The perfect steak

My first blog post was dedicated to cooking the perfect egg.  As we come to our last blog post of this semester, I want to bring everything around almost full circle and talk about cooking the perfect steak, or for that matter any piece of meat.  Now, I know some of you probably have very strong opinions about cooking a steak, and maybe your own secrets or techniques or what-have-you, but I’m just going to present some maybe not so obvious facts and leave it up to you to digest them anyway you want (pun very much intended).

What cooks a piece of meat?

Heat you idiot. Next question.  You’re right, heat definitely cooks anything you throw on the stove, but it’s a little more complicated than that.  Steaks are actually about 70% water, similar to our bodies. Since water goes through phase changes between solid, liquid, gas, and as you may know, the temperature happens to plateau during these changes, the steak will also plateau at these temperatures.  This gives rise to very distinct parts of a cooked steak.  There’s the desiccation zone, where water has already been evaporated and temperature can rise to that of the pan, this is where the steak forms the much-desired crust.  The boiling zone, where the temperature remains at 100°C due to the boiling of the steak’s juices, this is where the meat turns a white or grey appearance due to the coagulation of its proteins. And finally the rest of the meat is in the, boring but crucial, conduction zone, slowly rising in temperature; this is where the meat turns from red to pink from the breakdown of its myoglobin pigment.   These 3 zones slowly propagate into the meat the longer it’s left on the pan.

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(Steak…on the Grill by Mike, on Flickr (cc by-nc-nd 2.0))

Perfection, defined

I understand that some people like their steaks cooked at different degrees of doneness and I’m not going to argue with that (I hope we can at least avoid the region known as well done aka cardboard).  I do however believe that everyone will agree that the overall goal here is to have a steak that has a 1. nice and brown outer crust and 2. a center cooked to his/her wishes.  But, how many times have you cut into your steak and seen a cross section that’s about 2% crust, 10% desiccated, 60% grey chewy stuff, and just 28% properly cooked in the center.  What we actually want is more of the pink stuff and less of the grey. Perfect steak (pur-fęck-t stayke) n. 1. A cut of beef cooked to the internal temperature relating to the desired degree of doneness, maximizing that of the conduction zone while at the same time minimizing the effect of the desiccation and boiling zone.

zones
(Steak zones by ModernistCuisine, on Flickr (cc by-nc-nd 2.0))

How

When you put the steak on the pan, do you let it ‘do it’s thing’ and not move or check it, or do you have a peek every now and then, or do you flip it often?  The correct, although not popular, answer is: you flip if often.  This is what a food writer Harold McGee discovered back at Harvard, that a steak flipped often will cook faster, better, and more accurately.  An overcooked steak is simply formed by the gradient of temperature at its surface and its core; if we can minimize this gradient the steak will be cooked closer to the desired degree.  So instead of leaving the steak in the pan for minutes on each side, just flip the steak every 30 seconds or so.  This will allow for the flipped side to cool down slightly, give off hot steam, and allow the oil/heat to propagate towards the center.  In the end, you’ve minimized the boiling zone, cooked the center to temperature faster, and still formed a nice brown crust.  Another added benefit is you can check the steak very frequently, so no more guessing or acting like you can tell its doneness by the firmness of your palm. You can’t.

 This chart summarizes everything really well

flipped
Top graph showing a steak flipped once half way through cooking and bottom graph showing a steak flipped every 15 seconds. Note the time it takes for the center to come to temperature, the temperature difference just below the surface, and the time it takes for the steaks to finish cooking. (Steak temperature by ModernistCuisine, on Flickr (cc by-nc-nd 2.0))

References:

Modernist Cuisine

http://modernistcuisine.com

On Food and Cooking