FINALLY! Seared on the outside, pink on the inside!
Chicken breasts so dense and rubbery they could double as hockey pucks. Pork chops you could substitute for sandpaper. Steaks so tough and impossible to chew they could stand in as shoe insoles. Each of these equates to meat dish murder, all three forms of which I’ve committed at one time or another. For someone who fancies herself a not so terrible cook, I’ve been responsible for many a culinary faux pas. And that’s really a shame, because why bother going to the extra effort of procuring high-quality animal protein if I was just going to (pardon the pun) butcher it?
Fortunately, I’m happy to report I’ve learned a thing or two about not rendering a good steak completely inedible, and I thought I’d share my tips here in case any of you out there have had the same experience: overcooked, dry, and a serious workout for the jaws. (Not to mention an even more serious disappointment, because that steak sure smelled good, didn’t it?)
This post was born of a text exchange I had recently with a dear friend.
Me: I think I’ve finally mastered pan-frying a steak so it’s seared on the outside but still nice and pink on the inside. Mmm.
Him: TELL ME.
Before we get into things, I have to listen to my imaginary lawyers (if I had some, they’d be from the law firm of Dewey, Cheethem, & Howe [anyone here listen to Car Talk?]), and tell you that I am not a food safety scientist. I do not have a degree in microbiology or parasitology or any other scary subject that might be associated with improper food handling and/or preparation. So some of the things I say might go against the food safety police. Use your own discretion.
Okay, now that that’s out of the way, on to the steak!
A good steak starts with a good cut of meat. Lots of different cuts will work for pan-frying. The important thing is thickness. I’d say you want a steak that’s at least a half inch thick. Anything less than that is pretty much automatically going to turn into shoe leather. The second thing is to have the meat at room temperature before applying heat. This means planning ahead. If the steak is frozen, you’ve got to defrost it and let it come to room temp. If it’s defrosted but has been in the fridge, let it sit out for a while. It doesn’t have to be exactly at room temperature; the thing you want to avoid is taking the meat out of the fridge, cold, and putting it straight into the pan. Bad kitchen juju. (And Bobby Flay might come to your house and kick you.) When the meat is closer to room temperature, this helps create a better sear, or crust. Why does this matter? To use the term most chefs would use, it helps “seal in the juices” (i.e., not be leathery). Not having the meat at room temp first isn't a deal breaker, but it does help.
Step one of the actual cooking process is pan prep: put your preferred fat in the pan and heat it up on relatively high heat. (I like tallow; after all, if I’m cooking beef, why not use beef fat and give it that extra meaty flavor? But you can use coconut oil, lard, or ghee—anything that can stand up to high heat. Avoid soy, corn, canola, and other “vegetable” oils. Remember, we do not want to cook with these.)
While the pan’s heating up, season the meat. You can use a fancy-schmancy rub if you like (this one is pretty great), but I’ve found that if you know how to cook a steak well, all you really need is salt and pepper. Don’t be afraid of these things. Salt & pepper the meat liberally on both sides. (Fresh cracked pepper with a coarse-ish grind, if possible. It really does make a difference.)
When the pan is nice and hot, put the steak in and leave it alone. (Repeat: Leave. It. Alone.) Do not mess with it, no matter how tempted you are. Do not push down on it with a spatula like people do with burgers. (A great way to push all the delicious juices right out and end up with, that’s right, shoe leather.) Depending on the thickness of the steak and how well done you like it, you can leave it anywhere from 2-5 minutes and then flip it over, cooking the other side for 2-3 minutes. (Even less is okay if you like it rare, but it does need a couple of minutes to create that crust.)
I realized my previous adventures in overcooking were largely due to me being afraid of undercooking. It’s a delicate balance. A steak can go from tender and juicy to gray and dead in just a couple of minutes. The key is stopping before you think you should. If you wait until you think the steak is done, it’s probably already too late. Insole city. Remove the meat from the pan a little early, put it on a plate or dish or whatever you prefer, and let it rest for a minute or two. (If you’d just come out of a burning hot pan, you’d want a little time to yourself, too, before someone comes at you with a knife.)
While the meat is resting, make the quickest and tastiest four-second jus in the world. At this point, the pan is still what Rachael Ray would call “screaming hot,” and all the browned meaty bits are stuck to the bottom. Pour some balsamic vinegar in, keeping your face (and your nasal passages!) out of the way. (Trust me, there’s a reason hot vinegar facials are not offered at spas.) The vinegar will sort of boil & sputter on contact, so be careful. But the pan is so hot that the vinegar will also sort of reduce on contact—that is, it’ll thicken a bit. Use a wooden spoon or metal spatula—whatever works for you—to get all those delicious brown bits off the pan. In cooking nerd-dom, this is known as “deglazing.” (If we were making a gravy, we would have added a tablespoon or two of flour to the pan instead of vinegar, let it brown a little to get rid of the raw flour taste, and then add some stock, letting the whole thing thicken and reduce.) You can also use red wine vinegar here, but I think balsamic works better. (Just don’t use a light colored vinegar, like apple cider or champagne.)
There’s my little cup of vinegar jus, plus you can
see all the juices coming out of the meat itself.
