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A Juicy Pan-Seared Steak

Pat steak dry and find the grain

The first step is to pat the steak dry. Even if the surface already feels pretty dry to you, it never hurts to make sure you get every last drop of surface moisture.

Why? Because moisture is the enemy of browning. When the steak hits the pan, excess moisture turns into steam, preventing the browning reactions from happening. Get rid of all that moisture now before it’s too late!

While you’re happily patting your steak (Good steak! There’s a good steak!), notice the grain of the meat. You should be able to see it easily when the steak is raw—they appear as long parallel lines across the surface. These are the muscle fibers. Remember which way they run. This is important later when you’re slicing the meat.

Score the steak

Scoring the meat does two things:

  1. It helps the seasonings, which normally sit on the surface, migrate inward.
  2. Muscle fibers contract when cooked, so one thing you’ll notice while searing the first side of the meat is that it will curl up. Scoring helps it curl a bit less, so when you flip it, the second side gets more even contact with the pan.

Also, it looks cool.

While scoring, making shallow cuts is key. You don’t want to accidentally cut the meat into cubes! Just angle your knife against the surface of the meat and make quick slashes across the surface, spaced about 1” apart. Then criss-cross the other way.

By the way, this is also a good time to make sure the steak will fit in your pan. If it’s too large, cut it up into small sections and cook them one at a time. Resist the urge to crowd them all into a pan at once, because that traps moisture and they will steam instead of brown.

Myth: Making cuts releases juices. Your steak is not a water balloon; it’s more like a raspberry, with pockets encasing individual payloads of moisture. A single cut, pierce or poke is not going to make the whole thing pop. That’s why it’s totally ok in my book to do stuff like cutting open the meat to check doneness, and turning it with a fork (but definitely use tongs if you have them, because they give you a much more secure grip). Basically, don’t sweat the small stuff. Focus on the big picture of not overcooking your steak, and it will stay plenty juicy!

Season steak generously

Salting the meat does 2 things:

  1. It helps dry off the surface, ensuring a crunchy crust.
  2. It flavors the meat!

The important thing to remember is that you need a lot of salt. Way more than you think. For the 2 steaks I have here, I’ve used just over a teaspoon. The salt is responsible not just for flavoring the outside of the meat, but also the inside. If you under-salt, the inside will be bland. So sprinkle away!

Neat Trick: the higher up you sprinkle from, the more evenly distributed the salt is. This is something chefs do, and it’s not just to look fancy!

Myth Alert!

Myth: These tough cuts of steak need to be marinated or salted hours in advance. These is because the salt/marinate needs a lot of time to penetrate the meat and make it tasty.

False! while a long soak in a marinade can’t hurt, it isn’t at all necessary. seasoning right before the steak hits the pan still gives it plenty of flavor: the salt has time to migrates in as it cooks and rests. Then, when you cut it up to eat, the juices will well up and dissolve the remaining surface salt, drenching each bite with succulent flavor.

Preheat pan, add oil, and sear the steak for 3 minutes on one side

Okay, we are about to start the real action: searing!

Before we start, let’s discuss our goals:

The ultimate goal here is a steak with a crunchy deep brown crust, and a tender, juicy, medium-rare interior. Why medium-rare? Because the more a steak cooks, the more it loses moisture and flavor. As it approaches well-done, it toughens up and becomes dry and gritty—frankly, unworthy of your taste buds.

Why is it okay to eat rare steak?

The short answer is that, if butchered correctly, steaks will only have germs on the outside. Unless the steak has been scored or poked accidentally by the processor, bacteria and parasites can’t easily penetrate to the center. This makes even extremely bloody, rare steaks pretty safe to eat.* The only exception is ground beef. Because its interior has come into contact with machinery through the grinding process, it’s at a higher risk for contamination throughout.

So how does this medium-rare business work? First, you need a searing-hot pan. As hot as your stove can get it. We want the outside to quickly sear and form a crust, while the inside stays relatively uncooked. Too low and slow, and the steak will cook through to the center, resulting in the kind of lifeless, unappetizing jerky we are trying to avoid.

Are we ready to sear?

Great. Now let’s begin.

Open your windows and turn on your hood fan, because we are going to have a lot of smoke. Then crank your stove up to its highest setting and heat up your pan. Once it’s hot enough, add canola oil. The oil should begin to smoke. That’s how you know the pan is good and hot.

Add your meat, laying it down carefully away from you. This way, if it splashes oil, it doesn’t go into your face.

Set your timer for 3 minutes. And just Let. It. Be.

Avoid the temptation to fuss with it. It needs a good long period of uninterrupted contact with the pan to form that beguiling, deep brown crust.

If you try to move it too early, you may notice that it’s stuck fast to the pan. It will naturally release when ready. That’s the steak’s way of telling you to be patient.

