How to Cook Steak
If you're looking to cook the perfect steak at home, you've come to the right place. We've compiled everything you need to know about buying the perfect steak, plus step-by-step instructions on how to grill, oven-roast or pan-sear a restaurant-quality steak in no time at all.
A great steak is the ultimate in American comfort food. Perfectly cooked, it’s unlike anything else: buttery-soft yet crispy, sumptuously flavorful and deeply satisfying. It’s this high bar, perhaps, that also makes steak one of the most intimidating meats to cook. Indeed for even the most well-seasoned home chef, classic steak dinners are more often than not an indulgence reserved for trips to fancy special occasion restaurants or the local, well-trusted steakhouse.
And while we totally get why cooking a good steak may seem a daunting task in theory-- so many disparate textures that need be nailed, so much flavor that needs to be pulled from the meat, and the ever-present fear of cutting open a beautiful steak just to find it raw, or, even worse, well-done, in the middle-- we’ve got some good news: in reality, steak is actually super easy to cook. All that separates you from a perfectly-cooked steak are a few choice ingredients, a dash of patience and a few uber simple techniques that ensure a crispy sear, melt-in-your-mouth middle and deeply savory, buttery flavor every time. Below, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know to cook a perfect steak every time.
Table of contents
Buying Your Steak
- What to Look Out For
- Cuts of Steak
- Grades of Steak
- How to Cook Steak in the Oven
- How to Cook Steak on the Stove
- How to Grill Steak
Buying Your Steak
Cooking a perfect steak usually requires very few ingredients; some salt and pepper, butter and rosemary, and maybe a bit of marinade if you’re feeling adventurous. Indeed if you’ve cooked your steak right, you won’t taste anything but rich, savory, buttery beef flavor. This makes it of supreme importance to always start off with a good, thoughtfully-chosen piece of meat. You don’t need a bid budget to do this as much as an understanding of the factors which give steak its flavor, as well as the myriad different cuts on the market, which vary greatly in texture, flavor and price.
What to Look Out For
Marbling: Marbling refers to the content of intramuscular fat in a cut of meat. The more marbling, or fat, in the meat, the more juicy, tender and richly-flavored the steak tends to be. You can actually easily see the marbling in each cut, so there’s no guesswork here. The fat presents as the thick, jello-y strips of white that tend to lay near the bone, as well as the white flecks which punctuate the actual red meat. A higher-fat cut of meat like the ribeye will have intense marbling, with multiple veins of white fat interspersed throughout the meat, while a leaner cut like the flank steak will have very little white swirling and flecks.
Aging: Aging is one of the most common ways to tenderize steak. After the steak is cut, it’s left in a controlled environment, and sometimes covered with tenderizers such as salt, for a few weeks up to multiple months, a process which naturally breaks down the tissues and ultimately yields a notably less chewy, more tender steak. This is a more fancy preparation, so most grocery stores won’t have aged raw steaks in stock. However if you’re looking for a particularly special cut of steak, it’s worth a visit to your dedicated butcher for an aged cut.
The Cow's Diet: What a cow eats has a major impact on the kind of meat it ultimately produces. Most cows are raised on either two types of diets-- exclusively grass-fed, or grass-fed-grain-finished, wherein grains are introduced into the animal’s diet in its later months. While this might not seem like a major distinction, the differences between these diets when it comes to the resulting cut of meat are surprisingly vast. Grain-finished diets ultimately produce a higher-fat, more marbled meat, while exclusively grass-fed cows will yield a leaner steak. On the other hand, grass-fed beef is more nutritious, with higher levels of antioxidants and an array of vitamins and up to two times as many heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids as stock on grain-finished diets. Grass-fed diets are also a more sustainable farming practice than grass-fed-grain-finished, as cows on strict grass diets take longer to mature. However this means that grass-fed beef tends to be a bit pricier than grass-fed-grain-finished, generally around $4 more a pound.
Cuts of Steak
Perhaps the most important variable to keep in mind when shopping for steak is its cut. The cut of a steak tells you everything you need to know about the steak: how firm or tender it will be, how juicy the meat will become, whether it’s delicately or boldly-flavored, and, of course, how expensive it is. Below are 7 of the most popular cuts of steak, and what you should know about them.
