How to Cook Steak

Cooking steak isn't as simple a topic as it might seeem. It ain't rocket science but there are several factors involved in the process, such as the steak's cut and thickness, whether you're grilling it or using a stove top/oven method, etc. There is even a debate as to when and how to season your steak -- before or after cooking, using salt or no salt, pepper or no pepper, blah blah blah.

Well, I'm not taking sides because different techniques work for different people.

However, I have tried a few things that gave very specific results and I'm simply going to share those results with you.

How to cook steak: The Cuts

For my experiment I chose two 1-inch filet mignons and two 1-3/4 inch top sirloin steaks, both 6 ounces. Needless to say, quality is of the utmost importance. So both cuts were USDA Choice (what most of us can afford and easily get).

Raw Filet Mignon and Sirloin Steak

Raw Filet Mignon and Sirloin Steak

How to cook steak: Oil and Salt

Some chefs brush a little oil on their steak before cooking while some don't. Some salt their steak right before cooking, some salt afterward.

For demonstration purposes, I added a generous amount of Kosher salt to all the steaks in my experiment. But I brushed one filet mignon and top sirloin steak with a little canola oil first.

Here are the filet mignons after cooking (both grilled at 520°F for 3 minutes per side). The one that was oiled prior to cooking (the one on the right) retained more moisture, which can be seen in the following photo.

Grilled Filet Mignon

Below are the top sirloin steaks. The one on the right was also oiled before grilling. Notice the moisture as compared to the one on the left that was not oiled prior to grilling.

Grilled Sirloin Steaks

What is it about the oil that makes the steaks more moist? Heat conduction. Without the oil, the surface moisture quickly evaporates when exposed to the heat. However, the oil quickly conducts heat to the meat's surface and helps retain moisture and seal in juices.

How to cook steaks: Grill or Stove/Oven Method?

This really isn't a debate, is it? Yes, grilling steak is easy and relatively quick and what's more fun than cooking over an open flame? Answer: Eating what you've cooked over an open-flame. Usually.

Pan-searing and finishing your steak in the oven involves more steps. But "to ME" it edges out grilled steak when it comes to taste. And the pan drippings and crispy bits in the skillet after you're done are heaven!! You can make gravy. You can add a little butter and wine and pour it over your steak. I mix my rice or mashed potatoes into the drippings.

Besides, it seems that most of your top steak houses use the pan-sear/oven method. Perhaps that says something. At any rate, here's how it's done...

How to cook steaks: Pan-Searing/Oven Method Step-by-Step

This is pretty straight-forward.

  1. Preheat your oven to 400°F.
  2. In your skillet (I prefer cast iron but stainless steel is also fine) add 2 tablespoons of oil and get it HOT. Some people add a couple tablespoons of butter to the skillet with the oil. But for me, the butter burns too easily and creates more smoke. However, you can add a little butter and Worchestershire sauce to the pan drippings when the steak is almost done. You can serve that over the steak.
  3. Add your steak to the skillet, keeping the flame on as high as it will go. Your kitchen may get a little smokey but that happens with this technique. It's worth it, though.
  4. Cook steak for 2 to 3 minutes per side and then put the skillet in the oven for 6 to 8 minutes. IMPORTANT: Make sure your skillet is oven-safe.

When the steak is done, I like to add a dollop of butter mixed with chives and dill to the top of my steak as a finishing touch. It adds a great flavor.

Sliced New York steak dinner

Sliced New York steak with Dill butter.

In my experience, I find that this two-step method works best with really thick steaks, especially bone-in cuts. For anything less than 1-3/4 inches thick you can forego the oven part and finish the steak on the stove. Just cook it a little longer on both sides depending on how you like your steak. I like mine medium-rare.

Also, I'm assuming you'll let your steaks come close to room temperature prior to cooking. If you're cooking steaks straight from your refrigerator then you may need to finish them in the oven, unless you like them rare.

How do you know when your steak is done to your liking? Most of us tend to "guess at it", perhaps with a measure of success. However, to really know when your steak is ready you have to know its internal temperature. Below is a quick temperature reference.

Rare: 120-125°F
Medium Rare: 130-135°F
Medium: 140-145°F
Medium Well: 150-155°F
Well Done: 160-165°

To know the internal temperature of your steak, you will need an instant-read food thermometer. I personally use the ThermoWorks Thermapen Instant-read food thermometer.  Gives me a reading in 3 seconds.

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