Steak. People are obsessed with steak. And how to cook the perfect version is something I get asked more than anything else meat-related. Like anyone who is passionate about what they do, I’ve got my views. And they’re opinionated. I’ve listed a couple of them below. I have unashamedly borrowed from chefs and butcheries across the world for these. I’ve harvested little nuggets of information, tested them, tweaked them and sort-of thrown them together in a kind-of meat mash up. But cooking is a personal thing. It always will be. So this is a collection of what works best, for me. Maybe you agree. Maybe you don’t. Maybe I give a shit. Maybe I don’t.
Choosing your meat:
An obvious place to start, yes? But what does all the jargon and fancy words say about the beef? AAA grade? Premium? Super premium? What does it all mean? Well, it means nothing really. It’s marketing nonsense. Meat is graded two ways in South Africa. By age and by fat content. A Grade meat means an animal was a certain age when it was slaughtered. It HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THE QUALITY OF THE MEAT. AB means the animal was slightly older, B means the animal was older still. And C Grade beef means the animal was even older. These ages are determined by the amount of teeth the animal had at the time of slaughter. A number is attached to the letter classification indicating the amount of fat on the carcass. This ranges from 0 (no fat) to 6 (excessively fat). So you can find “A Grade” beef that is nowhere near as good as B or C grade meat. Basically, your job is to try and find a butcher who can give you any indication of the age and fat content of the beef. At FFMM we shoot for older animals and a high fat content. That allows us to mature the beef without drying it out. We also believe older animals have more developed flavour. We like tasty beef, as opposed to tender beef.
Choosing your cut:
So you’ve found your butcher. But now what? What do you ask for? I could go on and on about things like flatiron, flank, chuck eye etc. (because they’re all awesome and totally underrated) but, for the point of this article, let’s keep it simple. Let’s go with a thick-cut, bone in ribeye. Why thick cut? It gives you the chance to get a crust on the exterior of the meat while still cooking the steak properly. Too thin? The meat will be overcooked by the time the crust develops.
Grass-fed and dry aged meat:
This is not hype. Dry aged beef is superior. Through a carefully-controlled process which allows meat to age in a humidity-controlled cold room, enzymes are broken down and and converted into proteins and fats. Flavour is intensified and texture composition shifts too. That’s geek speak for “your steak will taste better”. Trust me. As an extra kicker, if the meat is grass-fed, all the flavour benefits are amplified. Expect rich, buttery and nutty tones in the steak. Keep a look out for yellow fat – that’s a good thing. Eat a grass-fed piece of meat for the first time and you will wonder why you have wasted so much time eating grain-fed meat.
So you’ve sourced the best beef you can. Good on you. You’ve done more than most. But you still have to cook the thing. And here’s where you might need to forget a lot of what you’ve been told before. Tear up the South African Steak Textbook.
The first tip is to salt your steak way, way before you plan on cooking it. Salt draws moisture out of the meat, which then reacts with the salt to create a brine. That brine sinks back into the meat. If you want to be fancy you can call it osmosis. But, really, all you need to know is that this will help in creating that perfect crust we are after. You can salt your steak two days before cooking, depending on how radical you want to be with this experiment, but do not do it less than thirty minutes. April Bloomfield (we love her) suggests that black pepper should never be applied to a steak before cooking it, as it can burn and taste acrid. I must say, I have tried this and I agree. Stick to salt and add coarse, cracked black pepper after cooking.
The reverse sear is the next trick I’ve picked up recently. (Thank you Food Lab and Serious Eats). You’ve no doubt read about searing meat first and then turning the heat down to finish it off. That’s to seal in the juices, yes? Well, no actually. Searing meat first has no impact on the amount of juice a steak will retain. The theory behind switching this up (gentle heat first, high heat at the end) has to do with the fact that the amount of juices a steak loses depends on the INTERNAL temperature you cook it to. In other words, the temperature you cook the steak at to get it to that desired doneness makes no difference. Throw a raw steak on the grill (or in a pan), and the cold, moist meat takes a long time to heat up to the point where it can begin browning and crisping properly. By the time it’s well-seared, the outermost layers are already overcooked and you’ll struggle to cook the inside of the steak properly. Conversely, start a steak over gentle heat and you’re in control over the internal temp of the meat. Cook it gently until you’re just about done and the exterior crust will start to develop naturally. You can then stick it over high heat to really finish it nicely.
Flipping your meat:
They’ll tell you to flip a steak only once or twice. They will also probably burn their steak. By leaving a piece of meat cooking for such a lengthly time, the exterior doesn’t have a chance. Turn your steak as often as you’d like.
Knowing when your meat is done:
Throw your ego on the fire, along with that piece of meat, and buy a meat thermometer. It is the ultimate way to cook meat accurately. Case closed.
Resting your meat:
This one isn’t a myth. You need to rest your steak. This is necessary for the juices (that you’ve worked so hard to create) to increase in density as they cool slightly. Rest your meat. Please. Generally half the cooking time is an indicator.
Marinades, sauces, seasonings:
We’ve written a pretty nerdy piece here, using words like “enzymes” and “osmosis”. Let’s not forget though: the whole point here is to create the perfect steak. Crusty exterior, delicious, evenly cooked internal meat. Juicy. Beefy. Balanced. So why would you smear a sauce over that? Instead, try and stick to the salt and pepper. If you’re trying this all in a pan, I’m a fan of using both olive oil and butter. Yup, both of them. Outdoor cooking? Just a lick of oil to prevent the meat from sticking will do the trick. With all the natural flavour of grass-fed meat (and the enhancement of dry aging) that really should be good enough. Slice it off the bone, cut it into strips against the grain and keep it natural.
There it is. How to choose a steak. How to cook a steak. How to eat a steak. In about 100 000 words.
Go forth and eat,