By Chef John Reed, CEC, CCA, ACE
When I want to go out and enjoy a great steak, my family is sometimes reluctant. They are spoiled living with a culinary professional – they know what they eat at home is equal to the fine dining experience.
In Chicago, we are spoiled by the number of high-quality steakhouses here; from gold standard favorites like Gibson’s to the latest hot spots such as David Burke’s Prime House. These types of restaurants have walk-in coolers full of thick-cut, prime, dry-aged steaks. Chefs cook them at high heat with minimal seasonings to create a veritable crust, and the steaks come to the table properly cooked, well presented and pricey.
My family says I cook a better steak. Certainly they are prejudiced on my behalf, but I want to take this opportunity to share my take on great steak.
It starts with the meat. For those of us who can’t afford prime beef all of the time, I actually prefer a good choice grade for the majority of steaks I cook.
The tenderloin and its various classical cuts such as the Filet, Mignon and Chateaubriand, though tender, need a lot more thought put into them to get a great flavor. Rubs and wraps with bacon, fine cream-based forcemeat and sausage meats go a long way in that category, but that is another lesson.
Then there are the macho steaks, which include “The Cowboy,” “The Original Delmonico” and any of the other beast-named bone-in rib steaks found on today’s menus. Leave the rib whole, and don’t cut steaks. Slow roast the meat and carve it on or off the bone. Chefs know the bone is there for a reason: it keeps the shape of the steak, prevents shrinkage and if cooked right, makes a hell of a tasty piece to chew on.
If you have the desire to break down a whole rib, pull off the spinalis muscle. That, my friends, is the piece that has the best flavor of the whole muscle structure, and is also known as the rib-eye cap. Some Beef Marketing Boards are selling this as a new type of “value-added” steak. I think it is also a very expensive option unless you can trim down whole ribs. Try braising the rib-eye cap or quickly grilling it and slicing it thin.
There is plenty of cow left, and many other cuts and steaks produced both in the retail and food service markets. These types of steaks all need some form of help whether jaccarding, marinating or under cooking to some degree. Regardless of what some catering companies and/or restaurants may say, the mock-tender or the teres major muscle will never taste or eat like a tenderloin.
If you want a steak that is synonymous with what a true “steak” should be, it is always going to come down to the strip, and a true strip is either the Bone-in Kansas City Strip or the Boneless New York Strip.
Look for a steak that is at least 1″ thick; these will range in weight from about 12 oz., for the boneless, to about 16 oz., for the bone-in. You don’t have to eat the whole thing, and you can get two very nice-sized portions from one steak.
Look for some good marbling in the heart of the steak. Ask for about 1/4″ of trim on the top and about 3/4″ tail. Always let the steaks come to room temperature or near there about 30 minutes prior to cooking.
Select the right ingredients – they are vital: salt, cracked black pepper (no containers here), oil (not olive oil) and whole butter (yes, you read that right, whole butter). If you want to be more adventurous, fresh thyme springs, sliced shallots and cloves of garlic are excellent additions. There are no magic rubs, flavored oils or injections needed, and don’t even think about pulling out the circulating cooker or vacuum machine.
Perfect the Cooked Steak
Season the steak liberally with salt and pepper. Heat a heavy carbon steel or cast iron pan without any oil. Rub the steak with the oil to lightly coat. Place in the pan only when the pan is hot. Now leave it alone, turning down the heat ever so slightly. When you see little dots of blood coming through, turn it over and then leave it alone again. By now there should be some smoke in the kitchen. Have an adult beverage and relax. Let the steak get some color on the second side, and then the fun starts.
Add a good amount of whole butter and the aromatics if you are using them. Grab a spoon, and when the butter is bubbling and melted, baste the steak with the hot butter. Keep basting it to give the steak some more color. Turn the meat over again and cook that side for a few more minutes while basting continuously. If you are comfortable with doing so, press to touch for doneness (123°F). The shallots, thyme, and garlic should have perfumed the room and the steak. Pull the meat from the pan and place it on a rack.
Pour the aromatics over the steak on the rack, and walk away for a while. Entertain some friends set the table or take a few pictures to post on Facebook. Do anything you have to in order to resist the urge to cut into that thing. This is, to me, the secret of great steak: rest and patience. You need to be engaged in the cooking of the item. Don’t just throw it in a pan and let it cook by itself. You need to be part of the process.
After 10 minutes, you are finally ready! Trim the cap and tail off of the steak. (I am extremely cost conscious. If it was prime cut, would you throw that away? No! You might just eat it out of guilt.) Now, either serve the steak whole or slice it. It will be tender and perfectly cooked. Sprinkle a little sea salt over it and enjoy!
That was a lot of words for the cooking of one steak, but it serves to describe what makes the difference in your cooking and approach to food.
Food doesn’t have to be “cooked at the speed of light”. Many restaurants are slowing things down now and taking the time to cook food properly – this makes me very happy. I urge other professionals to encourage young cooks to do the same. On a slow night, teach them how to appreciate the skills and patience it takes to make something perfect.
Slow it down at work, and at home – spoil your family and your customers.
Chef Reed is the owner of Customized Culinary Solutions and the current president of the American Culinary Federation (ACF) Windy City Professional Culinarians in Chicago. “The Great Steak Takeaway” was adapted from Chef Reed’s newsletter, The Rubber Band Doorknob.