Words Harriet Boucher, Images Ashlee DeCaires
I always viewed cooking steak a bit of a boy’s job. At childhood dinners with family and friends, the men all stood around the BBQ while the ladies prepared the accompaniments. That trend has continued into my adult life despite ever-changing gender roles. But watch out boys, I’m here to raise the steaks.
I desperately lack confidence in fast cooking meat. I’m more of a low and slow girl. I went into this experiment completely unbiased on the best way to cook a steak. I knew that quality meat is always best, salt is your friend, and medium-rare arguably equals perfection; but in terms of the cooking method, I was very open to suggestions. I picked stovetop methods using a cast iron pan, but my final recipe will work just as well on a BBQ.
The Sous Vide
In Kenji Lopez Alt’s book The Food Lab, he teaches a few methods of steak preparation, including sous vide. This is a very cheffy technique where you seal food in a vacuum-packed bag and cook low and slow in a temperature-controlled water bath. I seasoned the steak generously with salt and pepper, threw in some thyme and rosemary and sealed the bag. The steak bathed at 54 degrees for one hour, which cooks the entire steak evenly medium rare, rather than a pan method where it will be cooked on the outside and rare in the centre. Out of the bag came an insipid steak, needing a bit of love. I heated up a cast iron pan until smoking, then seared it for about 30 seconds each side to attain a perfect golden caramelisation. The steak was unbelievably tender, perfectly seasoned and boasted a beautiful herb flavour. The only downside was that the fat didn’t render down, and I am not a fan of eating solid beef fat. While this was an unbelievably tasty bit of steak, it’s not something your average home cook will whip up. Totally worth it if you have a sous vide machine though!
The Dry Aged
Kenji’s ‘dry brining’ method was next in my test kitchen. The steak is liberally seasoned with salt, then left to dry age on a wire rack, uncovered in the fridge, for 24 hours. The salt penetrates through the steak, giving it a deep level of seasoning and helping to break down the proteins, whilst also allowing the edges of the meat to dry out. A dry steak surface is key, so the pan can focus on browning the meat rather than evaporating moisture before working to brown it. To cook the steak, I set a cast iron pan over the highest heat possible and added a splash of canola oil. Once smoking, the steak is placed in the pan (straight from the fridge) and seared on one side until golden brown, flipped to colour the alternative side, then flipped every minute or so until medium-rare. Like all steak, it’s rested for around 10 minutes, but this one had hardly any resting juices seep out. This steak was outstanding. Incredibly flavoursome, tender, and surprisingly juicy. There was a very defined colouring, cooked on the outside and pink in the middle. I am usually a pepper girl, but I didn’t miss the pepper in this one.
The Quick Pan Sear
Throughout my research, the most common method was to sear a liberally seasoned, room temperature steak in a smoking hot cast iron pan until medium rare. Kenji’s version of this method adds in a knob of butter, sliced shallots and thyme sprigs near the end of cooking, which is basted over the steak. The butter adds sweetness to the charred steak while the shallot and thyme deepen the flavour. Kenji is an American chef, so most likely hasn’t experienced a Bunnings sausage sizzle. If he had, he would have realised his steak is the gourmet replica of the iconic $2.50 treat. Don’t get me wrong, it was delicious, but the steak gets lost amongst the BBQ onion flavour.
The Stovetop Char
I expected Samin Nosrat, author of Salt Fat Acid Head, to have a bit more of a complex steak cooking method. Samin followed the common method; however, to get her cast iron pan smoking hot, she pre heats it in a 260°C oven for 20 minutes. This set my smoke alarm off, and my oven is still recovering from the trauma. Once hot, the pan is transferred to the stovetop on a high heat. The recipe never mentions adding a splash of oil, so I seared the liberally seasoned steak in a dry pan. The pan was so hot the steak blackened a little on the edges, so I turned it down a smidge to control the heat until it was medium rare. Surprisingly, the steak was swimming in resting juices after 10 minutes. The intensely charred flavour was impressive considering there was no BBQ in sight, but unsurprising, as I continued to choke on the smoke-filled air of my kitchen. The meat was incredibly juicy and nicely seasoned but the char was the overriding flavour.
The Herb Whipped
Whilst scouring YouTube, I found Jamie Oliver’s perfect steak method. Picture this, in his lispy British accent he says to give the steak a “ruddy good whipping” with a bouquet of herbs. After a good giggle I picked this as my final steak recipe. Jamie also follows the room-temp steak technique, heavily seasoned with both salt and pepper, and seared in a smoking hot cast iron pan. Once the steak has a nice sear on it, you rub it with a bit of butter to impart a sweet flavour onto the crust. This is also when you get to give the steak a ruddy good whipping with a bunch of thyme and oregano. Once medium rare and rested, I eagerly sliced it up. Turns out the whipping was just for fun as the flavour of the herbs was lost, especially when compared to the herby sous vide steak. Whilst still delicious, this one just lacked compared to the others.
After cooking these beautiful steaks, I gained huge confidence on fast cooking meat and a greater appreciation that if you put in the love, you’ll reap the rewards. While the sous vide steak was one of my favourites, I think it’s best we leave that method to the chefs. The dry aged steak had an unbeatable tender flesh and perfect seasoning, while Samin Nosrat’s deep char brought the nostalgic BBQ notes to a stovetop steak. As for the buttery steaks, the added sweetness was noted but unnecessary.
Perfect Steak with Mexican Tomato Salad
Combining the dry age and stovetop char methods, you will love this steak and your newfound meat cooking confidence. Remember, practice makes perfect, so don’t stress if you over or under cook it the first few times. The cooking method will work equally as well with a smokin’ hot BBQ or grill pan.
4 x 250g scotch fillet steaks (I like the ones from Magills Butchery)
5–6 vine tomatoes
1 punnet of mixed cherry tomatoes
small handful of fresh coriander
40g punnet of microgreens
1 cup sour cream
¼ cup chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (available at Vetro)
3 tbsp lime juice
small handful of chopped coriander
To prepare the steak, clear a space in your fridge big enough to fit an oven tray. Set a wire rack over the oven tray. Remove steak from all packaging, then sprinkle liberally with flaky sea salt. Place steak on the wire rack/oven tray and leave uncovered in the fridge for at least 24 hours or up to 2 days. If you are reading this and don’t have 24 hours to allow your steak to age, skip this step entirely, a few hours of dry aging isn’t worth it. Instead, just pat dry and season liberally before cooking.
Remove the steak from the fridge an hour before cooking, to allow it to come to room temperature.
Open the windows and turn on the extraction, then heat up a cast iron pan until smoking hot. Once smoking, carefully place your steaks in the pan (no oil or extra salt needed). Cook on one side for about 1 minute or until it has a golden-char colour, then flip to caramelise the other side. If the steak is burning, turn the heat down slightly, but not too much, as you do want the BBQ char flavour. Flip every minute or so until the steak has had about 3–4 minutes each side (for medium rare). Take these timings with a grain of salt, each steak differs in thickness and each pan’s heat will vary slightly, but these are a good guideline for a 250g steak. Rest the steaks for 10 minutes while you prepare the salad.
Blitz the sour cream, chipotle peppers, coriander, lime juice and a pinch of salt in a food processor until smooth. Set aside.
Slice the vine tomatoes into thin rounds, slice the cherry tomatoes in half. Arrange the tomato slices on a wide platter, dotting the cherry tomatoes throughout. Season the tomatoes generously with salt and pepper, then dollop half of the dressing over. Slice the rested steak into thin slices, then arrange on top of the tomatoes. Sprinkle over the fresh coriander, microgreens and dollop the remaining dressing. Serve with tortilla chips.