How to Cook a Steak Like a Pro – A perfectly cooked steak doesn’t just happen. Chefs take years to learn the ins and outs of determining the right cut to use, how to season it, how long to cook it, and loads of other tricks to make sure each steak comes out perfectly, every time. Here’s what you need to know to cook the best steak at home.
Choose the right steak
“Finding the best product you can get your hands on is always the hardest part of cooking a great steak,” says Ryan Prentiss, former executive chef at Detroit’s Prime + Proper steakhouse. He starts by looking for a well-marbled steak. “Fat is flavor, so look for beef that is plump, bright red, and has the most marbling,” he says. “Marbling is the intramuscular fat present in high-quality beef that gives it a ‘marbled’ appearance. Grain-fed or grain-finished beef will have more marbling than a grass-fed beef.”
Next, consider an aged steak. “If you’re lucky enough to find a butcher that has dry-aged beef, I highly recommend trying anything aged from 15 to 30 days until you become acquainted with the flavor,” Prentiss says.
Joe Cervantez, executive chef at Pier 6 in San Leon, Texas, agrees, noting that steaks are best eaten at 23 to 28 days of aging. “Most steaks from the grocery store are aged 14 days,” he says. If you’re up for trying your hand at dry-aging, you can do it at home. Cervantez suggests that if you have access to a vacuum sealer, pack the meat in an airtight seal until it hits at least 23 days.
Then, pick the cut. Chef Dan Sharp of The Meatball Shop in New York City believes certain types of steak are better suited for grilling. He recommends a skirt steak for a hot grill, whereas a New York strip or rib eye steak is best for a cast-iron pan over a burner. For pan cooking, Sharp recommends a 3/4- to 1-inch steak because “the thickness gives you time to get a nice crust on the outside without overcooking the inside,” he says.
Embrace the family-size steak when cooking for a crowd
“Don’t be afraid to go with one large steak, like a 32-ounce rib-eye or a one-kilo porterhouse, for a group as opposed to multiple individual steaks,” says Prentiss. “One large steak is easier to manage and monitor on a grill than multiple smaller ones, and armed with a good thermometer, any cook can nail a perfect medium-rare every time.” Because of the inherent internal variation of cooking times within a steak, Prentiss says, you can accommodate diners who prefer medium rare and medium well with just one piece of meat.
Temper your steaks before cooking
Prentiss advises taking your steak out from the fridge about an hour before you cook it, and setting it on a roasting rack over a baking sheet to drain off the marinade or other liquid. (This is also the best time to season it with salt, ideally medium-grain sea salt, he says. More on that below.)
Sharp prefers to season his steaks a couple of hours in advance, and agrees about letting them come to room temperature before cooking. There’s an exception to this rule, however: “If [the steak] is on the thinner side,” he says, “starting it cold will give a buffer from overcooking the center.”
Use the right kind of salt — and lots of it
Choosing between the myriad types of salt can be confusing, but these chefs have definite opinions on what to use and when. “True sea salt is always the way to go when seasoning a steak,” Prentiss says. “We use Jacobsen’s kosher salt from Portland, Oregon. The grains are medium-sized and their pleasant minerality lends itself perfectly to grilled beef. Any true fleur de sel or sel gris-type sea salt will work well for good beef. Avoid table salt, iodized salt, or fine-grain sea salts as they have more weight to volume than larger grain salts, and you can easily over-season with them. Just think medium grain, true sea salt.”
Cervantez is a fan of kosher salt, which is virtually identical to sea salt. He advocates also seasoning steaks with pepper, and recommends combining pepper with salt in equal quantities.
When you do season your steak, go a little overboard. “Always overseason your steaks a bit,” says Christian Ragano, executive chef at Cindy’s rooftop restaurant at the Chicago Athletic Association. “When you think it’s enough, add a little more. A lot of salt and pepper falls off during the cooking process and doesn’t always penetrate the meat.”
Dinesh Jayawardena, regional executive chef for Radisson Hotel Group Americas, concurs, noting that salt is, “the most important ingredient you could ever add to a steak. Now is not the time to be shy about seasoning,” he says. “Do this before you let the steaks rest so the seasoning has time to work its way deep into the meat.”
Take steps to ensure a good crust
Before placing your steak on the grill, make sure there is no moisture on the surface of the meat. “Pat down your meat,” says Cervantez. “Dry meat forms the best crust.”
