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A culinary experiment yields an almost foolproof method for the perfectly cooked steak.
Remember restaurants? The lovely Mrs. E and I live in New Jersey and this week will mark the one year anniversary of our last visit to a restaurant. Last January, we spent a weekend in NYC, it was wonderful. We visited The Met and the Guggenheim, enjoyed drinks at Bemelmans, took in a Broadway show, and of course, had dinner.
Ahhh dinner. How do great restaurants produce those wonderful, juicy, perfectly charred, perfectly cooked steaks? Consider how one of those steaks looks in cross-section: there is the thin outer layer of char, under that – from top to bottom and edge to edge – nothing but perfectly evenly cooked beef. How do they manage that? I like to cook and I make a pretty darn good steak. But I’ve never, ever, managed that perfect, uniformly done, interior. Even on my best day, the steaks cross-section from top to bottom is – the thin outer layer of char; then a gradient running from overdone to better to almost right to perfect and back to almost right to ok to overdone to char on the other side. This makes sense since we cook steaks at high heat, the heat comes from the outside so by the time the interior is perfect the outermost portions are overdone. You can do things to minimise the overcooked areas, but the technique itself makes that gradient unavoidable, and timing is critical. Because the technique employs high heat, even 60-90 seconds per side can be the difference between great and blah. So how do restaurants do it. Surprisingly, they boil them … more or less.
Ok… Not boiling per see, but they do steep them in hot water. The technique is called sous vide, cooking in water. The technique employs a device that heats and circulates water and keeps it at a constant temperature. The steaks are sealed in a plastic bag and immersed in the warm water bath. Want medium rare? That’s 135 degrees, so dial the temp to 135 and walk away; the steaks can’t overcook because they can’t get to a temperature higher than the surrounding water and the temperature will be uniform all the way through. You could leave them in there for a long time with no problem.
To serve them, just remove them from the bath, take them out of the sealed bag, quickly char the exterior and voilà. Perfect!
You can purchase your own sous vide device, some are complete baths … like a slow cooker or crockpot and others are more like an immersion blender that you put in your own pot. Unfortunately, they are 150 dollars or so and up. I’d rather spend my money buying great ingredients, not expensive tools. Could I achieve the same results with the tools in our kitchen at home?
Under ordinary circumstances, I grill steaks but this weekend’s experiment utilised the oldest item in the kitchen: Mrs. E’s mother’s ancient cast-iron skillet. This thing was already old when Lyndon Johnson was in the White House. It’s heavy, you could wear it as body armor or wield it as a weapon. Its forte is hash browns but this weekend it was steaks and a technique inspired by the sous vide low and slow idea.
I’ve dry-aged roasts in the refrigerator and cooked them low and slow in the oven. A meat thermometer indicates when the roast has reached the correct temperature, then the oven gets cranked up to max at the very end for a few minutes to achieve a nice crust on the exterior. I just did a standing rib roast at Christmas that was grand and I decided to adapt that recipe to steaks.
First, the steaks: I didn’t want to have a poor result blamed on inferior ingredients so I went to the local high-end butcher and shelled out for two primo filet mignons. Keats said it best … “a thing of beauty is a joy forever.” (I considered including a ‘before’ picture of the steaks, but it would violate CoC standards on pornography). They were sprinkled all over with kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper, wrapped in some cheesecloth, and rested overnight in the fridge. The idea is to draw out a little moisture to concentrate the flavors and make an exterior crust easier to achieve. An hour prior to cooking, I took the steaks out of the refrigerator, unwrapped them and set them aside to come up to room temperature.
The oven was preheated to 180 degrees (mine won’t go any lower or I’d have gone lower). I put the steaks in the room-temperature cast-iron skillet. No oil or additional seasonings added. Steaks in the skillet and skillet in the oven.
I wanted medium-rare. If I had one of the meat thermometers with the probe that goes in the meat as it cooks and a readout that stays outside the oven, I’d have put that in, set the alarm for 132 degrees, but I don’t. I shut the oven door, set a timer for 20 minutes, made Manhattans for Mrs. E and myself and kicked back. After 20 minutes I started checking the internal temperature; it took 40 minutes to reach 130 degrees. At that point, I took them out of the oven, removed them from the skillet and covered them to rest. (It probably would have only taken 30 or 35 minutes if I hadn’t opened the oven door.)
Word of warning: They did not look appetising at this point. They were kind of a mottled grey, truth be told, but the things I’d read about sous vide cautioned to be prepared for this so I tried not to be alarmed and to convince myself that what this really meant was that I was on the right track.
I poured off the accumulated drippings and wiped out the pan, then I turned on one of the stovetop burners to high and got the empty skillet screaming hot. In my house, that means if you are not worried about the smoke detectors going off it’s not hot enough. I brushed the rested steaks with a thin coat of avocado oil on both sides and put them in the skillet (I like avocado oil for high heat applications). I cooked them for 45 seconds top and bottom and on each side achieved a nice crust and they were done and they looked great! I put a final pinch of salt and pepper and off to the table. I sliced one open and it was almost … almost … restaurant perfect. The cross-section showed a thin layer of char. Under that crust was a smidge that was medium rather than medium-rare. But other than that they were perfect! Served with a big crunchy salad, a bottle of Oregon pinot noir and a little Billie Holiday in the background. What a great evening!
I really liked this method. Low and slow was simple and almost foolproof because you are working at low heat, there is a much bigger window in which the steaks are to your liking and there’s less opportunity to mess up. When you have paid top dollar for great ingredients you don’t want to mess up. That meant that we could have leisurely cocktails without stressing about the meal. This definitely goes into the rotation. The old skillet has a new forte.Published in