So the Wild West may have been thoroughly tamed but the legends of the cowboys lives on well into the 21st century. While we’ve traded our horses for Tesla’s, our 6 shooters for iPhones, and our spurs for Yeezys. We can still keep some of the trail life traditions alive and there’s really nothing that comes close to a proper “cowboy” steak.
A cowboy steak doesn’t have a particular definition. As with most things in the tumultuous west, it was more a case of getting what you’re given rather than ordering from the a la carte menu so a cowboy steak can be pretty much any cut you can get your hands on but, traditionally, it would be a bone-in cut most often the ribeye.
These steaks were cut thick, left on the bone, coated with basic seasoning, and cooked in cast iron over a campfire to fill the bellies of at least two people after a hard days farm work or rustling.
We’ve explored the benefits of cooking your steak in a cast iron pan. The material is fantastic at soaking up heat and is very selfish in keeping it so, when you drop your steak in, yes the pan temperature will drop but not nearly as much as other types. This is the ideal scenario for a crisp and even sear with a perfectly cooked interior.
The life of a cowboy on the trails is often romanticised as one of leisure in the open world, hunting an abundance of animals for your meals, cooking over a warm campfire, and sleeping under the stars. So much so that you can even pay a great deal of money for a “cowboy excursion” where you ride the horses, cook over the fires, and sleep in a tent as part of the re-enactment.
The actual day to day life of a working ranch hand, otherwise known as a cowboy, was one filled with a lot of hard manual labour, almost breadline poverty on the unskilled labour wages, and desperate loneliness as they drifted from town to town in search of work.
Perhaps the highlight of a cowboys time was cooking up a hearty meal for themselves and their friends, a meal that would more often than not feature a large hunk of meat.
It wouldn’t be unusual for a cowboy to tuck a few pieces of flank steak under their saddle between the leather and the horse. The heat and friction of a days riding would cook the thin steak while the horse's sweat would season it with salt. That’s plenty enough to turn a 21st-century stomach, it has certainly turned mine so let’s look more towards how we can enjoy a good steak the cowboy way but with a shade less horse sweat and hard labour.
In modern times we have such luxuries as USDA Prime headed steaks, Wagyu steaks from overseas, and top-quality steak producers such as Jacks Creek to feed our steak obsession. We have high powered jobs and ovens to cook them perfectly and seasonings from every corner of the globe to make them taste incredible. We truly are living in the golden age of steak right now.
To recapture that Wild West steak cooking experience, you first need a big piece of bone in steak. We’d recommend either the traditional bone in ribeye or perhaps a fine piece of Txuleta tomahawk, the choice is yours on this front so pick the cut you like best.
Once your steak is in the bag, let’s talk about seasoning. We’re not going with horse sweat thankfully but the cowboys spice rack was rather limited. Salt, pepper, and wild herbs such as oregano, rosemary, and thyme were the staples in trail cooking so follow the KISS principle and Keep It Simple, Stupid.
The second thing you’ll need is something to cook it in. Your parents probably said that things in their day were built to last so imagine how well built things were almost 200 years ago! When money was spares and luxuries few, what you did manage to have had to last you so cast iron pans are the order of business today.
A well looked after cast iron pan will more than likely outlive you and your children’s children so invest a bit of cash in a good one. We’d recommend a Lodge pan as they’re are still made to the original 1800s spec and come pre-seasoned to save you the hassle.
Lastly, you’re going to need a good source of heat. A fire served many purposes to a cowboy, it was a source of warmth on a cold night, a deterrent to wild animals, and a way to cook their food and prepare their coffee. Get back to basics and get a roaring campfire going, enjoy its warmth and security until it dies down and you’re left with the hot embers. Place your cast iron pan squarely onto the embers (don’t worry, it’s designed for this kind of thing) to get it ripping hot for your steam.
Using this method you can capture a little flash of the cowboy mystique as you cook your steak on a fire under the night sky. It’s a well-known fact that food tastes better when you work hard for it and there wasn’t much that was harder work than a life on the trail.