How To Cook a Restaurant-Quality Pan-Seared Steak at Home
Because making it for someone you care for is undoubtedly an act of love.
Cooking a steak for someone you care for is undoubtedly a showcase of love. Cooking a steak for yourself is a moment of pure self-actualization. Searing a steak requires confidence, heart, and a no-fuss attitude. With this mentality and preferably a one and one-fourth inch thick cut ribeye, you are ready to play with the big kids. I checked in with Ryan DeNicola, Executive Chef of Nancy Silverton’s renowned Los Angeles steakhouse Chi SPACCA, for some hot takes on how to achieve professional meat tenderness with a perfect sear.
Steak should ideally be cooked in a cast iron pan. This type of pan retains and distributes heat more evenly, but if you are without a cast iron, you can still self actualize with a non-stick or whatever else you cook meat in. According to DeNicola, “pan searing is a method that involves cooking proteins on high heat, with plenty of fat. In doing so, we are able to obtain the advantages of the Maillard reaction, which is defined as the caramelization of sugars in proteins, named after Louis-Camille Maillard, a French chemist who theorized that this reaction of amino acids with sugars at high temperatures is the most common chemical reaction on Earth.” Yummy, science! To summarize: fire hot, meat good.
Okay, has your steak come up to room temperature? Yes? Wonderful. You are ready.
Step one: Dry your meat, friends. Removing excess moisture from your steak slab will expedite the evaporation of water in the protein. You want this. If your steak is too damp after sitting in its packaging, you won’t achieve a crisp sear, which is the entire point of this article. So pat it dry, okay? Next, coat the steak in olive oil. Don’t drown it. This isn’t a marinade, just a quick rub down to make it shine. This is the fat in the chemical reaction Chef DeNicola mentioned, along with the natural fats in the meat itself. Marbled meats and cuts that have a bit of a “fat cap” are my personal choice because of the way their fat interacts with the protein. I’m here for those rendered, natural juices, sweetie.
Next, we season. DeNicola suggests about one teaspoon per pound of meat. We both agree a fairly generous amount of salt, evenly spread across the meat is the best way. Next, a heavy handed amount of coarsely ground black pepper. If it’s ground any finer, it won’t do the meat justice, so don’t be afraid of a peppery crunch. This means each peppercorn should be cracked into three to four small pieces. DeNicola says, “don’t even bother” if it’s a smaller grind than this, ya hear?
Wait until the pan is ripping hot, then add the meat. DeNicola notes that if you have several steaks, make sure there is at least a half an inch of space in all directions between them, because “overcrowding the pan will screw up the work you did to dry the steak in step one.” The remaining moisture will start to steam the meat if they are in too close proximity, and we are searing, not steaming. (If you are cooking a singular steak, this note does not apply).
Please, do not touch your steak for at least two minutes. This is that no-fuss attitude I mentioned. Refrain from moving or lifting to peek under the steak during these first few minutes to check if it’s working. It is. “Let it burn. Don’t be afraid of color. We have a saying in restaurants, ‘color is flavor.’ Color on a sear shows that you know what you’re doing, and that you respect Louise-Camille Maillard, always respect Louise!” DeNicola declares with panache.
Once your steak has caramelized enough to form a crust, flip that goodness over and cook another two to three minutes on the remaining side. Depending on the thickness of your steak, you might want to sear the ends as well if they look like they need a little more of this color. This is not always necessary, but when it is, use tongs to hold the steak in place while it gets hit with the heat. The thicker your steak, the longer it will take to cook, but not much longer. Remove from the pan and let rest. A steak should be cooked medium rare. You can disagree and have other preferences, but you will be wrong. I say this with compassion.
Using a meat thermometer will help determine doneness if you don’t trust the touch method yet. (It should feel tender, but have a bit of a spring back when you press your finger to it.) I suggest removing the steak at 130 degrees as it will come up about five degrees from residual heat while it rests, and 135 is a perfect medium rare. “The fibers will calm and distribute their juices evenly throughout the steak,” says DeNicola. Let it hang out for about five to eight minutes before you slice, and always cut against the grain—this helps to disrupt the integrity of the fibers, which makes each bite easier to chew, giving the meat a better mouthfeel. DeNicola’s favorite way to serve steak is doused in excellent olive oil, a few flakes of sea salt, and BOOM! *Chef’s kiss*
I also love a steak covered in compound butter, which is just butter mixed with other ingredients, typically garlic and herbs. This is a charming little topper and never fails to disappoint. If this is your desired effect, get a tablespoon or two of softened butter and mix with finely minced garlic, rosemary, thyme, tarragon, or whatever herbs suit your fancy (dry herbs work, too, if you’re just rummaging through the spice rack). The butter works best pressed, and re-chilled so you can slice it and let the steak’s heat warm it back up, in real time.
While on the subject…
If your preference is to baste with butter during the cooking process, I relate. This is an attractive technique, especially when cooking in front of others: It’s vibey. A basting spoon filled with hot, foaming butter, paired with the aromatics of a sprig of rosemary, thyme, and a clove or two of garlic certainly isn’t going to suck. If this is the method you’re looking for, add in a knob of butter, and aforementioned garlic and herbs during the second side of your searing process. You don’t want to add the herbs too soon because they’ll burn, and the initial side of the meat needs that hard sear. Listen for the sizzle, then add your other tidbits and baste after you’ve flipped the steak. The point of this approach is to coat the crust with butter (the raw side need not be basted).
Steak, in its simplicity, is a perfect food. When seasoned with intention and cooked mindfully, it is indulgent as much as it is honest. Also, it’s been maybe 15 minutes since the start of this project, and you have already achieved meat bliss. Incredible journey!
- Ribeye steak, 1 - 1 ¼ inch thick (or bone-in New York)
- salt and coarsely ground black pepper
- olive oil
- 1-2 tablespoons butter
- 2 cloves garlic
- rosemary sprig
- thyme sprig