Top Sirloin: Top sirloin is one of the leanest cuts of steak, with very little marbling throughout. This makeup yields a super beefy, less tender steak that stands up particularly well to flavorful marinades and sauces. It’s also a great grilling meat. Top sirloin is one of the cheaper cuts of steak on the market.
New York Strip: If you’re looking for intense steak flavor, the New York Strip is your best bet. This is a firmer cut of steak, with swirls of decadent marbling throughout that yield deep beef-y flavor and a chewier, yet supremely juicy and delicious bite. New York Strips are one of the more expensive cuts of steak.
Filet Mignon: This is one of the pricier cuts of steak, and for good reason-- it’s one of the most tender cuts you can buy, so butter-soft that when it’s properly cooked, a filet mignon can be easily cut with a butter knife. Compared to most other top-shelf cuts, filet mignon actually has a relatively low level of marbling, yielding a more mild beef-y flavor that goes well with stronger marinades. The filet mignon is taken from the smaller end of the tenderloin, meaning that relatively few cuts can be butchered from each animal. This ultimately translates to a higher price, with the filet mignon one of the most expensive cuts on the market.
T-Bone: If you’re the kind of person who enjoys the best of both worlds, the T bone is for you. This steak actually comprises two different cuts in one: a New York strip and a filet mignon, separated by a T-shaped bone that makes up its namesake. This is one of the larger cuts of steak, but if you have an appetite it’s a no-brainer: in one cut, you get to enjoy both the delicate, tender flavor of a filet mignon with the beefier, firm texture and flavor of a New York strip. Just as the filet mignon and New York strip are two of the more expensive cuts of meat, you can expect to find pricing for T-bones on the higher end of the spectrum.
Ribeye: The ribeye’s intense marbling makes it a time-honored favorite for many steak enthusiasts, with its high fat levels yielding a juicy, super-rich cut. Its ideal ratio of intramuscular fat generally makes the ribeye a pricer cut of meat.
Flank Steak: The flank is another particularly lean cut of steak, with a rich beefy flavor and low amounts of marbling that makes it one of the most versatile cuts around, suitable for everything from grilling to broiling to roasting. Flank steaks tend to be moderately priced, usually a bit pricier than budget options but far from the prices of the higher echelon of cuts.
Flat Iron: The flat iron is another super decadent cut, second only to filet mignon when it comes to tenderness. However unlike the filet mignon, the flat iron steak has a high level of marbling, producing an incredibly juicy meat that’s more beefy in flavor than the filet mignon. It’s also one of the most affordable steak around, generally considered a budget cut.
Grades of Steak
When buying steak, make sure to take a look for its USDA grade, a tier system implemented by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) that gives a specific score to each cut of meat based on its flavor profile and the amount of available meat within each cut. There are three grades, and each cut of meat should have a sticker clearly delineating which grade the cut falls into:
USDA Prime Beef: The best tier, USDA prime beef has been produced from young, well-fed cattle, has a high level of marbling. Generally USDA prime beef is sold in restaurants and hotels, and is not as common for sale at the supermarket.
USDA Choice Beef: USDA choice beef is still high quality but will have less marbling than prime beef.
USDA Select Beef: Select beef will be leaner than choice cuts, meaning it will be less tender, juicy and flavorful.
Whether you’re grilling, pan-searing or roasting your steak, there are a few cardinal rules to follow in the lead-up to cooking your steak.
Remove your steak from the refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking. Cold meat will seize up when it’s heated, leading to chewier, less juicy meat. Thus, it’s important to leave your steak out at room temperature for 30-45 minutes before cooking.
Blot your steak. Make sure to blot both sides of your steak with a dry paper towel before cooking to ensure a perfect, crispy sear.
Season your meat. Seasoning your raw meat before it’s in the pan or oven will help tenderize it and enhance the natural beef flavor while producing a delicious crust. Feel free to go a super simple route with just some salt and pepper, or you can add some of your favorite herbs and spices, such as rosemary or garlic powder. You can even take it an extra step and season your steak with salt 18-24 hours before cooking, which will add even more flavor.
