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Culinary Lesson #32 - Steaks

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Today on my day off from work, I decided to do something I've never done before for breakfast.  I treated myself to a gorgeous steak from a local butcher, and served it alongside some over easy eggs and a giant mug of coffee.

It was a treat yo self day, and it was glorious.

But as I was cooking breakfast, I realized that that there was not a single post on the blog that talked about how to cook the perfect steak.  I did have an earlier culinary lesson talking about the different cuts of beef, which is important, but no follow-up as to what to do with the cuts.

Image credit goes to www.gorare.com.
Now before we get into the main post, I want to stress that 'cooking beef steaks' is one of the most general topics I could cover.  In fact, I could probably make a separate blog talking about the little that I do know (including, but not limited to, marinating, seasoning and dry rubs, cooking methods, braising, smoking, sauces, and so on).

But for today, let's just look three different topics to get started:  grading, cooking temperatures and doneness levels, and the importance of resting.

Grading.  When you're at the market picking out steaks to grill, you've probably noticed three common words on the packaging:  prime, choice, and select.  They're all meant as a way to describe a certain cut of beef in respect to its color, grain, texture, and fat distribution.  The best grade you can get is prime ($$$), which has a good amount of intramuscular fat marbled within it.  Next up, and more commonly used, is choice ($$).  Choice will typically have good flavor, but will be slightly tougher than prime cuts to due having only a medium level of marbling.  Last up, and the most affordable cut of beef, is referred to as select ($).  As you can probably imagine, select cuts have very little marbling which translates into drier and less flavorful steaks.

Cooking Temperatures and Doneness Levels.  There are so many different things that go into the perfect steak, but in my opinion, the most important concept to understand is when to pull your steaks to achieve various levels of doneness.  Although there are a list of tricks people use, I recommend a combination of both feel and temperature for beginners.  As far as what your steak should feel like to the touch, it's often compared to what your palm feels like when your thumb touches the tip of a different finger on the same hand.  When your palm is relaxed and held out flat, the feeling of your palm under your thumb is what a steak that is still raw feels like.  Now touch the tip of your thumb with the tip of your index finger.  Touch your palm with your other hand to see what a rare steak should feel like.  Lastly, touch the tip of your thumb with the tip of your pinky finger.  Touch your palm with your other hand to see what a well done steak should feel like.  For a visual illustration of this test, check out the following image.
Image from https://www.grillersspot.com/
For your first few attempts, I also recommend checking the steak's internal temperature with an instant-read digital thermometer.  Although this is technically a no-no, since puncturing the steak releases a little of the juices, I feel that being able to compare a specific temperature to the feel of a steak makes it worth it in the long-run.

Now you're probably wondering what temperatures to watch for, right?  Although rare steaks temp out at 125° F, it's crucial to understand that you'll need to stop the cooking earlier than this point due to a concept called carryover cooking.  Once a steak (or other protein, excluding poultry and fish) is pulled from the grill, oven, or pan, the internal temperature will continue to rise.  For this reason, steaks should come off the grill 5° F to 10° F early.  Reference the following chart for specific temperatures to shoot for.
Carryover Cooking Temperatures for (Beef) Steaks
The Importance of Resting.  As we just touched on, one reason to let your steak rest is to allow time for the internal and external temperatures of a steak to find a happy-medium and reach that 'true' final serving temperature.  But a second reason of equal importance is so that your steak has time to redistribute its juices to make for a flavorful steak.  When you sear off one side of a steak, the cells contract and force the juices towards the other end.  When you flip the steak, the cells on the other side begin to contract and force the juices towards the coolest part of the steak:  the center.  If you were to cut a steak in half immediately after taking it off of the heat, all of those juices (and all of the flavor) would pour out on to your cutting board since the center of the steak is over-saturated.  If you were to let your steak rest once off of the heat, though, the cells near the top and bottom of the steak would have a chance to relax again since there's no direct heat constricting them.  After 5 to 10 minutes of resting, a typical steak has enough time to "prepare" itself for retaining juices once the knife hits.  This same concept is valid for larger roasts, but a longer resting period is needed.

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