Insider: The Perfect Steak
I was sitting on my porch, pouring a glass of bourbon and lighting up a cigar immediately following a steak dinner, when the thought came to mind: can it get any better than this? With plenty of time ahead to contemplate, the realization occurred that people have been eating steaks, pouring whiskey, and enjoying cigars in this country for over 200 years. While there is no place like home, it’s intriguing to imagine a bygone era well over a century ago when patrons would walk into Delmonico’s in New York City at six-o-clock and remain there for hours on end eating, drinking, and enjoying their favorite cigars. Unfortunately, those days are all but over, but my question was answered. Yes, it can get better. The steak could have been prepared closer to Delmonico’s standards, the whiskey selection could have been better, and the ambiance of the back porch could have used a bit more charm. While there was no room or budget to address the ambiance and whiskey selection, the quality of the steak preparation was something that could be improved upon. In response, I set out to hunt down the secret of creating a steakhouse quality steak at home.
After doing the research and testing out all the ‘Perfect Steak’ methods, the findings are in. First things first, to create a great prepared steak, it all starts with getting the best ingredients. The grade, cut, and thickness of the steak make a world of difference, and if you are lucky enough to purchase dry aged beef, that’s an added bonus. Beef is graded from best to worst by the USDA as follows: Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, and others worse that are not typically cut into steaks. The higher the grade, the higher the fat content, and the more even the marbling of the fat, the more tender your steak will be. The average supermarket sells beef graded as Standard or Select, and a higher end market or butcher may sell Choice. Prime is hard to come by for a reasonable price, but I was lucky enough to pick up a Prime Ribeye butchered to my specifications by the local commercial meat distributor. To create a steakhouse quality steak, stick to Prime or Choice beef.
The cut of the beef is up to personal preference, but for the preparation method outlined below, consider the following cuts. Ribeye: this is a steakhouse classic also referred to as Delmonico or Prime Rib based on how the meat is butchered and prepared. This cut has ample fat content and is very tender. Strip: commonly referred to as New York Strip. This cut is less tender than the Ribeye because of its reduced fat content, but is easier to prepare because the fat can lead to grill flare-ups. Tenderloin: or Filet Mignon is one of the most popular cuts in the country. For those who like a tender steak without the fat, this is the best choice. The downside is that it’s the most expensive, and lacks the depth of flavor that other cuts possess. T-Bone: or more likely called Porterhouse, is a cut that includes the Strip and Tenderloin separated by a bone. This is a steak only for the uber-famished. To create a great steak, a thick cut is needed, and a 1 ½” thick Porterhouse will run twenty ounces plus. My preference is the Ribeye, but to each their own.
Next comes the thickness of the cut, and this is very key in the equation. As a general rule of thumb, the steak will need to be an inch thick at the bare minimum. My Ribeye was butchered into 2” thick steaks and it worked beautifully. When browsing the pre-cut steaks in the supermarket, it is very difficult to find steaks cut thicker than an inch. They cut thin to show maximum value since two 1” steaks look like a whole lot more for the money than one 2” steak. My recommendation is to never buy a pre-packaged steak if there is a butcher available. The gentlemen at the commercial meat distributor referred to this packaging as “meat diapers,” which really made me regret a lifetime of bad steak decisions. In short, always choose a thicker steak as long as you can finish it in one sitting.
Another important factor is the age of the beef. At Delmonico’s, their Prime Ribeye is dry aged forty days. To dry age a steak properly, the beef needs to be aged before it is cut into steaks. This process concentrates the beef’s flavor and adds tenderness as the muscle breaks down. When steaks are aged thirty-plus days, they will also start to develop nutty and earthy flavors, which are also found in aged cheeses. Well-aged beef is very difficult to find and even harder to do at home. The rule of thumb is to look for beef aged 20-50 days. Any less and the change in quality will not be worth the price, and any more and the intensity of the newly developed flavors will be off-putting for most. Bottom line, to create the best steaks, don’t skimp on the steak itself.
On to preparation, which was the hardest part to master. Over the course of five days, three fire detectors were set off and a couple sub-standard steaks made it to the plate. When all was said and done, there was a method that surpassed all the others and allowed for preparation outside on the grill, where I could enjoy a pre-dinner cigar and sear the beef without the fear of burning down the house. The process requires a gas or charcoal grill, a thick cast iron skillet, a meat thermometer, salt, pepper, and olive oil. The preparation steps are as follows:
1. Let the steaks set out on the counter covered for 30 minutes to come to room temperature.
2. Turn your grill on the highest setting and place a cast iron skillet twice the size of your steak on the grill top and close the hood for at least 20 minutes. The goal is to get the skillet as hot as possible before searing.
3. Pat the raw steaks dry with a paper towel. Excess moisture will essentially boil the meat and turn it gray, instead of the dark brown char of a fine steak.
4. Lightly brush each side with olive oil and generously add salt and pepper. Far more salt is needed than you think. It will also help to develop the sought-after crust.
5. Open the grill hood and place one steak in the skillet, taking care not to accidentally burn yourself on the hot skillet. Even though the skillet can hold two steaks, it’s better to sear one at a time to guarantee a surface that is just as hot on the other side when the steak is flipped.
6. Wait 1 ½ minutes and flip the steak to the un-used side of the skillet and sear the opposite side for an additional 1 ½ minutes.
7. Reduce heat to medium-high and place steak directly on the grill.
8. Insert the meat thermometer fully into the steak and close the hood.
9. Wait for the thermometer to reach to following temperatures for the desired doneness: Rare: 125° Medium Rare: 130° Medium: 135° Medium-Well: 140° Well-Done: 150°
10. Let your masterpiece rest for 5 minutes before serving.
Now that you have a steakhouse quality steak, all that is left to do is pick a couple of sides. My recommendation includes a glass of whiskey or a bold red wine and a cigar. The fats from the steak will cling to your palate and make your after-dinner cigar experience that much more enjoyable. This is the time to choose a bold, complex cigar with a ton of flavor. A few of my favorites include: Oliva Serie V, Man O’ War Ruination, Fuente Fuente OpusX, Padron Anniversary, or La Gloria Cubana Serie R. While you will never get the chance to step back in time and enjoy these three together at a fine setting such as Delmonico’s, you can get very close in the comfort of your own home. Enjoy!