Hey, man: $45 will NOT buy you a decent steak dinner. Here’s my recipe for the best steak you’ve ever had.
Go to a decent grocery store that sells USDA Prime beef. Find yourself some fillet steaks, also known as fillet mignon. You want two steaks as close to the same weight and thickness as possible. They should be between 6 and 8 ounces.
Heat your oven to 500?. If your oven won’t go to 500?, set it for as high as it will go. Then sit down to watch The Simpsons or something, because getting a home oven to that temperature takes a while. Be patient here.
Dry your steaks thoroughly with paper towels. You want the surface to be completely dry, both on the top and bottom and on the sides. Why? Because liquid turns to steam, and we don’t want steamed steaks. Your goal is perfect dryness here, so do a good job.
Once your oven is hot, put a heavy, all-metal, oven-safe skillet on top of the stove. Cast iron works, but I have a stainless-steel-clad, aluminum-core skillet with a riveted metal handle that I use for this. Turn the burner or element to high, and leave it there for at least five minutes. You’re looking for something really incredibly hot here. Don’t be afraid to let your pan get hot. It’ll be fine.
Season your steaks liberally with salt. You want something with a coarse grain, because it makes a great texture when it cooks in. I like kosher salt for this (Morton’s) but sea salt is good too. Fleur de sel is the best, but at $10 for a couple of ounces, it’s a little pricey for most folks. But if you’re blowing $25-$30 on raw meat, you might as well go all the way.
DO NOT PUT PEPPER ON YOUR STEAK. I don’t care if you like it that way. Pepper burns at the temperatures we’re planning on using. If you want pepper, crack a little over your steak once it’s on the table.
Once your pan is hot enough to brand a steer–which is basically what we’re planning to do here–plop in the steaks. No oil, no nothing. Just drop ’em into the dry, rocket-hot pan: szzzzzzz. There will be some smoke, so crack a couple of windows for ventilation.
Do not touch the steaks for two solid minutes. Seriously. Don’t touch them. Don’t move them, don’t poke them, don’t prod them. Don’t talk to them. Don’t ask them questions. Just let them sit there.
“But the meat will stick to that hot pan!” you cry. And you’re absolutely right: it will. That’s exactly what we want. What we’re doing is called “searing.” Searing is cooking in a dry pan over incredibly high heat. Searing isn’t frying; frying involves lubricating the pan with fat or oil, and we don’t want that. Instead, we just want dry, raw meat to hit blisteringly hot metal and to sit there for two minutes.
What’s happening is called the Malliard reaction. (That’s pronounced “my-yard.”) It’s complicated, but the short version is that proteins in the surface of the meat are denaturing and chemically changing into a brown, crusty substance that tastes really, really good. You don’t get that with any cooking method other than searing.
After two minutes, turn the steaks over with tongs. Not with a fork, not with a spatula. Tongs. Grab the steaks gently around the middle and lift straight up. They’ll lift right off of the pan, no sticking. If they do stick, just wait a few seconds. They’ll let go by themselves because of the heat of the pan and that Malliard thing I talked about. Turn the steaks over and leave them for one minute.
During that minute, look at the seared surface of the meat. It should be brown and crusty, almost like it was battered and deep-fried, but darker than that. If there are tiny black specks here and there, that’s okay. If there are big black specks, you left it on too long, but it’s still edible. If the whole thing is solid black… well, the dog’s in for a treat tonight.
After one minute, move the entire pan–use an oven mitt for god’s sake, that pan is a branding iron by now–to the oven. We’ve seared the surfaces of the steak, and now we’re going to cook the interior.
There is only one acceptable way to cook a piece of meat as fine as this: rare. Not medium-rare, not medium, and if you even say “well done” you’ve wasted your money. A rare steak has a red center that’s warmer than room temperature, but not much warmer. The inside will have a soft, fine texture, not the stringy texture of fully cooked beef. Yes, it will seem like you’re eating raw meat. Relax. You’re not. It’s cooked, but just to the point where it’s safe and healthy to eat and no more.
Relax your hand, palm up. See the fleshy muscle at the base of your thumb, between your palm and your wrist? Poke that with the index finger of your other hand. With your hand relaxed, that muscle should be fairly mushy. Now make a loose fist, and poke it again. It will feel firmer. Now make a tight fist. The muscle should feel pretty hard.
That’s rare, medium, and well done. See, the three degrees of cooked beef are defined by temperature ranges, but it’s a lot easier to judge them by feel than with a thermometer. When you cook a steak to rare, you’re looking for a piece of meat that has about the same texture as a the base of your thumb when you’re making a very loose fist. It shouldn’t be totally mushy, but it shouldn’t feel resilient either.
Check your steaks after four minutes. Feel them. Yes, you’re going to burn the tip of your index finger a little bit here. Deal with it. You’re not going to draw a blister or anything; don’t be afraid. Does the meat feel slightly resilient, like your thumb when you’re making a loose fist? Then it’s ready to eat. If not, put it back in for another minute or two. It’s impossible to predict exactly when they’ll be ready, because home ovens are terrible at maintaining high temperatures like this. You set your oven for 500?, but it might only be maintaining 475?, so you just have to go by feel.
Steaks need to rest when they come out of the oven, but they shouldn’t freeze to death. Move them to a warmed plate, if you’ve got one, or to a wooden cutting board and cover them loosely with foil. Don’t seal them in foil, because that would trap steam, and we don’t want steamed meat. (Steam gives the meat an unpalatable texture on the surface.) A five minute rest would be good, and ten would be okay. Use that time to prepare a salad or something to offset your carnivore tendencies.
When you cut into your steak, you’ll find a myriad of textures and colors (and, as you’ll see when you eat it, flavors). The very surface of the meat will be golden brown and have a thin crust on it. This will be delicious beyond your wildest dreams. The inner layer just under the surface will be greyish-brown, and have the chewy texture of well-done beef. Inside will be a pink layer that’s got a softer texture, but that’s still resilient. In the center the meat will be red and slightly warm to the touch, and will be quite soft. The center is rare, the middle layer is medium, and the outside is well done. Each layer has its own flavor and texture.
I guarantee you, if you follow these directions to the letter and use halfway decent ingredients and equipment, these will be the BEST steaks you’ve ever eaten. Period.