the hordes of "X tips for perfect steak!" articles that crowd the internet,
packed with misinformation, old wives' tales, and outdated knowledge that, in
some cases, has been outright disproven for decades.
Whenever I see these articles, I get the irrepressible, uncontrollable urge to scream at people Wait! Stop! This is all wrong! I know your steak will probably still come out just fine if you follow these tips, and perhaps these myths have been perpetuated for as long as they have, because people are happy with "good enough" and don't really need "perfect" or "better," and if it ain't broke don't fix it, right? But for chrissake how can someone sit idly by and watch the spreading of misinformationamirite?!
But today, I'm fighting back for once. We're going to put to rest seven of the most stubborn myths about grilling steaks, and hopefully come out the other end as better—or at the very least, slightly less frustrated—people.
For the record, pretty much all of these tips apply to pan-seared steaks and roasts as well.
Myth #1: "You should let a thick steak rest at room temperature before you cook it."
While it's true that slowly bringing a steak up to its final serving temperature will promote more even cooking, the reality is that letting it rest at room temperature accomplishes almost nothing.
The Takeaway: Don't bother letting your steaks rest at room temperature. Rather, dry them very thoroughly on paper towels before searing. Or better yet, salt them and let them rest uncovered on a rack in the fridge for a night or two, so that their surface moisture can evaporate. You'll get much more efficient browning that way.
Myth #2: "Sear your meat over high heat to lock in juices."
Searing produces no such barrier—liquid can still pass freely in and out of the surface of a seared steak.
What I found is actually the exact opposite: the steak that is cooked gently first and finished with a sear will not only develop a deeper, darker crust (due to slightly drier outer layers—see Myth #1), but it also cooks more evenly from center to edge, thus limiting the amount of overcooked meat and producing a finished product that is juicier and more flavorful.
The Takeaway: When cooking thick steaks, start them on the cooler side of the grill and cook with the lid on until they reach about ten degrees below final serving temperature. Finish them off on the hot side of the grill for a great crust. For thinner steaks (about an inch or less), just cook them over the hot side the entire time—they'll be cooked to medium rare by the time a good crust has developed.
Myth #3: "Bone-in steak has more flavor than boneless."
This one always sounded crazy to me—bones have more flavor than meat? Well it turns out that there actually is no exchange of flavor between the meat and the muscle, and it's quite easy to prove.
The Takeaway: Cook your steak with the bone in. There won't be any flavor exchange between meat and bone, but the other advantages a bone lends does make it worthwhile.
Myth #4: "Only flip your steak once!"
The reality is that multiple flipping will not only get your steak to cook faster—up to 30% faster!—but will actually cause it to cook more evenly, as well. This is because—as food scientist and writer Harold McGee has explained—by flipping frequently, the meat on any given side will neither heat up nor cool down significantly with each turn. If you imagine that you can flip your steak infinitely fast,* then you can see that what ends up happening is that you approximate cooking the steak simultaneously from both sides, but at a gentler pace. Gentler cooking = more even cooking.
There are two possible advantages to the single-flip method. The first is that if you like pretty grill marks, you won't get them with multi-flipping. The second is that multi-flipping can be a pain in the butt if you have a ton of meat on the grill.
The Takeaway: You don't have to flip your steaks multiple times, but if someone tells you that you're ruining your steak by flipping it over and over, you can assure them that science is on your side.
Myth #5: "Don't season your steak until after it's cooked!"
A dry surface is a good thing for steak— that moisture has to go away for proper browning anyway, so the drier your steak is to begin with, the better it'll brown in the pan. Salting early can also help your meat maintain a bit more internal moisture in the long run.
In the past, I've said that it's better to season your meat either immediately before you cook it, or at least 45 minutes ahead of time, so that the briny liquid drawn out by the salt has time to get reabsorbed and your steak won't dry out. I've since changed my tune a bit on the reasoning as to why you should wait, but not on the fact that you should wait the 45 minutes.
Salting your steak after it cooks is not a great idea. You end up with a surface layer of salt that comes across as, well, very salty, leaving blander meat underneath. You're better off salting well before cooking and then serving the steak with a chunky sea salt like Maldon or Fleur de Sel at the table, which can add texture to the meat without dissolving on contact, the way table or kosher salt does.
The Takeaway: You can get away with salting just before cooking, but for best results, salt at least 45 minutes—and up to a couple of days—in advance, letting your steak rest on a rack in the fridge so that its surface can dry and the salt can be absorbed into the meat. Serve the steak with crunchy sea salt at the table.
Myth #6a: "Don't use a fork to turn your steak."
This one is true... to a degree. A degree so small that it can't possibly be detected by the human mouth. The whole myth here is that people seem to think that a steak is like a water balloon; That is can be "popped," releasing juices. This is not actually the case.
It's by this very principle that a jaccard meat tenderizer works—it pokes a steak with dozens of thin prongs, pulling apart some of its muscle fibrils without actually rupturing too many of them.
The Takeaway: Go ahead and use that fork if your tongs or spatula are in the dishwasher. None of your guests will taste the difference.
Myth #6b: "If you cut it open to check doneness, it will lose all its juices."
Again, the amount of juice lost by a single slit-and-peek is completely inconsequential in comparison to the whole piece of meat. If you are careful and slit it in a very inconspicuous way, nobody will notice that you've done anything at all. That said, it's not always easy to tell how done a steak is by cutting into it—carryover cooking can be hard to account for visually, and peering into a steak over a grill is not easy, especially if the grill is as hot as it should be.
The Takeaway: Use the slice-and-peek doneness check only as a last resort if you don't have a thermometer handy. It won't affect the final quality of your meat, but it is difficult to gauge correctly.
Myth #7: "Use the "poke test" to check if your steak is done."
There are so many uncontrolled variables in this assay that it boggles the mind that anyone would think it's at all accurate. First off, not all hands are created equal. My thumb is squishier than my wife's thumb. Should I gauge my steak's doneness based on hers or mine?
Truth is, if you work in a restaurant where you are cooking very similar cuts of meat on a regular basis, then you will eventually develop the ability to tell their doneness by poking. Throw some irregularity into that mix, and that ability quickly disappears.
The Takeaway: There's only one 100% reliable way that I know of to guarantee that your meat will be perfectly cooked every single time, and that's by using this piece of equipment here:
An accurate instant-read thermometer like the Thermapen by Thermoworks. Get one. It's a little pricey, but you will quickly make back that money by never overcooking another piece of expensive meat again, no matter how big it is, how fatty it is, or how squishy your thumb is.