For a long time, steak intimidated me. It’s a lot like wine in that there’s a lot of potential for snobbery: all the different cuts and grades, marinades, dry rubs, sauces, overcooking, undercooking, grilled and pan-seared and who knows what else. “How would you like that cooked, sir? Really? No pink at all? Seriously?” It’s like pouring a $40 chard into a sippy cup and throwing in a few ice cubes–the ice may be nice, but you’re asking for some severe judgery from the waitstaff.
Not to mention that steak is an expensive protein. Given that it’s also very easy to screw up (and given all the different methods of judging done-ness, some more complicated than others–does this feel more like my earlobe or my cheek?), it’s easy to just skip right to the ground beef.
I made some steak tips last night, and man, have I come a long way. I still love going out for my annual birthday meat feast, and I still love hamburger (especially when you grind it yourself–more on that later), but I feel like I’ve spent enough time doing the whole steak thing that I’m qualified to offer a few tips to people who might feel a bit overwhelmed.
- Get a meat thermometer. I have this one: Weber 6419 6-1/2-Inch Digital Pocket Thermometer. I hear two arguments against meat thermometers: “if you pierce the outside, the juice will run out and you’ll have dry steak, and anyway, you can just feel the meat and tell how done it is based on comparing it to parts of your own skin.” To refute the first, yes, you may have some juice leakage, but a) a steak is not a balloon and one little hole is not going to turn it instantly to shoe leather, b) searing steak does NOT “seal in the juices” and c) knowing the temperature means you won’t overcook it, and if you lose a few milliliters of liquid as a result, I think it’s a fair trade. As far as the whole “touch test”, yes, you can eventually get good enough to tell doneness by touch. Professional cooks do it. They also cook dozens and dozens of steaks every single night, so they get more practice, and they can afford the occasional mistake. You’re not going to throw out $20-worth of filet because it’s medium-well instead of medium. So get a meat thermometer.
- Here’s how to prep the steak: take it out of the package as soon as you get home from the grocery store. Put it in a plastic bag (preferably a thicker freezer bag with one of the zippers on top). Dump in some olive oil, sea salt, fresh ground black pepper, and some onion powder. Seal and try to squeeze out the air when you do it. Squish the meat around inside the bag and get it nice and coated with the spices and the oil. Put it in the fridge for at least a few hours, overnight if possible. Occasionally take it out and squish it around some more. It’ll taste pretty close to what you get at a nice steak restaurant. If your marinade has more than 4 or 5 ingredients, it’s going to taste like a mishmash of flavors and your mouth isn’t going to know what to do. Steak sauce is ok if you have really cheap steak and you like the taste of steak sauce. But the idea here is to taste steak as opposed to tasting marinade. The salt helps to tenderize the meat, the pepper adds just a little kick, and the onion powder…well, I had been using just the olive oil with salt and pepper, and something was missing, and onion powder turned out to be it. The olive oil helps you put a good sear on the steak when you grill it–I said searing doesn’t lock in the juices, but it does create a great-tasting crust.
- I really like steak tips. They’re basically the trimmings from the better cuts of meat. So while you might pay maybe $10 a pound or whatever for a cut that looks like something you’d get at a restaurant, for maybe $5 a pound you can get the edges that got trimmed off of that cut. They’re just as tender, but they’re more irregular in size, so you have a variety. I like this for a few reasons: first, you’re getting tender meat at a bargain, so you don’t feel quite as much shock if you completely incinerate a 2-pound and $10 package of meat versus the psychological trauma of destroying a couple little $20 filet mignons. Second, if people have different done-ness preferences, you can put everything on the grill for the same amount of time and end up with thinner/smaller pieces being more well-done and the larger/thicker pieces being more rare. Third, you have potentially smaller portions for less hungry people, and bigger portions for bigger appetites, all in the same package. Fourth, even within the same piece of meat, the thinner edges are going to get a great sear while you’re going to have thicker bits that are really juicy and tender; I feel like you get a nice cross-spectrum of flavors when you’ve got basically little pieces of fond at the edges of every piece of more center-cut meat.
There’s lots of other fun stuff you can do. Try slicing the tips up into chunks and putting them on skewers, especially if you have a lot of guests with differing appetites…you take as many or as few pieces as you want. Pre-cut, even! It’s also easy to move the skewers into different areas of the grill depending on how well-done you want them. If you really want to go nuts with flavor (and fat), wrap those suckers in bacon and then grill ‘em. Sublime.
Bottom line, have fun with it. Even if you’re skeeved out by rare meat, I really think it’s worth giving pink a try…believe me, nothing is going to get into the middle parts, and you’re going to vaporize any nasties on the outside. But, if not, cook it like you want it cooked, and don’t be intimidated.