Time for a weekend-themed blog post.
Background: I always found getting steak done right to be one of the hardest cooking feats. My typical result was to cook the steak for a while, until the outside is kind of burned and it looks done, then serve it up to find the center is cold and red. And there seems to be a lot of contradictory, context-free, unvalidated advice out there, so it’s hard to learn better by reading. Recently I took an engineering approach to grilling and I think I’ve got it figured out. I used lessons from the JägerMonkey project: start by reading up on different designs, analyze their differences, try to figure out who’s got it right, and do some experiments to clear up unanswered questions. I ended up learning 4 big things:
1. Let the steak thaw before cooking. I’ve found it much easier to get the inside done right without charring the outside if the steak is near room temperature. I leave the steaks in the refrigerator overnight or during the day, and then on a cutting board for about 30 minutes before cooking.
2. Season liberally. I used to season steak lightly or not at all, but I’ve found it’s much better if I use plenty of salt and pepper. Natalie swears by sea salt, and I insist on freshly ground pepper. Watching restaurant chefs seems to be the best way to get a baseline for how much to add, and then you can add more or less as you like it.
Adding a little bit of oil before cooking also seems to be standard restaurant practice. I use a little bit of macadamia oil because it does well with high heat and some chef told me to in a YouTube video I can’t find right now. I think it’s mostly to just help the steak not stick to the grill.
Some sources say that putting salt on meat before cooking dries it out, but that is completely wrong.
3. Cook by temperature. This is the most important point: With an accurate thermometer, you can repeatably cook steak to the exact doneness that you like. Some people say poking steaks with a thermometer makes the juices run out, and instead recommend prodding it with a finger to test firmness, or various other things. But I’ve found that I can stick the steaks with a thermometer as many times as I want without harming them, and the thermometer is much more precise than any other method. Maybe if you are a restaurant chef and have cooked 3000 steaks you can do it better with a finger-squeeze, but I sure can’t.
As with everything else, the web disagrees on what temperature is medium rare, medium, and so on. Part of the problem is that the temperature at the center will continue to increase for a few minutes after taking the steak off the grill, so when a temperature is quoted, it’s not clear whether a quoted value is the temperature you cook to on the grill, or the final temperature.
The critical decision is when to take the steak off the grill, so that’s the temperature you need to figure out. I’ve found that stopping cooking at 125 °F yields a good medium rare steak for me, and 133 °F a medium steak for Natalie. It probably goes up by 5-10 °F afterward, but I haven’t done that experiment yet.
For a one-inch-thick steak, it takes my grill about 8 minutes to cook to 125 °F, so I set the heat on high, cook for 2 minutes, rotate 45° (to create a nice cross-hatched grill mark pattern) and cook for 2 minutes, flip and cook for 2 minutes, rotate 45° again. After another minute or so, I start taking temperature readings with an “instant-read” meat thermometer. Once it’s close to done, I hold the thermometer in and remove the steak from the grill immediately once it reaches the desired temperature.
The keys are: (a) experiment to find out at what temperature it’s done the way you like it, (b) experiment to find out about how long it takes to get to that temperature, (c) monitor the temperature continuously once it is almost done, and (d) use a high-quality thermometer. I use this one, because as an engineer I like fancy instruments and I enjoy taking the temperature of random objects using the infrared function.
4. Rest the steaks. This one isn’t controversial, but not everyone has heard about it. In general, meat should be left to “rest” for a few minutes after cooking. I haven’t figured out exactly how long it should be, but 10 minutes seems a little too long, and I recently saw a random web page that recommended half of cooking time. That would be 4 minutes for my one-inch-thick steaks, so I might try that, but usually it just ends up being however long it takes to finish setting the table and serve the other dishes.
That’s it. That’s all I know, and it’s enough to cook steaks just how we like them. The same basic idea works for pork, chicken, and fish–the main difference is the target temperature.