Never go to the grocery store hungry. You buy too much. And the wrong things.
I went last week, starving. They had sirloin steaks on sale for $2 each. I could tell they weren’t the best cuts of meat. I bought them anyway—quite a few of them. They were tough. Sure I could help them with a good steak tenderizer but you can’t make a perfect steak with a poor cut. Which takes us to:
Step number one: Buy a good cut of meat.
I think I know what a good cut of meat looks like—good color, shiny, uniform thickness so that it cooks evenly, and with minimal sinew but with marbling. But I’m guessing. It’s better to ask the butcher or the meat manager.
There are eight grades of meat based primarily on marbling and the age of the animal: Prime, choice, select, standard, commercial, utility, cutter, and canner. If you want a good steak, choose one of the first three. Prime is what is used in the restaurant trade. You may need to go to a butcher shop to find a prime steak.
My $2 cuts didn’t stand a chance. They’re in the freezer now. They’ll make good stew meat.
Step number two: Choose and prepare the pan.
Choose a pan that is large enough just to accommodate the meat without the pieces overlapping. It should be a heavy metal pan that will distribute heat evenly. (Triclad pans distribute heat better than nonstick pans but I usually use a nonstick pan because it requires less fat to keep the steaks from sticking.) Add enough fat to lightly coat the pan. (I prefer oil because it won’t burn and taste like butter does.) If there is enough marbling, it may require no more fat than already exists in the meat.
Step number three: Season the meat properly.
Season the meat before you start cooking. Season foods with salt and pepper, as well as with any spice blends or rubs before you begin cooking. Doing so will cause the meat to absorb the flavors more efficiently than seasoning the meat while it is cooking.
Step number four: Preheat the pan.
Add the meat only after the pan is thoroughly heated. On my stove at home, that’s medium high. If you have oil in the pan, heat the oil until the surface ripples and looks hazy. This is a more intense heat than is required for white meats and fish. Don’t let the oil burn
Step number five: Cook the meat properly.
It’s essential to keep the pan hot through the cooking process. The hot pan sears the meat and seals in the juices. Cook the meat on one side and then turn the meat to cook the other. Meats should be turned only once. Additional turns will lose juice and cause the pan and the meat to lose heat. Because meat will continue cooking after it is removed from the heat, allow for the “carryover” time in determining how long the meat should cook.
Once upon a time I worked in a bakery in a construction camp. Bakers work at night. But there were construction workers that worked at night also and our staff was required to cook for them. The chef, who worked in the day, taught me to tell how done a steak was with a poke of my finger. As the meat cooks, it becomes firmer. I still poke meat but a surer method is with an insta-read thermometer. A medium rare steak is 130 to 135 degrees and should be warm through the middle with a hint of red. The insta-read thermometer that you use for baking works just fine for meats.