks” that make a bigger difference than you might think.
Once you’ve finished (slightly under-) cooking your steak, put it on a plate, cover it with foil or a bowl, and let it rest for 10 to 15 minutes.
This really seals in the juices and makes for a maximally satisfying meal.
If you want your steak to be as hot as possible when served, heat the plate first.
Congratulations, you’ve just made one sexy steak!
How to Store Cooked Steak
To avoid bacterial growth, you’ll want to place them in an airtight container or wrap them tightly in foil or plastic wrap within 2 hours of cooking and store them for no more than 4 to 5 days. (Once it gets sticky or smelly, it’s bad.)
You can freeze cooked steak in the same way, but make sure it’s completely airtight to avoid freezer burn.
How to Reheat Steak
If you’ve reheated meat incorrectly, you know what you wind up with:
A juiceless hockey puck that damn near breaks your jaw.
Do it right, though, and you can thoroughly enjoy your steak even though it’s not fresh.
The first rule is the microwave is verboten. It just makes crappy steak.
Do this instead:
- Preheat your oven to low 250° F (120°C).
- Line a tray with parchment paper, put the steak(s) on it, lightly cover it/them with foil, and cook for 15 to 30 minutes depending on thickness (thin steaks should take about 15 minutes and the thicker variety that I recommend take closer to 30 minutes).
The goal here is cooking them until they’re heated through to center, but not more. (If you’re using a thermometer, go for about 110°F in the center.)
- Heat a skillet sizzling hot (no oil this time), and sear the steak(s) each side for about one minute.
If that’s just too much work for you, do this:
Butterfly the steak, heat a skillet, and fry both sides of the now-thinner meat for about a minute each.
The Bottom Line on How to Cook the Perfect Steak
If you like steak but haven’t been given much thought about how you choose, prepare, and cook it, you’re in for a delicious surprise.
There’s a huge difference between poorly-chosen, prepared, and cooked meat, and what you’ve just learned to create.
- Go with a butcher for the best possible meat. If buying from a store, check the packaging for liquid, damage, and date.
- Choose a thick midsection cut and the best grade of meat that you can afford.
- Check the color, marbling, and connective tissue. A red center-cut piece with no brown spots in the fat and marbling throughout is primo.
- Salt 40 to 60 minutes before cooking, or even a couple days in advance.
- Learn the touch test for doneness.
- Get a heavy cast iron pan with oil or grill sizzling hot.
- Cook the meat for 2 to 4 minutes per side, flipping and basting regularly.
- Slightly undercook the steak and then rest it for 10 to 15 minutes.
- Store airtight within 2 hours of cooking
- Reheat in oven or pan.
Do all that and I promise that you’ll be whipping up the perfect steak for your lunches and dinners.
What’s your take on cooking the perfect steak? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
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