The Minimalist's Tips for Perfect Steak

No need to go out for a perfectly cooked steak. Mark Bittman, aka the Minimalist, shares his tips for achieving steakhouse-quality perfection in your own kitchen.

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    There's nothing quite as satisfying as a well-cooked steak. Mark Bittman, aka the Minimalist, offers his tips for how to cook steak to perfection in your own kitchen. To rub or not to rub? Gas versus charcoal? What cut is best? Find out Mark's answer to these questions and more.

  • Rubs

    Most of us believe that because our beef is better it needs nothing but salt and pepper. That may be true of the absolute best meat, but you should tinker when using sub-premium meat, you may want to think about a rub.

    A rub is a dry spice or spice and herb mixture used to coat the meat before grilling, adding not only strong flavor, but a bit more crunch, especially if you toast, mix, and grind the spices yourself.

    My favorites are basic: chile powder, with mild chiles; fragrant curry powder; jerk seasoning, which contains fresh garlic and ginger and is quite powerful; and five-spice powder, which, when homemade, is unlike anything you can buy in a store.

    Using any of these combinations is straightforward: rub a good teaspoon or more into each side of the steak, then grill over slightly lower heat than you would normally use, so the spices don't burn.

  • What Cut to Use?

    If you can buy prime beef (this essentially means it is fat-laced, or well marbled), you are ahead of the game. Fat means flavor. But a good cut of choice grade is often the equal of prime. Aging, of course, also improves flavor and tenderness. But even if you find prime meat that is well aged, and even if you spend a lot of money on organic, natural, specialty or so-called gourmet steaks, you won't be eating anything special unless you buy the right cut.

    So, what is the right cut? To some degree it's a matter of opinion. Some people will argue for flank, but I don't believe any steak that must be sliced thin to be chewable qualifies as terrific. Others (myself included) like skirt, with the caution that it is easy to overcook. But almost everyone agrees that sirloin strip and rib-eye are best.

  • Don't Overcook Your Steak

    If you like a steak with crust -- and who doesn't -- it is best to start with a dry exterior. You can get one by putting the steak on a rack set over a pan in the refrigerator, uncovered. Leave it there, turning it once a day or so, for a couple of days. I like this method, which might be described as passive-aggressive: you don't have to do much, and it's very effective. (Alternatively, pat it dry with paper towels before grilling.)

    For fast, even cooking, it also helps to have the steak at room temperature before grilling. If you're using a rub, put it on at the last minute. As for timing, you can't cook by a clock, but most 1-inch-thick steaks started at room temperature will brown in 3 to 4 minutes a side and be cooked to medium-rare after 7 or 8 minutes.

    For greater precision, you have 3 options, in order of preference:

    You can gain experience and cook by touch and sight.

    You can use an instant-read thermometer: 125 degrees F is rare, 130 degrees F is medium-rare.

    You can cut into the meat and check. This is inelegant, but not all that bad. Meat is not a balloon that pops when cut into; you may lose a little juice, but it's better to cut into a steak, which causes minor damage, than to overcook it, which destroys it.

  • Gas vs. Charcoal

    O.K., now: gas versus charcoal. Charcoal gives you a better crust, and hardwood charcoal is preferable to briquettes. But it's also more of a hassle, and once you start the fire you're committed to a cooking time. Gas is more convenient. And to my surprise I found the results were not that different. If you use charcoal you can sear the steak beautifully. If you use gas you must cover the grill, and the crust is not nearly as attractive. But the timing is about the same. Either way, the taste is terrific, as long as you start with the right cut.