Take your newly made jus and pour it into a small glass bowl or porcelain ramekin to serve alongside the steak, for dipping. If you’ve cooked the steak properly and let it rest, it’ll be full of its own delicious juices as well. No more steak that could be beef jerky’s stunt double! (Another super quick dipping sauce for steak is a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, about half as much balsamic vinegar, and a teaspoon or two of Dijon mustard. Mix vigorously to fully combine. So simple, yet so yummy. I offer this suggestion because some people like something to dip their steak into, and most store-bought sauces and marinades are loaded with HFCS and/or brown sugar. True steak aficionados would kick me out of the club for even suggesting that a good steak requires anything at all. Or you could do like they do at world-famous Peter Luger and top steaks with a nice pat of butter. [Or so I’m told. Have never had the pleasure of dining there. Yet.])
If you’re wondering why I’m suggesting going out of your way to eat the brown bits at the bottom of the pan, it’s because they’re freaking delicious and that’s how people have done this for a long time. I understand there’s some concern about a link between cancer and these blackened bits and the compounds that form when meat is charred. (Advanced glycation end products, heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.) If you’re worried about that, no skin off my back. Don’t eat grilled or pan-fried steak. Use other cuts of animal protein and make ‘em in your slow cooker, or braise them, or use some other method of slow, wet, gentle heat. (Yikes! Did I just say “slow, wet, gentle heat?” I hope I don’t have to give this blog an “adult” rating or anything…) I’m not advocating eating seared steak every night of the week, but I’m also not entirely convinced this is carcinogenic. For a balanced presentation, check out what Chris Kresser had to say.
Let’s see…what else?
Why pan-fry? For starters, I don’t own a grill. (At the moment.) And I also haven’t bothered to buy myself a nice grill pan yet, either. (My birthday’s in July, in case anyone was wondering. HA!) Seriously, though, if I had an outdoor grill, I’d probably use it, but the truth is, I don’t know how to use an outdoor grill! It’s true! It’s probably the last place in my entire life where I am totally, absolutely sexist. To be completely honest, there’s just something—something elemental, something primal, something downright sexy about a guy and a grill. I’m not saying women don’t belong at a grill or that they can’t hold their own flipping yummy meat over an open flame. I’m just saying that for me, I’d be happy to make plenty of side dishes if I had a manly specimen overseeing the meat. (After all, a woman's place in the house. [And Senate. *rimshot.*] Also: you have no idea how many times I had to rewrite those last couple of sentences so as to avoid saying something about men working meat.)
What about the grain-fed versus grass-fed beef issue? Confession time: the meat in the pictures here was grain-fed. Conventional all the way. Gotten from the regular ol’ meat case in the regular ol’ supermarket. (Go ahead, call the food police. Maybe one of them will be a hot guy and he’ll bring a grill with him.) I mainly eat grass-fed, but I’m not a saint. The big difference to account for when grilling a grass-fed steak is that it’ll be slightly less “forgiving.” You might have to cook it for less time. But that’s a good thing: if you’re concerned about the quality of your meat, why would you want it well done? Ick. Why bother with the good stuff if you’re going to destroy it? With grass-fed, I’d say medium is about as far as you want to go, and even that’s pushing it. Medium rare sounds good (if you're too scared to go for full-on rare, that is).
Worried about eating rare or medium-rare meat? Don’t be. This is why I ended up overcooking steaks in the past. Then I found out the golden secret of steak: In terms of food safety, as long as you sear the outside, you’re good to go. Red meat (which is muscle tissue, remember) is so dense that the bad food buggies don’t make their way all the way into it. They stay on that outer surface. So cooking the outside until there’s that nice, brown crust, while leaving a tender pink inside is actually the perfect way to get ‘er done. Note: this is not true of seafood or poultry. You can eat raw fish if you trust the source (a la sushi or properly seared tuna that’s raw inside), but you don’t want to mess with undercooked poultry or pork. That being said, even the USDA has revised its safe cooking temperatures for pork (scroll all the way down in that link), basically admitting that their previous minimum temp was a good way to take perfectly delicious meat and dry the hell out of it. There's a vast chasm of deliciousness separating tender, juicy pork and trichinosis, so stop making pork chops you can sand wood with.
A little fat in the pan, some salt and pepper, and a hit of vinegar. Good, delicious, home cooked food done simply. The only other things you need are a glass of red wine and someone nice to share it with.
P.S. Here are my defrosting tips. I do not like using the microwave to defrost meat. Invariably the outside starts cooking while the inside is still frozen solid. No joy there. What has worked for me my entire life—and please note, I have never gotten sick from this—is leaving the package on the counter overnight. By morning, it’s completely defrosted. If I plan to cook whatever it is for dinner, I just stick it in the fridge when I wake up so it’s not sitting out all day. Even though it’s been sitting out overnight, it’s been at room temperature for a very short time. (Remember, for the majority of those hours it was frozen, semi-frozen, and then just damn cold. Food-borne buggies generally multiply when stuff is warm. [Hence all the picnic potato salad phobia.] But also please remember what I said above: I ain’t no parasitologist. Prepare and consume food at your own risk.) And when I say to leave it on the counter overnight, please do leave it on or in something else, like a larger dish or bowl, rather than directly on the counter, in case any juices leak out of the package. I’ve done this with steaks, ground meat, chicken breasts, frozen sausages…just about everything. Never had a problem. I’ve even defrosted things overnight, then put them in the fridge for a few days before cooking and still never had a problem. Perhaps I’ve inherited my father’s iron stomach, but I also think they’ve made us terrified of foodborne pathogens the same way they’ve made us afraid of raw milk and raw eggs, both of which I’ve consumed with—you guessed it—no problem.
If you’re in a jam and need to defrost something quickly, feel free to use the mic if you’ve mastered the technique. If not, you can let something frozen sit in hot water for a while. Works like a charm, but it takes a few minutes, and you might have to change the water a couple of times when it starts to cool off.