A Guide to Successfully Choosing, Preparing, and Cooking the Perfect Steak
Being able to successfully cook a steak is a skill that most people aspire to have. Pay attention to these details and you’ll see that it’s not that difficult to pull off.
To begin, you need to understand the basics of the different cuts of beef and how to choose the right one. From there, we’ll get into how to cook it to your desired level of doneness.
Choosing a Steak
Examining the butcher shop cases can be overwhelming. There are so many different cuts available—big steaks, skinny steaks, huge roasts, small roasts, and more. If your goal is to cook a good steak at home, I recommend sticking with the ribeye, T-bone, New York strip, or filet mignon. These are the most expensive cuts, but in steaks you get what you pay for and these are the most tender when grilled or pan fried. The differences in tenderness come from the cow having stability muscles (think the lower back), which are less powerful and thus tender, and load-bearing muscles, which are tough. Price is directly correlated to these qualities. A tender steak will cost a lot more than a tough steak (though with the right treatment, you can successfully turn a tough cut like brisket into a tender, flavorful meal).
If the sheer volume of beef cuts still overwhelms you, check out our easy-to-read guide to steaks and their tenderness, price, and ideal preparation.
The seasoning requirements differ based on the cut. A tougher steak requires more seasoning because your eating experience is mostly about tasting the seasoning, rather than enjoying the tenderness of the cut. For example, you can get away with simple salt and pepper on a perfectly cooked filet mignon, while a flank steak used for fajitas should have some sort of spicy rub all over.
So you’ve purchased steaks that fall on the tender side and you’re ready to cook them. First let them rest at room temperature for about 30 minutes to take the chill off. This results in more even cooking. Pro tip: If you are cooking for someone who likes a well-done steak and you like yours rare, leave yours in the fridge until the absolute last minute; your steak will cook less than your guest’s in a similar amount of time.
If you’ll be cooking on the stovetop, a cast iron or stainless steel pan will work best. Nonstick coating can’t handle the high heat required for cooking a steak. Before you place the skillet over high heat, lightly season the steaks with a mild rub or just salt and pepper. While the skillet is warming, pour in a few tablespoons of peanut, canola, or other high-smoke-point oil. When the oil is shimmering and the pan is hot, place the steaks in the pan and loosely cover it with foil to prevent oil from splattering. Now is also the time to turn on any kitchen fans, as this will generate some smoke. If your steak is less than 1 inch thick, you can plan on cooking it in the pan the entire time. If your steak is thicker than an inch, do the searing on the stovetop and then move the entire pan to a preheated, 400-degree oven to finish cooking it without overly charring it.
When the steak hits the hot pan, start your timer. In general, 2 to 5 minutes per side is sufficient for medium doneness on a hot skillet. This range is flexible because, among other variables, everyone’s heat is slightly different, as is the steak’s starting temperature (depending, for example, on when you pull it from the fridge). For thickness of an inch or less, I like to sear for about 3 minutes on each side, after which you should let it rest. If you have a thicker steak, you would put it in the preheated oven after the two 3-minute turns and let it cook for another 2 to 5 minutes until you achieve the desired doneness.
When you are finished cooking the steak, add a tablespoon of salted butter on top and a fresh herb – thyme works well – to get that expensive steakhouse-style flavor pop.
You have two methods for determining doneness. One is to use an accurate digital cooking thermometer. If you are aiming for a rare steak, you’ll need to pull it off the heat when the internal temperature is between 120 and 130 degrees F. On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you want a well-done steak, you should pull it off the heat when the internal temperature is between 160 and 170 degrees. The illustration below shows varying levels of doneness. The steaks will continue to cook slightly while resting, so take that into account as well.
Is this all a bit much to remember? Bookmark our illustrated guide to steak doneness and keep those temperatures in mind next time you’re trying to achieve the perfect level of doneness.
Don’t have a fancy digital cooking thermometer? No problem—you can use your hand! By positioning your thumb and fingers in various ways, you can mimic what a steak should feel like at various levels of doneness. The tenderness of a steak will roughly correlate to the feeling of the thick part of your palm, below the thumb, when your thumb sequentially touches the index, middle, ring, and pinky finger. Touch that part of your hand with the index finger of your other hand while moving your fingers from index to pinky, and you’ll feel that part of your palm getting firmer. If this seems daunting at first, simply use both methods. Get used to using a thermometer and at the same time touch the steak and see what it feels like. Don’t understand what we mean? Check out this guide to using your fingers to check steak for doneness.
Is this all a bit much to remember? Bookmark our illustrated guide to steak doneness and keep those temperatures in mind next time you’re trying to achieve the perfect level of doneness. Also practice touching the meat, as we show below, and learn to feel your way to the perfect steak using your touch and chef’s intuition.
Would you rather cook your steaks on the grill? You can easily apply most of the above methods to a hot grill, cooking the steaks directly on the grate. The same searing times apply, and if you have a steak that is thicker than 1 inch, simply finish cooking it over indirect heat (so in an area with no charcoal or with the gas burner turned off). You should get the same great results, but with the added bonus of grilled, smoky flavor.
To sum up, successfully preparing a steak is all about cut selection and cooking time. If you stick with a tender cut of beef and cook on high heat, then you can confidently start with the 2 to 5 minutes of sear time on each side and then finish it off in the oven.
Remember to hit it with a little bit of butter and a fresh herb, and you’ll find that you can easily prepare a fancy steakhouse-quality dinner at home.