There’s a knock on the door from a hoof. It's Rebecca, a butcher's apprentice in residence at a rural Tuscan farm, lugging a leg of prosciutto back home as the sun sets on her workday. She's come to visit, and so we play a quick round of fridge Tetris, moving leftover tagliatelle and angling bottles of wine in order to position the leg inside. Once that’s successful, we tuck our hair behind our ears and get ready to learn how to sear the perfect steak.
Grocery shopping in mid-November becomes more like competitive shopping cart roller derby than routine civil activity. If you’re looking to avoid turkey aisle drama, consider the steak. You’ll avoid spending the day catering to a bird (and tradition) and have protein on the table faster than it takes your family to devour the artichoke dip. “A steak is always done in under 10 minutes,” Rebecca promises as I unveil the cut I bought.
I had picked up a half-inch cut of controfiletto from a butcher’s counter in Siena. Between language barriers and blank stares, I selected the first thing that sounded and looked like steak. My experience in preparing animal protein has defaulted to white meat due to my intimidation (and therefore lack of knowledge) of what’s red. But Rebecca knows a pig's and cow’s cut offerings like a map. She started preparing steak for herself in college and elevated grocery store deals to the local butcher shop level once she realized she had an interest in the quality and production of meat. She ponders the measly, thin cut I’ve offered—steaks are typically one inch thick, at least—and nods her head with confidence.
We shower it with salt and pepper, fire up the stove burner, swirl the oil around a skillet, and count to the beat of furious sizzles until the room’s aroma becomes what Ron Swanson’s cologne must smell like. Ninety seconds later, food is resting on our plates, glistening in a juicy glaze under a fluorescent kitchen spotlight and awaiting the pierce of our knives.
There is thrill in your first sear. A revelation of ease, a newfound confidence in ability, and reward at the tip of your fork. If you’re planning on showing your gratitude in a new kind of way this Thanksgiving, Rebecca advises on preparing “some dope sides” in advance to get your feast going. But first, get your cast iron geared up because she’s about to drop some major steak-for-beginners knowledge below.
1) Cut of Steak
Don’t fear the shelves of red. Your butcher shop is not a horror movie. On the contrary, it’s the best place to purchase your cut. The cheap stuff on shelves in your grocery store probably looks fine, but you won’t be getting the greatest quality, and it’s probably not even aged the proper length of time steak requires. If steak is a special occasion kind of meal for you, treat yourself to a cut that may cost a little extra, but will yield drool-worthy results.
A cow in full is not entirely “steak;” only specific parts are considered such. Rebecca points out that what you’d eat as steak is sort of like “the lower back tattoo of the cow.” The porterhouse, T-bone, sirloin, and filet are all hunks of note-worthy meat you’d select. The less these muscles are used to work, the less tough they are when butchered and therefore the more delicious they are to consume.
As for thickness, my done-in-90 seconds controfiletto was at major risk of becoming a hockey puck. To avoid a puck-less steak, Rebecca advises picking up a typical inch-thick steak. It won’t cook as fast, allowing it to sear evenly and maintain its juices.
2. Age of Steak
“Twenty-one and up, like the kind of bars you want to go to,” Rebecca says over a glass of red wine. Your steak should be at least aged three weeks before purchase. Age matters because it allows flavor to develop and for your meat to become more tender. Grocery stores may dish out steak that’s younger than this, which compromises the final result. Instead of chucking cuts into your cart, strike up a conversation with your local butcher and let them steer you in the right direction.
Now that you’re equipped with meat, make sure you’re armed with the right tools. But don’t worry, this won’t require a call home to see if your mom has any Bed, Bath & Beyond coupons she isn’t using to stock up on new supplies. All you need is a skillet and tongs. “All you need in life,” Rebecca philosophizes, “is a medium and large cast-iron skillet.” The most even sear can be achieved in one of these babies. But if that’s not available and you’re not looking to go on a shopping spree, a regular oven-safe metal skillet will do just fine. DO NOT, however, use a non-stick skillet. The chemicals caked on it may seep into your steak and Teflon is not the best seasoning for sirloin.
You’ll also want tongs to flip the steak after it’s cooked on one side. Hauling it over with a fork will release the juices brewing inside and may result in a drier-than-desired dinner.
A thermometer will help determine the doneness without having to slip a knife in and peek inside at the color. The Food Network has a great chart that can be found here.
4. Preparing your steak for cooking
If your steak has been chilling in the refrigerator or freezer, Rebecca urges you to bring it to room temperature. Cooking with anything cooler will certainly “f-with” the evenness of your steak. It’s fine to leave your meat out, wrapped in packaging, when coming to room temperature. “It’s not like ice cream melting,” Rebecca assures me. Meat left out on the counter, unwrapped, for more than two hours might need to be chucked by public health standards, but meat wrapped on the counter for 30 to 40 minutes won’t induce fever dreams.
Once room temperature is acquired, you’ll want to pat the steak dry. That gorgeous brown sealing that you get after sear? That’s partially thanks to this steak prep.
5. Temperature of Skillet
Crank that stove top up to high heat. Before lowering your cut onto any cooking surfaces, you’ll want to preheat the skillet; this ensures even cook and a solid cooking time.
Olive oil? “Save it for your bread,” our searing guru says. When oiling your skillet, you need something with a higher smoking point. Otherwise, your smoke alarm is going to go bananas and your roommates will be annoyed. Rebecca and I used sunflower oil, which allowed us to fly under the fire alarm’s radar. You can also use vegetable oil or peanut oil.
Salt and pepper are champions here, luring flavor out of the meat, off of the plate, and into your heart. After patting the steak dry, spank on some salt, allowing it to sit a little before searing. Rebecca dubs herself a purest, staying away from marinade. Salt, pepper, butter, and some herbs will make a great steak.
7. The Actual Sear
Now that your cast iron is begging to be cooked in, carefully pour in oil, about 2 to 3 tablespoons, and swirl to cover the pan. The oil will sizzle so beware of spit. They feel like fireballs on bare arms.
Your steak should already be salted on both sides. Before searing, sprinkle some pepper on both sides.
Gently lower the steak into the skillet with tongs. Let it cook on one side. Rebecca reminds me that cooking time depends on the thickness of the steak. While my thin cut was done on one side in 45 seconds, a thicker steak may be done in 2 minutes before it needs to be flipped. The cooked side should be glistening, crusted brown, and smell hypnotizing—like you want to bury your face in it as you would in a bouquet of roses. (But don’t, because heat.) The sizzle should be ferocious, and when you count aloud, it should sound like talking over somebody.
If you’re using butter and herbs, add them in here. Use about two to three tablespoons of butter. Melt them in the pan and swirl it around, flipping the steak to cover both sides. If the steak is beginning to burn, reduce heat.
If your steak is thin and curls up, just push down on it lightly with tongs to ensure its cooking.
Cooking times on the stovetop depend on the depth of your steak and how you prefer it to be cooked. Lobel’s of New York has a great time guide to reference.
Let the steak rest under a tinfoil tent for at least six minutes to keep the juices working before serving. We know, exercising patience here is difficult, but trust us. At least you can enjoy the smell?
This year, we’re grateful for all the people who’ve ever prepared us meat and for Rebecca, who taught us we could find empowerment in searing up a steak for ourselves.