The Keys to Great Steak, Courtesy of Craftsteak
Any aproned fool can hover around a grill with a beer in one hand and a spatula in the other. Precious few, however, truly grasp grilling’s most nuanced lesson: step aside and let the meat do its thing. In an effort to get you on the inside track to steak greatness, we chatted up the jefes at Tom Colicchio's Craftsteak, a thirteen-year destination cornerstone of MGM Grand on the Las Vegas strip, for a few pointers. On hand: Executive Chef Michael Chapman and General Manager Christopher Goss. Like anything worth doing, the steak basics are simple enough -- but mastery is a lifetime in the making.
The cut and grade
To a degree, cut selection is subjective. You prefer flat iron to ribeye? Cool. Do that. What's not subjective is grade -- determined mostly by marbling with a little help from the USDA. Marbling, for the people in the back, is the visible streaks and specks of white fat you find throughout lean meat. More marbling = more flavor = the kind of meat sweats you can feel good about.
Enter the USDA with their grading system. The scale runs from Standard (trace marbling) up to Prime (abundant marbling), but for best results forget Standard and Select (slight marbling) even exist. Chef Chapman advises strongly against using anything below Choice (moderate marbling). Goss adds that taking the extra time to talk to the man behind the meat counter will get you closer to the cut of your dreams than grabbing anything out of the cooler. The line between a strip and a ribeye, it seems, can be deceptively thin.
Wet-aged beef vs. dry-aged
Meat that’s been aged just tastes better -- enzymes begin to break down tissue for a more tender bite, but there's more than one way to go about it. Wet-aged beef is vacuum sealed and aged for a span of four to 10 days while in transit to market. Dry-aged beef is aged for weeks, with whole sides of beef or cuts hung at freezing temperatures ready for hard-scrabble Philadelphia boxers to assault. That environment ages and dehydrates the meat, concentrating flavors. Though dry-aged is more expensive and may yield better results, you can still get a murder-worthy wet-aged steak.
And not the degrees at which you're serving (that comes later). In the interest of even cooking, bring your meat to room temperature before firing. Unless, and this is a big unless, you want a blue (basically raw) interior. In the case of the latter, pull it right out of the fridge and get to work between punching lumber or whatever other extremely tough stuff you do. Otherwise, even for a rare steak with a warm core, you'll be well served if you're not fighting the ice box's frigid 35° F with your sear.
Salt. Pepper. Look, neither Goss nor Chapman are in the business of telling you how to enjoy your steak. You like marinade -- go to there. But, in the interest of staying true to Craftsteak's pillar philosophy, a good cut of meat pairs perfectly with the basics. You should be able to see your salt and pepper on the meat, but also consider your method of cooking. On a grill, you can afford to season liberally, given what you'll lose to the slats and gravity. In a pan, however, a conservative hand will win the day. Any excess has no place to go, and it's always easier to add seasoning than to strip it away. Hold off on this step until you're ready to cook. You don't want the salt leaching at your meat on the board while you wait.
If you're working on the stovetop, preheat your oven to 400°. Fire up a high heat under a cast-iron skillet and get it ridiculously blazing hot, like really, really hot. Now, sear your meat on both sides. Listen for the sizzle as your cue to turn. You want those fats to render while you score that brown crust. This chemical reaction, which results in the browning of the steak, is known as the Maillard Reaction, and it's what makes steak taste like wizards kissed every one of your taste buds. This happens fast, so don't overdo it or all that sweet science will turn to charcoal and bitterness. Now move your skillet to the oven for the finish. Different thicknesses will demand different times. On the grill, you'll want to go a little longer on the first side to get a nice crust and just long enough on the second to get some color. The second side is where you're most likely to overcook.
You may be tempted to use a thermometer to check your temperature. That's a surefire method (140°F and forget it), but we advise against it. You want to avoid poking unnecessary holes in your meat. Instead, use the ages-old technique of "finger pokery". Just touch that steak; a rare one should feel similar to the meat between your thumb and your forefinger. The further toward your wrist you move along the fleshy part of your thumb, the more done it is. Medium rare should feel the same as the ball of your thumb when you make a circle with your middle and finger and thumb. Well-done should feel like your bony forehead and you done messed up.
Letting it rest
This is the most important and one of the most overlooked steps. In fact, it was both the first and last mentioned by both Goss and Chapman separately. When you place a piece of meat on high heat, the natural reaction is for the juices to move away from it. Cut into your steak fresh from the fire and you'll have dry meat and a puddle of juice on your plate instead of, you know, in the steak. Not one part of that is appetizing. Rest your steak for at least five minutes to give those juices the time they need to resettle the entire steak. It’s meat science, the best science (sorry, paleobotany).
No, this doesn't mean adding fancy garnishes or using tweezers. The savvy chef knows that it's more important to serve a warm plate than a hot steak. Hot steak on a cold plate gets cold quickly. Warm steak on a warm plate: perfect. That five-minute resting period is a great opportunity to toss your serving dishes in the oven and nail the last step in delivering a kingly piece of beef.