How To Cook A Steak To Perfection

It can be intimidating to know how to confidently cook a perfectly done steak.  But as with most things in life, once you understand what is happening and a few basic rules, everything becomes clearer and easier. I want to help you know that you can cook one to perfection every time.

How to cook steak perfectly every time.

Contrary to what you often hear on cooking shows, searing beef in a hot pan doesn’t actually seal the juices in, you are caramelizing the natural sugars in the meat which will add flavor and color, but won’t  create a barrier to seal the juices in. If this was the true then steak would weigh the same raw and cooked. However the juices will make a great sauce.

The best way to tell if a steak is cooked is to feel it with your fingers. Generally, well done will feel tough and firm to touch, as lots of the juices have been cooked out. A rare steak will have lots of give and feel soft to touch, as it has retained most of its juices. Using a thermometer is a great way for beginners to learn how to judge if their meat is cooked, and how they want it.

After any meat has been cooked and removed from the pan, its internal temperature will continue to rise. About 5 degrees is normal, but depending on the size and weight, the temperature could rise as much as 10-15 degrees.

When the steak is removed from the pan prior to serving, don’t rush in and cut straight into it, you need to leave it rest. The beef has been sitting in a hot pan and the protein fibers (myosin and actin – stay tuned for a future post that dives into the science of meat and molecules) have tightened up and become firm. They need to relax and recover from the searing heat of the pan and the from the convection heat inside the oven.

As the steak is cooking, the juices inside are effectively being squeezed out as the muscle fibers begin to tighten. So let your meat sit and recover, which most people call leaving it to rest.  A good rule of thumb for me is to leave it to rest almost the same amount of time it took to cook). As the it rests, the protein fibers relax and become less rigid. Liquid is being absorbed back into the meat, resulting in a much more tender steak.

The New York Strip is probably the most common steak used by home cooks and chefs. Cut from the short loin, this is a muscle with lots of good flavor, and a nice fat cap (the fat running alongside the top).  The grain of the meat runs in one direction, which makes for good eating, especially if you slice it across the natural grain.

By cutting across the natural grain of the steak (perpendicular to the direction in which the muscle fibers run)  you are effectively shortening the muscle fibers. Think of the muscle fibers as the fibers of a rope that are entwined together. If you slice thinly across the rope-like structure of the fibers you are breaking the chain, which will result in a much easier bite to chew. If you slice with the grain, you keep the muscle fibers intact, which are long and strong. The mouthfeel will be stringy and a lot more chewy.

This chart is a good guideline for doneness.  Experiment to see which you like best.

Rare: 120-125 F.  48-51 C. After resting. 130 F. 54 C

Medium rare: 130-135 F. 54-57 C.  After resting. 140 F. 60 C

Medium. 140-145. 60-62 C. After resting. 150 F. 65 C

Medium well. 150-155 F. 65-68 C. 160 F. 71 C

Well done. 160 F. 71 C and upwards.

Difficulty Level:  Easy

How to cook a steak:

1.  Preheat your oven to 320 F

2.  Take the steak from the fridge and leave at room temperature for about 30-40 minutes. This helps the steak cook more evenly as the center of the steak won’t be cold, especially if you are going for a rare or medium steak.

3.  Season the steak generously with sea salt on both sides and rub with a little olive oil. Black pepper also works very well with beef, so I like to add black pepper too.

Season steak generously with salt & pepper
Season steak generously with salt & pepper.

4.  Heat your pan so it’s on medium to high heat. Add 2 tablespoons of oil and lay the steak fat side (edge) down in the hot oil. I like to hold the steak with a pair of tongs to prevent it from falling. (By cooking the fat first you won’t end up with soft chewy fat, but crisp rendered fat that tastes good).

Sear fat side of steak in hot pan.
Sear the steak fat side down in the hot pan.

5.  After about 1 minute lay the steak down flat in the pan and leave it to fry. Don’t start moving the pan and the steak around. You want to fry the steak, not stew it. Let the steak cook in the hot oil for about 1 minute until it has a golden brown crust starting to form.

Sear steak in pan one side at a time.
Fry steak on each side until well browned.

6.  Flip the steak over and do exactly the same thing for the other side, letting it cook in the hot oil for another minute.

Steak should be browned and have a nice crust.
Steak should be browned and have a nice crust.

7.  At this stage I like to add about 2 tablespoons of butter and fresh herbs to the pan. I used rosemary and thyme here.

Melt butter and add fresh herbs to steak pan.
Melt butter and add fresh herbs to steak pan.

8.  Tilt the pan and baste the steak with the melted butter a few times.

9.  Place the steak in the pre-heated oven for about 2-3 minutes for a medium rare steak.

Please the steak in the oven.
Place the steak in the oven.

10.  After 2-3 minutes (or whatever time is necessary for your desired temperature) take the steak from the oven, remove it from the pan, and place it on a plate or a board to rest for another 5 minutes. Rest it almost as long as it took to cook. Resting allows the meat to relax and continue cooking, while creating a much more even color throughout the steak. Resting is also very important for creating a more tender steak.

11.  Once the steak has rested, either serve it whole or cut it against the grain. By cutting against the natural grain of the muscle fibers you are effectively making the steak more tender. (Imagine the muscle fibers entwined like a rope, if you try and chew on long muscle fibers they will be tough against your teeth. Instead cut the fibers and they become shorter, less strong and basically more tender).

Cut steak against the grain.
Cut the steak against the grain.

12.  Add a squeeze of lemon to the steak cooking juices in the frying pan, and drizzle the pan juices onto the steak and serve.

Use steak cooking juices to make gravy.
Use the steak cooking juices to make a gravy.

Broiled and grilled steaks can also be great but for me this is the best way to get a really juicy and tender steak that tastes delicious and will impress any guest!

Steak is ready to serve.

P.S. Don’t be afraid of salt – being generous both before and after cooking will enhance the flavor of your steak immensely.