Get out your meat thermometer. A meat thermometer is an indispensable tool when cooking steak, as it allows you to cook the steak to your specifications without actually cutting it open and compromising the cooking process. Remember to stick your thermometer in the middle of your steak, and make sure it hits the middle of the meat.
Here’s a quick guide to steak temperatures and their correlating doneness:
Rare: 120-130 °F
Medium-Rare: 130-135 °F
Medium: 135-145 °F
Medium-Well: 145-155 °F
Well-Done: 155-165 °F
How to Cook Steak in the Oven
Cooking in the oven is perhaps the most classic way to prepare steak, and usually the technique of choice for steakhouses. That said, it’s probably the easiest as well. Cooking a steak in the oven requires very little time, usually no more than 10 minutes, and takes out the guesswork associated with the stove or grill. No basting, or hovering over the stove with a meat thermometer-- simply pop your steak in the oven and a few minutes later you’ll have a juicy, perfectly-cooked piece of meat.
And while you can just throw your steak in the oven, most modern oven-cooking techniques, including this one, call for searing the steak in a skillet on the stove before putting it in the oven. This just takes no more than a minute but produces an incredible sear that you just can’t get at over temperatures, all while preserving the juiciness of the meat.
Once you’ve blotted dry and seasoned your steak with salt, pepper and a brush of olive oil, heat a skillet on the stove over high heat for about 7-10 minutes, until extremely hot.
Place the steak in the skillet for 30 seconds, then flip to the other side and cook for an additional 30 seconds.
Transfer the skillet to the oven and broil for 3 minutes. Then, flip the steak and broil for an additional 2-4 minutes, or until your meat thermometer has reached your desired temperature.
Take the steak out of the oven and transfer to a plate, letting it sit for 5 minutes before serving.
How to Cook Steak on the Stove
Pan-seared steak might require a bit more effort (get ready to baste!), but most home chefs say it’s the easiest way to get that super-juicy-on-the-inside, decadently-crispy-on-the-outside texture that’s become characteristic of fine dining steaks.
Once you’ve patted dry and seasoned your steak, heat a heavy pan over medium-high heat until it’s very hot. Once the pan starts to smoke slightly, it’s ready.
Add the steak and sear until a brown crust forms, about 3-4 minutes. Turn over and cook the other side for an additional 3-4 minutes. Using tongs, sear the top, sides of the steak until a brown crust forms as well, about 1-2 minutes per side.
Add approximately 2-3 tablespoons of butter, 2 cloves of garlic and sprig of rosemary to the pan. Once the butter has melted, spoon it over the steak, continuously, for approximately 2-3 minutes, or until the steak has reached your desired temperature.
Remove the steak from the skillet and let it rest for 10 minutes before serving.
How to Grill Steak
Grilling adds a unique flavor all its own to steak, imbuing the meat with a decadent smokiness and crispy exterior that’s far different than pan-seared or oven-roasted iterations. It’s the ultimate summertime treat, or if you have a grill pan, a delicious lunch or dinner you can whip up in just a few minutes any time of the year. Just follow the same instructions. And remember: grilling lends itself particularly well to marinades.
Once you’ve pat dry and seasoned your steak, brush each side with olive or vegetable oil.
Heat your grill or grill pan to high heat. Place your steak on the grill and cook for approximately 5 minutes, until golden brown with a slight char. Turn and cook the other side and grill for 3-8 minutes, depending on how well done you want your meat.
Take the steaks off the grill and place on a plate, covering with tin foil. Let rest for 5 minutes before serving.
Whether you’re pan-searing, oven-roasting or grilling, there’s no reason to be intimidated when it comes to cooking steak. With just a few ingredients, about as much time in the kitchen and now the help of these super-simple techniques and info, you’re more than ready to make a steakhouse-quality cut of meat at home. Want to know how to cook sweet potatoes another way, or have a suggestion for the next installment of our How To series? We'd love to hear from you! Shoot us an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.