In 1988, my parents bought their first meat thermometer.
They were in a butcher shop in Huntington, Long Island, and the white jacket–clad man with whom they were speaking was floored to hear that they didn’t already own one. They’d just selected a New York Strip, a rare treat for young journalists paying off student loans, and they were afraid to ruin it. So they’d asked him: What’s the best way to cook this steak?
“Sear it on the grill, to medium-rare,” he’d said, volunteering some degrees-Fahrenheit benchmark they should use. And then, upon seeing their faces: “Don’t tell me you don’t own a meat thermometer. You don’t own a meat thermometer?!” He rustled around in his meat surgeon uniform pockets for a Taylor model, and that was that.
His advice was, it turns out, just one of many answers. A quick Google search on “how to cook steak” reveals nearly 300 million suggestions. You could grill your meat. Or, you could cook it in a blistering skillet on the stovetop. You could start it on the stovetop, before transferring it to the oven. You could make like Bobby Flay and sear it on the stovetop, slice it, and then broil the other side. There’s the reverse sear, and there’s sous vide, and the list goes on.
Which makes steak a perfect candidate for our Absolute Best Tests series, in which I spend far too much time with one specific ingredient or recipe, in an effort to coax out perfection. (Afterwards, my home almost always smells terrible for days.) Shall we begin?
Perfect Steak Cooking Test: Control Factors
As always, I identified a few constants to maintain across tests. For these, each steak was:
• A Porterhouse, roughly 1 1/2-inch thick.
• Patted dry and seasoned with ample kosher salt and black pepper—with the exception of the grilled steak, which was brushed lightly with oil before receiving its salt and pepper.
• Left to come to room temperature for 45 minutes before its test method (this enables steak to cook more evenly).
• Cooked in high heat–friendly vegetable oil anywhere oil is mentioned, and unsalted room temperature butter anywhere butter is mentioned.
• Cooked to medium-rare (130°F) according to a meat thermometer, then removed from heat. Note that, in lieu of a meat thermometer, there’s a common touch test employed to ascertain whether steak is medium-rare: Use a pointer finger to test whether your meat is as firm as your inner thumb pad when you’re touching your thumb to your middle finger’s tip.
• Allowed to rest 10 minutes before slicing (though apparently, this is unnecessary for steak that’s been cooked via sous vide or reverse sear).
Method #1: Stovetop Only
Method: Add a few tablespoons oil to a large cast iron skillet, and heat over a high flame until the oil just begins to smoke. Add the steak and cook for 30 seconds. Flip, and repeat. Do this until a golden-brown crust starts to develop, which takes about four minutes, then add a few tablespoons of butter and continue to cook and flip until until 130°F is reached. (This is a loose adaptation of J. Kenji López-Alt’s Genius pan-seared steak recipe.)
Overall Ease & Efficiency Of Method: The stovetop-only method was by far the easiest and most efficient, requiring no special equipment or hot–skillet transfers.
Tenderness Of Meat: Sixth most tender (last place). The meat was chewier in its center than the resulting meat from the other tests—but, that’s on a relative basis. It was still thoroughly delicious and pleasant to eat.
Char: Fifth best char, meaning it was decent—better than that of the sous vide steak (in last place), but not as deep as I would have liked, because the meat came to 130°F before it had developed a fully browned crust. This also meant I had a limited time to try to render the fat from its sides, which heated the meat several degrees more as I attempted it. (It’s possible I could have better controlled for this by adjusting the flame temperature down, but I was worried that decrease would diminish the char as well.)
Method #2: Stovetop To Oven
Method: Preheat oven to 375°F. Add a few tablespoons oil to a large cast iron skillet, and heat over a high flame until the oil just begins to smoke. Add the steak and sear each side (including the thin, fatty sides to render) for two to three minutes each without disturbing, until browned. Transfer to oven with a tablespoon of butter to finish cooking until 130°F is reached.
Overall Ease & Efficiency Of Method: The stovetop-to-oven method is relatively easy, if you remember to preheat your oven while letting the steak come to room temperature. That said, it’s a pain to transfer a screaming hot skillet mid-cook, and somewhat annoying to keep having to open the oven door to take its temperature. On an efficiency basis, it was a lengthier process than the stovetop-only and the stovetop-to-broiler steaks, about equal to the grilled steak, and quicker than the sous vide and reverse sear steaks.