Juan Carlos Gonzalez, former executive chef of SoBou in New Orleans, likes to add a bit of olive oil as well, which he says helps achieve a better sear or griddle marks. If you do decide to add some fat, stick with olive oil, not butter, says Angelo Auriana, executive chef at Factory Place Hospitality. “There is no real need for butter when cooking a steak because it already has plenty of fat and flavor in the meat itself,” he says. (That is, of course, assuming you have a solid starting product.)
Set up your grill with hardwood (and skip the lighter fluid)
The best way to go, however, is hardwood or hardwood lump charcoal. “Natural solid fuels add the most flavor to steaks, complementing their natural flavors instead of overpowering them,” says Prentiss. “At P+P we [used] seasoned oak logs and a hardwood lump charcoal made from mesquite. This yields a consistent fire with minimal smoke that burns around 800°F.
“Always avoid lighter fluid if possible, and while convenient, charcoal briquettes can add an unpleasant kerosene flavor to grilled meats and should be avoided,” he continues. “If a wood/natural lump charcoal fire is unavailable or too inconvenient, propane grills will ultimately yield a better steak than charcoal briquettes and lighter fluid.”
Start with a super hot grill
“Be sure to let your charcoal fully catch and heat up before attempting to grill on it, about 20 to 30 minutes,” says Prentiss. “Your fire should have a bed of red-hot coals, [with] high, even heat across the grill, and minimal flames and smoke.”
“A hot cooking surface is extremely important to caramelize the outside of the steak and secure in the flavor,” says Jayawardena. “This method will give you a steak that is crispy on the outside, yet moist and tender inside.”
Use a meat thermometer — even if you’re a pro
That’s right — Ragano asserts this is one of the most important things to remember. “Temping a steak by hand can be tricky,” he says. “It takes a ton of practice and a ton of experience. Thomas Keller once said, ‘You have to cook a steak a thousand times just to suck at it.'”
Here are cooking temperature guidelines to keep in mind:
- Rare (red center): 125°F to 130°F
- Medium-rare (warm, dark pink center): 130°F to 135°F
- Medium (warm, pink center): 140°F to 145°F
- Medium-well (hot, slightly pink center): 150°F to 155°F
- Well done (brown all the way through): 160°F to 165°F
Don’t have a meat thermometer on hand? Chef Ted Hopson recommends using metal cake testers. “People are always looking for secrets on how to get the perfect steak doneness,” he says. “Metal cake testers are the best tool you can use for this. Insert the metal tester into the steak, leave it for five seconds, then pull it out and touch it to your lips or inner wrist. The internal temp of the steak will tell you how done it is. If it’s cold, your steak is rare; if it’s just warm, medium-rare; slightly hot, medium, etc. No more pushing on it to test it — what happens when you hit a muscle knot? Plus, cake testers are less than a dollar and you can get them in baking sections or on Amazon.”
Don’t flip your steak more than once
“Keep away from overturning your steak,” says Eric Schlicht, chef at Ocean Resort Casino’s American Cut in Atlantic City, New Jersey. “Let the Maillard reaction do its thing.” Maillard reaction is the name of the chemical reaction between amino acids and sugars that yields browned and caramelized food.
Ideally, Prentiss says, you should turn the steak once on each side to get those crosshatch grill marks, and then only flip it once.
Let the steak rest
“Cooking the steak to 10 degrees below your desired temp and then resting it allows for the collagen in the meat to thicken the juices as it cools slightly,” says Prentiss. “This creates a way juicier steak than just cooking straight to temp.”
Sharp agrees. “Let it rest. This is crucial,” he says. “Just because the steak is out of the pan doesn’t mean it stopped cooking. Keep it in a warm place — you don’t want a cold steak — and rest it for about as long as you cooked it.”
Gonzalez suggests allowing the steak to rest for half the cooking time before serving. So if your steak takes 10 minutes to cook, let it rest for five. This is a good time to put out sauces you want to serve with your steak, and make sure your sides and table are ready.
If you’re not able to keep the steak warm while it rests, or you want to eat it quite hot, Prentiss advises returning the steak to the grill after it’s rested and bringing it up to the internal temperature of your preference before eating. Then, give it a final pinch of salt before you serve. “With larger steaks it’s always a good idea to finish with some large flake or finishing salt once it’s sliced,” says Prentiss. Then, it’s time to eat.