Now is a good time to read some haikus, or do a short ritualistic dance thanking the cow for its sacrifice.

* Scratch House is not responsible for freakish twists of fate that result in you being the 1 in a million who got sick from eating medium-rare meat. If you already know that your stomach doesn’t respond well to rare meat, then disregard my advice and, for goodness sake, cook the steak as long as you need to. If not, then proceed with the knowledge that if something happens, it’s because you were courageous and wanted to experience medium-rare for yourself, and NOT because I am deliberately trying to mislead you :)

Flip the steak

After 3 minutes, lift edge to check browning. If it looks good, flip it. My preferred method is with tongs, but if you don’t happen to have tongs, use whatever you have. This could be a fork, a spatula, or an oven mitt (yup, been there). Just don’t burn yourself.

Then set the timer for 2 minutes

Check if your steak is done

Now your steak should be ready. But because we are all cooking with different equipment in different homes, there’s only one way to find out!

Actually, there are three ways to find out! Here they are, from easiest to most advanced:

  1. Cut a slit in the steak and look at the color inside. Watch the video to get a sense for what you should be looking for. The inside should be semi-translucent deep pink—a little rarer than we are aiming for. It will get less pink as you let it rest, which we’ll do in our next step.
  2. Slide a meat thermometer in and read the temperature. With thinner cuts, you’ll want to slide the thermometer in from the side, so the probe is all the way inside the meat. The thermometer should read around 120-125 degrees Fahrenheit, which is medium-rare. Technically, steak is medium-rare at 130, but the temperature will keep rising for a few degrees after you take it out of the pan, so always aim for a few degrees below the target temperature.
  3. Poke the steak and feel its firmness. This is ninja-level steak skillz! A seasoned cook can tell just how done the steak is by poking it and feeling its resistance. Firmer meat means more cooked, softer means more rare. If this is your first time cooking steak, use one of the methods above, but also poke it a bit to get a feel for it.

So what happens if your steak is still bright red and overly raw? No worries! Put it back in the pan and continue to sear it a bit more—but keep it short! No more than 30 seconds per side. Then check again. Check frequently so you don’t overreach. You can always put more heat into a steak, but it’s very hard to take back out again.

Rest your steak

Now put your steak on a plate and… don’t eat it.

No, not forever!

Just for about 10-15 minutes.

Did you do a double-take? I wish I could have seen it.

All silliness aside, there’s a reason I’m making you wait. If you cut into it now, you’ll lose all the nice juiciness we worked so hard to preserve.

Remember in Step 2 when I said muscle fibers contract when heated? This contraction is what causes juices to burst out all over your cutting board while the steak is still hot. The steak is literally squeezing itself dry. And once the juices are out, they’re out. You can’t put them back in.

But if you wait for the steak to cool down a bit, the muscle fibers will relax. Then, when you cut into it, the juice stays inside.

Like the steak, you too can take a break to relax. The hard work is over. Like a true warrior, you’ve conquered STEAK! I suggest you announce this fact to the world over Twitter or Instragram, hashtag #steakwarrior.

Slice against the grain to serve

And we have now arrived at the final step! Are you drooling yet?

Remember the grain we talked about earlier? For long-fibered tough cuts like these, it helps to shorten the muscle fibers so that when you go to eat it, you don’t have to chew through them. That’s what we mean when we say “cut against the grain.” So recall the direction of the grain from Step 1, and cut perpendicular to that. Also, if you angle your knife 45 degrees, you can make more appealing, wider strips.

Why carve?

I like to slice these steaks on the carving board instead of giving each person a giant slab to fiddle with on their plate. Why? Because if you carve it on a wooden carving board, you can use your super-sharp chef’s knife without dulling it against a ceramic plate. Super-sharp knives make super-clean cuts, again minimizing juice leakage. By the way, you can avoid wasting money on a set of fancy serrated “steak knives.” Should your diners wish to subdivide their slices further, give them a metal butter knife. Because yes, your medium-rare steak will be that tender.

And now your steak is ready to be served! Here are some ideas:

  • Wrap a tortilla around it and make tacos!
  • Put it over rice with cheese and avocado!
  • Sautée some bell peppers and onions and make a fajita bowl!
  • Blanch some broccoli or asparagus for a nice side!
  • Eat it over mashed potatoes, buttered noodles, or any kind of starch, really!
  • Make the world’s most awesome steak sandwich!
  • Top them with some blue cheese or compound butter (made by smashing fresh herbs and salt together into room-temperature butter) and nosh away!
  • Or just eat them straight from the cutting board, because no one else is watching!

Enjoy!

Nicely done!

You made some delicious food. Now go enjoy it!

P.S. - If you want to show off your work on the lesson gallery, send me a picture.

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