Tenderness Of Meat: Fourth most tender. The meat was chewier than that of the reverse sear, stovetop-to-broiler, and sous vide steaks, a bit more more tender than the stovetop-only steak, and tied with the grilled steak.
Char. Third best char. This test yielded a better char than the stovetop-only, reverse sear, and sous vide steaks, but a lighter char than the grilled and stovetop-to-broiler steak.
Method #3: Stovetop To Broiler
Method: Preheat broiler. Add a few tablespoons oil to a large cast iron skillet, and heat over a high flame until the oil just begins to smoke. Add the steak and do not move for three minutes. Flip the steak, top with a tablespoon of butter, and transfer to broiler to finish cooking (just a few minutes) until 130° F is reached.
Overall Ease & Efficiency Of Method: Similar as the stovetop-to-oven steak, except a bit more efficient. But, the margin of error is slimmer with this method, vis-a-vis reaching medium-rare. So in that sense, it’s slightly more anxiety-provoking.
Tenderness Of Meat: Second most tender, after the sous vide steak. (Somehow, more tender than the stovetop-to-oven steak.)
Char: Second best char, after the grilled steak.
Method #4: Reverse Sear
Method: Preheat oven to 200°F. Arrange the steak on a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet, and cook 30 to 35 minutes, until it registers as 115°F. Then, take it out and sear it in a hot cast iron skillet in which you’ve let a tablespoon of oil get to smoking over a high flame. Add a tablespoon of butter with the steak, and sear about 45 seconds on each side, including on the thin edges, until 130°F is reached.
Overall Ease & Efficiency Of Method: Equally easy as the stovetop-to-oven and stovetop-to-broiler methods (aka, you’re required to move a pan of meat around), though it does result in twice as many dirty dishes. Less efficient than the stovetop, stovetop-to-oven, or stovetop-to-broiler steaks; about equally efficient as the grilled steak; and more efficient than the sous vide steak.
Tenderness Of Meat: Third most tender, after the sous vide and the stovetop-to-broiler steaks.
Char: Fourth best sear, after the grilled, stovetop-to-broiler, and stovetop-to-oven steaks. As with the stovetop-only and the sous vide steaks, I wasn’t able to get as intense a char as I would’ve liked before it came to temperature.
Method #5: Sous Vide To Sear
Method: Place the steak in a plastic zip-top bag, and seal using the displacement method (or vacuum seal if you have a set-up). Use the sous vide to cook the steak at 129°F for 1 hour and 15 minutes. Then, remove the steak from its bag, and pat it dry with paper towels. Heat a large cast iron skillet with a few tablespoons of oil over a high flame until the oil starts to smoke. Add the steak and a tablespoon of butter. Flip roughly every 30 seconds, until steak has a golden brown sear going on all sides, including the thin sides.
Overall Ease & Efficiency Of Method: Not easy or efficient. Using the sous vide method means you need to purchase an expensive tool, and cook your meat for much longer (at a lower temperature) than any other method. It also means fiddling with a phone app for the appliance, which is never fun with messy cooking fingers. Plus, you still have to use a skillet for the sear at the end, meaning more dishes than any other method.
Tenderness Of Meat: The sous vide method, true to lore, delivered the most tender steak. That said—and it’s hard to know why—the flavor of the meat was somehow flatter than that of the stovetop-to-broiler steak.
Char: Sixth best char (last place). I wasn’t able to achieve a deep enough char, because the meat came to 130°F well before the crust was fully browned.
Method #6: Grill
Method: Preheat grill (I used a Big Green Egg and lump charcoal) to 600°F. Place the steak on the grill, close, and cook for about three minutes. Open the grill and check on the bottom side, which should have a nice char. Flip and grill the other side another three-ish minutes, until 130°F is reached.
Overall Ease & Efficiency Of Method: Having to buy charcoal and let a grill preheat to a high temperature is a pain. This was way less easy and efficient than the stovetop and oven methods, though still easier and more efficient than the sous vide steak. Also, unlike the sous vide method, if you’re going to the trouble of stocking charcoal and preheating your grill, you can make a meal out of it with sides and other proteins.
Tenderness Of Meat: Fourth most tender (tied with stovetop-to-oven steak). That said, the grilled steak tasted heads and shoulders above the other steaks, despite being slightly less tender.
Char: Easily the most charred (first place).
If you have a grill and you can get it really hot, what are you waiting for? Do that. It just tastes better. If, like me, you’re a sad city dweller most of the year, go for the stovetop-to-broiler for the most efficient method with the charriest char and the most tender meat.
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