When travelling, more often than not I will order steak with a side of steamed vegetables for my evening meal. It's a simple dish, and one of my all-time favourites, particularly when it is done well (as opposed to well-done).
But there's nothing quite as disappointing as being served a piece of beef that's grey, tasteless and chewy, particularly when it's accompanied by a side of greens that have had all semblance of flavour and texture boiled out of them. And yet it happens again and again.
In my humble opinion, if a chef can't present a decent steak, he or she should get out of the kitchen.
Now I don't profess to know everything about cooking meat, but I did grill my first ever T-bone when I was about ten years old, and I've been enjoying them ever since. That equates to some 47 years of steak cooking experience, so I thought you might not mind if I shared a few simple tips with you.
The simple art of cooking steak...
Know your cow
This theory goes back to the days of home economics classes, when we were given charts depicting carcasses of beef, showing the various cuts and their cooking purposes. On that note, this PDF produced by Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) is a good reference source.
The amount of work done by the part of the body while the animal was alive will affect the tenderness of the meat. That's why meat from the leg is less tender than meat from, say, the back or the rump of the animal. Makes perfect sense. Hence, my own preference for steak is generally T-bone, sirloin, or porterhouse. But I also love a rib cutlet or rib eye on the bone, although those can be quite enormous at times... I'm talking Fred Flinstone sized steaks.
Make friends with a butcher
When you buy your meat from a reputable butcher, you have the opportunity to ask about its provenance. Is it prime beef or yearling? Has it been grain fed or grass fed? Has it been dry aged?How long has it been hung?
Take it from me... for ten years I managed a fresh food market and there were four butchers on site. All different. A good butcher, if he (or she) is worth his salt, will sell you good meat. And will be able to answer your questions. What's more, you'll be supporting a small business in your local area. And that's a good thing, right?
Store it with care
Unless you are going to cook it right away, freeze or refrigerate your meat the moment you get home from the store. Make sure it is wrapped securely. And take care defrosting it too. I've seen people defrost bagged frozen steak in a sink full of warm water. Ugh. That is not the way to do it, folks. And please don't leave frozen meat on the kitchen bench all day while you are at work, either, especially during warmer months.
Thaw your steak on a platter in the refrigerator, and bring it to room temperature by removing it from the fridge 30-60 minutes before cooking.
Steak can be char grilled, barbecued or fried. In fact, in cooler months I will often cook steak in my carbon steel wok, which has excellent heat conductivity and can be cranked up to reasonably high temperatures, searing the meat well. Another favourite for cooking steak indoors is my thick-bottomed AUSFonte cast iron pan from Solidteknics, which becomes naturally non-stick with time.
That said, I do love steak that has been cooked on a barbecue, particularly when there's smoke involved.
If there is a good, thick strip of fat around the steak, I tend not to use oil. Dab the meat with paper towelling to remove any moisture or blood. Snip the fat and attached membrane with a sharp knife or kitchen scissors, so that the steak doesn't curl. You can brush the meat lightly with oil, and season it with salt and pepper. Ensure that the barbecue, grill plate or frypan is hot before you start cooking the steak, otherwise it might 'stew'.
Listen for the sound of the sizzle when the meat hits the grill plate or pan. Now leave it alone, allowing it to seal before you turn it over with tongs to cook the other side. One or two celebrity chefs recommend turning the steak several times during cooking and, yes, you can do that... but I prefer the John Lennon method... let it be.
When is a steak done?
Well now, that all depends on how you or your guests like it 'done'. For those who are unsure, a food probe or meat thermometer will tell you when your steak is ready. According to the MLA, steak is 'well-done' when the internal temperature reaches 75 degrees C. For medium-well done, the temperature will be around 70 degrees C. Medium is 65-70 degrees C. For those who enjoy their steak medium-rare, the temperature should be 60-65 degrees C. And 55-60 degrees C for rare steak.
The other way to test, is to gently press the meat with a pair of tongs. A well-done steak will feel firm, whereas a medium-cooked steak will spring back, and a rare-cooked steak will still feel soft.
I need to rest!
I know you're hungry and keen to eat your masterpiece, but it's important to let the steak rest after cooking. Transfer the meat to a plate and cover it loosely with a piece of aluminium foil. And leave it alone for, say, five to ten minutes. This will give you enough time to faff about, set the table, and pour yourself and your guests a glass of red.
A few of my favourites...
Over the years, I've sampled my fair share of the humble 'steak and veg' in fine dining establishments, as well as bistros, clubs and pubs around the world, and would like to share with you some stand outs.
There's the Great Southern Inn at Eden, New South Wales, where the chef and his team, serve T-Bone steak which is full of flavour. The vegetables are steamed until tender, retaining flavour and crunch.
Similarly, the Porterhouse Bistro in Moss Vale, New South Wales, which for the last two years has been a state finalist in the "Pepperjack Battle of the Steaks Challenge", puts forward a cracker of a dish. Again, the steak is flavoursome and tender, and the vegetables are perfect.
Closer to home, Canberra's Marble & Grain - a chic European-style steakhouse and gastro pub. There, Executive Chef, Paul D’Monte, offers fabulous sirloin, fillet or rib eye steak, served with Paris mash, roquette, bone marrow and red wine jus.
Speaking with the chefs at each of the above venues, they confirmed my philosophy that the quality of the beef is as important as the skill in the cooking process. 'Don't rush it,' advised chef Paul D'Monte, who loves the marbled fat on a wagyu rump. 'Turn the meat minimally during the cooking stage, and make sure you rest it before serving.'
And now for a recipe or two...
100g unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup coriander leaves, washed and patted dry
1/2 cup flat leaf parsley leaves, washed and patted dry
1-2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Pop the ingredients into a food processor Ninja blender, and whizz until well combined. Spread a sheet of cling film onto the kitchen benchtop and spoon the prepared butter onto the plastic, then roll it into a log and twist seal the ends. Refrigerate for 1-2 hours until the butter is firm. Slice into rounds and serve on freshly cooked steak. Serves 4.
BLUE CHEESE BUTTER
100g unsalted butter, at room temperature
1-2 garlic cloves, peeled
100g Blue Castello cheese
1 teaspoon sage leaves, washed and patted dry
Place the ingredients in a food processor Ninja blender, and whizz until thoroughly combined. Spread a sheet of cling film onto the kitchen benchtop and spoon the prepared butter onto the plastic, then roll it into a log and twist seal the ends. Refrigerate for 1-2 hours until the butter is firm. Slice into rounds and serve on freshly cooked steak. Serves 4.
Tell me dear readers, do you enjoy a good steak? What's your favourite cut? And where in the world have eaten the best steak?
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I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.