No Grill, No Vent, No ProblemBy Edward Schneider
A lot of hot air is expelled about cooking a steak. A proper steak: thick — preferably prime and dry-aged — and cooked so it’s deeply, crustily browned, almost (but please, not quite) blackened on the outside and juicily red on the inside. People say, and indeed I used to believe, that you need thermonuclear temperatures and, therefore, industrial-strength fire and ventilation to achieve this ur-steak.
I’ve never had access to either a grill or anything but the feeblest excuse for a range hood, so what I used to do was leave a skillet or grill pan over the highest possible flame for about five minutes, toss on the steak and get the hell out of the kitchen before I choked. I also used to open every available window and turn on every available fan, pointing out. The apartment and the corridor would nonetheless fill with smoke, and sometimes the super would call to find out if this was a job for the Fire Department. The steak was fine, but it came with a lot of stress, odor and cleanup.
But, you know what? It turns out that you don’t need so much fire to pan-cook a terrific steak. You don’t need clouds of smoke or a perfect storm of wall-coating grease. A good frying pan and a typical domestic range will do the job. Here’s how I cooked our last steak: a boneless rib-eye cut an inch and a half thick — with much of its external fat trimmed away to be chopped and used to enrich hamburger meat.
I took it out of the refrigerator (where I’d left it overnight, loosely draped in a paper towel) an hour before cooking, dried it thoroughly and heavily seasoned it with salt and pepper. Oh — here’s another thing you don’t need to believe: salting your steak in advance like that will draw out all the juices and you’ll be left with a few muscle fibers sitting sadly in a pool of watery blood. What salting your steak in advance seems to do is make it taste better, and that’s about it.
I set a small, thick-bottomed skillet (anodized aluminum as it happens, but iron, steel or copper are other options) over medium heat and let it get hot, but not wicked hot: for what it’s worth, after less than a minute, its surface temperature had reached about 360 degrees F. At that point I greased it with barely half a teaspoon of clarified butter; oil would be fine, of course — its purpose is to conduct the heat of the pan to the surface of the meat before the steak renders some of its own fat. A few seconds later I put in the steak and left it untouched — untouched — for four minutes, even lowering the heat a trifle after a while. There was not a wisp of smoke and hardly a spatter of fat. At that point I got rid of most of the fat in the pan and turned the steak, to find a beautifully seared, crusty surface. The steak got another four minutes on Side B; I turned it again and gave it a further 90 seconds on each side. I am convinced that the extra turnings promote even cooking, but I have no proof of that as I’ve never tried it any other way. Then it went onto a plate and rested for maybe six or seven minutes while I finished cooking the french fries. Because, in our house, a one-pound steak is for sharing, I sliced it, making sure not to lose any of the juices.
Those cooking times, of course, were for my particular steak, at its own particular starting temperature, and cooked in my particular pan over my particular fire. Still, they’re a good start for a steak of that size if you like it fairly rare but not “blue.” Use an instant read thermometer if you like, thrust through the side of the steak well into its middle; I’d pull mine off the fire at 120 degrees or even at 118. Julia Child once observed that after the internal temperature of a piece of meat gets to 100 degrees, it rises awfully fast. Even if that isn’t true, keep it in mind, because it encourages vigilance in the last fractions of a minute.
There’s nothing new here, really, except a reminder that moderate heat will cook a beautiful steak with all the sensory appeal of one charred over the fires of hell, and with none of the sensory distress of a house full of grease and smoke — so long as you leave it untouched to brown really well and let it rest for a while after it comes out of the pan.