Top 10 tips to cook the perfect steak

By Pat Pilcher

Pat Pilcher struggled with steak. He picked the brains of celebrity chef and steak pro, Simon Gault - the owner of Jervois Steak House - to come up with the top 10 tips to meat perfection.
Pat Pilcher shares his top tips for cooking the perfect steak. Photo / Thinkstock
Pat Pilcher shares his top tips for cooking the perfect steak. Photo / Thinkstock

1. Pick your cut

When shopping, ask for 100 per cent NZ cold boned beef. Each steak should be thick - budget permitting - aim for at least 200 to 250g per piece. According to those in the know, the best cuts go from the top down - eye fillet (aka tenderloin), scotch fillet (or rib eye), porterhouse (sirloin) and rump.

The age of a steak is also important. A good piece should be hung after trimming, this helps develop flavour and tenderises. Steak aficionados say between 21 and 35 days is best.

Check it's firm, with a light cherry red colour and some marbling. This will melt when the steak is cooking - making it more delicious. However, Gault says to avoid "big clumps of fat ... it's the even, fine marbling".

The chef's cut of choice comes as a bit of a surprise.

"I'm a huge scotch fillet and rump fan ... they've got flavour and the great thing about new Zealand meat, is it's grass fed. Our meat has great flavour."

2. Marinade

There's a lot of debate around the sticky topic of marinating steak. Supporters say a good one can make a cheap cut tender. Critics argue it hijacks the taste of the meat. Gault reckons marinades are a definite no-no.

"I don't think there's any need to marinade a steak. If you're trying to make a marinade to make a piece of steak more tender then use slower cooking at lower temperatures. Marinating to me is not necessary with a good piece of steak."

Seasoning can bring out some great flavours in a steak. Photo / Thinkstock
Seasoning can bring out some great flavours in a steak. Photo / Thinkstock

3. Oil

Oil the meat, not the pan or hotplate - this will stop it from smoking when cooking. Gault says this makes a big difference/

"(If you oil the pan) you get flameback and then you start to get the carcinogens coming off and all that sort of thing. If I was cooking it in a pan and I really wanted to show-off - and that's what we try and do in my restaurants - we use buffalo butter as well. We start cooking it first and we let the Maillard reaction occur (searing) on the outside and then we put a little buffalo butter in the pan."

And, aim for neutral tasting oil with a high smoke point such as sunflower oil. Olive oil will work, but it'll impart flavor to the steak.

4. Salt

Some swear salting improves taste, others go without and a few say salting and resting the steak before cooking is best.

Here's the facts: After salting a steak, the salt rests on the surface of the meat, waiting to dissolve. At this point, all the steak's juices are still inside the fibers. Within a minute or two the salt will draw liquid from the beef, which will bead up on the surface of the meat.

Cooking your steak at this stage wastes heat on evaporating liquid off the steak. This makes the temperature drop, meaning searing and crusting takes longer and isn't as effective as it could be.

Things change around four minutes after the salt has dissolved and begins to break down the muscle fibres, making the steak more absorbent. Dissolved salt works its way back into the steak and most of the liquid will have been reabsorbed. Now you're good to go.

Gault says the kind of salt is important.

"I always use flaked salt, in particular Murray River flaked salt, I don't use iodised salt on steak ... a beautiful flaked salt on there and some good ground black pepper, that's what you want."

Also, pat down the meat with paper towel before cooking so the heat sears the steak rather than boiling off excess moisture.

5. Cook at room temperature

Bring the meat to room temp, about 30 minutes out of the fridge, before cooking.

Here's why: If you stick a cold piece of meat in a hot pan, you'll dry it out before the inside has had a chance to even consider cooking. Those 30 extra minutes will allow the steak to cook evenly.

Gault has a tip for you if you've got an ice cold steak and not much time - "wrap the steak up tightly in glad wrap and put it in warm water, let it sit there for 30 minutes."

Make sure there is space between your steaks when cooking in a pan. Photo / Thinkstock
Make sure there is space between your steaks when cooking in a pan. Photo / Thinkstock

6. Pre-heating and pan roasting

To cook a really great steak you need to sear it on a really hot, clean surface to retain moisture and flavour. Test the heat by placing a drop of water on hotplate. If the water bounces around like mad before evaporating, it's hot enough.

Gault prefers pan roasting. "Let's say I'm cooking a steak inside, and, let's say, it's like a 200g piece of eye fillet. I would have the pan on - ideally a cast Iron pan in a perfect world. I'd season the steak and I would start the sizzling effect and would sear it on all sides until the Maillard reaction happens. Then I would put the whole thing in the oven at 185 or 190 so then I'd be pan roasting".

7. Don't crowd

If you're cooking more than one piece of meat leave space between them. This ensures they cook evenly and prevent the meat from steaming or stewing instead of searing.

8. Searing rules

Once you've put the steak on the heat turn it regularly, especially if it isn't a particularly thick cut as that ensure even cooking. But don't keep prodding and moving the steak otherwise. It needs a few minutes of uninterrupted contact with the hotplate before it can properly sear and the Maillard reaction can happen i.e when sugars and amino acids heat together. This happens when meat is heated to about 150C and creates a tasty surface.

Part of this process will often see the steak briefly sticking and releasing once seared. After a minute or so (for thinner/smaller cuts) to two minutes (for thicker cuts), see If the steak can move and doesn't feel stuck, it's ready to be flipped.

It's good to keep and eye on the time when cooking your steak. Photo / Thinkstock
It's good to keep and eye on the time when cooking your steak. Photo / Thinkstock

9. Cooking times

How long you cook depends on how you like it done. Here are few rules of thumb:

Gault recommends investing in a good meat thermometer. "Decide how you want to cook it, rare, medium-rare or however, and then you need to have a target temperature... say 60C, and you've got a perfect medium rare".

If you don't have the tools try this: For medium-rare, turn the steak when juice first begins to appear on the surface. Cook the flipped side until juice just begins to appear. Give it a poke with your finger, it should feel soft.

If you prefer medium, turn the steak when juice pools on its surface. Cook the flipped side until juice also pools. A medium steak should feel bouncy when prodded.

If you like it well-done, don't flip the steak until juice has really pooled on the surface. The steak should feel firm.

10. Always rest

One of the most important, yet ignored, rules of cooking a perfect steak, is resting.

See, when a steak cooks, its muscle fibres clench and tighten up. Resting allows the fibres to relax. You'll end up with more tender steak and less blood on the plate.

Gault says the best way to rest a steak is to place it on a plate (if possible place it on a rack on the plate as you don't want the steak to sit in its own juices which will make its seared crust will go soggy), cover with tinfoil and then leave it for five to 10 minutes before serving. The thicker the steak, the longer it should rest.

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