Top Steak Myths - BUSTED
I've mentioned in previous posts that I consider myself to be a fairly respectable home cook. To me, cooking is just about doing a lot of little things properly until you end up with the finished, and hopefully delicious, result. This may be a horrendously oversimplified view of what can be an incredibly complex process in some of the top kitchens of the world but, for my small flat in Essex, it does the job.
Cooking is one of those words where “Old Wives Tales” and “Family Secrets” reign supreme. Your great aunts Mac and cheese is definitely delicious but did she really need to leave the pasta in the garden overnight to give it that extra free-ranged taste? Probably not.
Steak is certainly one of the hotbeds for these often well-meaning yet incorrect or just plain superfluous actions that can, at best, delay you tucking into the tender meat or, at worst, turn your slaved over meal into an overcooked and colourless mess. This post is going to explore some of these myths and give you the straight facts on whether or not you need to incorporate them into your steak cooking rituals.
1 - Let your steak come to room temperature before cooking for even heat distribution and a better sear.
This is one that I am guilty of myself. To my mind, the thought that having a uniform temperature steak to start with would yield a uniformly cooked end result was secure in its logic and unshakeable in its reason. However, not quite so.
If you’re a steak fan then you’ll surely know the name of J. KENJI LÓPEZ-ALT the renowned chef and food writer. What Kenji doesn’t know about cooking isn’t worth knowing and he recently set his sights on this myth in particular.
He used a single 15 ounce new york strip straight from the fridge. It was divided equally between two parts with one part returning to the fridge while the other sat on a porcelain plate in a room temperature kitchen.
After almost 2 hours of sitting on the side, this is almost 6 times longer than the supposed 20 minutes it takes for a steak to reach room temp, the internal temperature of the steak left out had risen by a paltry 5 degrees putting it a mere 13% closer to reaching medium-rare temperature than the steak that had been sitting quite happily in the fridge.
2 hours for 5 degrees? That hardly seems worth it even to a relative novice like myself. The proof was in the cooking though and, as you’d expect, both steaks came up to medium-rare temperature at about the same time, both steaks cooked with the same relative evenness, and both steaks were seared at the same rate.
After this lengthy experiment, Kenji reasoned that the time spent waiting for your steak to come to temperature would be far better spent by drying the surface of your steak. Moisture to the searing process (or Maillard reaction) is like Kryptonite to Superman so you want to make sure that your steak, on the surface anyway, is as dry as possible before it goes anywhere near the pan.
Make sure your steak come up to room temperature before cooking? BUSTED
2. Searing locks in moisture
This one makes a bit of sense the first time you hear it but then, as you start to actually get to grips with steak, you realise that there isn’t much basis for this.
The myth states that putting your steak directly into a screaming hot pan and developing a blistering sear as quickly as possible is a way of “locking” the moisture into the inner parts of the meat. At first, you may think to yourself that maybe the juices are really unable to get past the thicker and harder sear. You could be forgiven for thinking that but what is it that makes the juice come out of the steak in the first place? Overcooking.
A nice sear on a steak is a wonderful thing to behold, full of flavours and textures that titillate and excite the senses but going in for an aggressive sear in the hopes of forming an impenetrable juice barrier is a sure-fire way to end up with an overcooked and dry steak.
The best way to obtain juicy meat and a flavourful crust is to perform the almost magical reverse sear. If you’ve never heard of this technique then stay tuned because we’ll be talking about it in an upcoming article.
Does searing your steak first increase its juiciness? No, BUSTED
3. Only flip your steaks once
The misconception that you should only flip your meat once is rampant in the steak cooking game but also extends its tentacles into other ventures like burger flipping and BBQs. Did you ever get a disapproving look from “that” uncle at the family cookout when you dared to flip your burger a second time? Yeah, take no notice.
This myth in particular really gets to me because what conceivable benefit could there be to only flipping your steak once? Proving you’re the ultimate cook with the gift of steak whispering?
Flipping your steak is not only harmless but is actually a major advantage in cooking. It allows you to keep a closer eye on how your sear is progressing and can even cut your cooking time down by up to 30%.
So ignore the muttering and tutting from people who think they know better and let your succulent steak speak for itself.
Should you only flip your steak one? Absolutely not, flip to your heart's content - BUSTED
4. Slicing the steak to check doneness will cause it to dry out
Finally, we’ve reached a myth with at least a slice of truth to it.
Yes, slicing your steak to see how far along it is in the cooking process is far from ideal and you do definitely run the risk of some juiciness escaping. However, the effect of this is not as instant and not as drastic as you probably fear.
If you’re making a small slit into the middle of the steak to gently peek behind the curtain then you can rest assured that this will have little to no impact on the end product and, as long as you’re discreet enough, nobody will even notice once the steak is plated.
The riskiest part of checking with a small slit is how up close and personal you’ll have to get to the steak and hot pan to actually get a good enough look to make it worthwhile so use this method at your own peril.
There is something to be said for hacking off a chunk of meat to check the doneness. This probably isn’t the best idea and even worse if its discovered to be underdone and then returned to the pan or oven. This is a sure-fire way to dry out a good portion of your steak and will certainly sour the scene if you serve your guest's steak with chunks missing.
The only guaranteed way to ensure your steak is properly cooked without putting it or your face in danger is to use a meat probe. It gently slips into the steak unnoticed and provides a pinpoint accurate reading of the temperature inside so you can quickly, easily, and safely check for that doneness sweet spot.
Will slicing the steak to check doneness dry it out? In some cases, its definitely not ideal - PLAUSIBLE
5. The “Poke” test
This is a myth that I’ve definitely fallen victim to in my more naive days.
The myth states that you can check how done your steak is by giving it a good poke and cross-referencing the firmness of the meat with a portion of your hand depending on which combination of fingers are touching.
It is true that if you place the tip of your index finger to the tip of your thumb, you will notice that the fleshy portion of your hand just below the thumb does gain a bit of firmness which is supposedly akin to the feeling of a “rare” cooked steak. This effect is compounded as you move down your fingers with the pinky producing the firmest or “well done” sensation.
Of course, there are so many variables to consider when attempting this method that it really is rendered totally useless. Not all hands are the same firmness and not all steaks have the same feel. Fattier steaks won’t firm up like a lean steak and different cuts have completely different compression feels.
The only way this method could be considered accurate in any sense of the word is if you had perfect steak textured hands and cooked the exact same cuts and compositions of steak every single time and if you’re really doing the cooking that much steak, you’ll have far better intuition when it comes to doneness than any hand puppet parlour tricks could tell you.
We’ve said this before but allow me to reiterate. The only guaranteed way to make sure your steaks are cooked perfectly without cutting them open or perform hand signals over them is to use a meat probe thermometer.
Can the poke test be used to tell how done your steak is? No, under no circumstances should this even be considered. - BUSTED
Hopefully, this article has put your mind at ease on a few points and has helped you avoid making an awkward faux pas at the next even. Make sure you check back regularly for even more tips, myth busters, and special features. There plenty more to come!