Steak is essentially a boneless thick or thin slice of red meat, cut across the grain of a large single muscle and which can be cooked quickly over high heat. The term is also used for portions of such meaty fish as salmon, cod or swordfish.
Meat cuts that slice through several muscles include tough connective tissue and perhaps tendons, both of which only tenderise during long cooking and then melt to add vital succulence to the dish; if you use steaks meant for fast cooking in a stew, rump steak for instance, the results will always be dry and disappointing because there are no connective tissues or sinews in the single muscle of rump steak.
Chuck is cut through several muscles and only suited to slow cooking, even though referred to as steak.
A T-bone steak includes the rib bone but suits fast cooking because it has fillet steak on one side and sirloin on the other.
Fresh and frozen steaks of many kinds are available year round in many types of retail outlets and from specialist online meat retailers.
Choose the best
Unquestionably, beef steaks are more tender and most delicious when the carcass has been well aged under controlled conditions. Three weeks, 21 days, is an accepted minimum but developing techniques have extended this to well over 30 days. Aging meat in caves made from blocks of Himalayan salt, which appear to control unwanted bacterial action, gives extended ageing time. Look for ageing information on labels and expect to pay more for increased length of time.
The best beef will have a definite dark red colour, indicating it is the more likely to have been nicely aged. Beef that is pale and pinkish is usually too little aged and thus likely to be tough and lacking in flavour; this is especially true for steak cuts. The fat on steak should be firm and creamy-white rather than yellow.
The very best breeds of beef produce steaks that have streaks of fat throughout the red meat, which then add further succulence and flavour. When possible, choose steaks that have been cut evenly thick or thin, which makes cooking times more reliable and eating much more pleasurable.
Fresh steak should be refrigerated for several days only. They may be bought frozen or frozen at home, in which case use them within a month or so and then defrost very slowly, ideally in a refrigerator overnight. Vacuum-packing further extends life, for months as fresh meat and up to a year for frozen steaks.
Most cooking details on pre-packed steaks suggest wildly exaggerated cooking times. Provided the steak is at room temperature, the pan is properly heated and the steak is about 2cms or a little more thick, two to three minutes each side and a resting time of at least three minutes will produce excellent results.
It’s often suggested that steaks are lightly coated with olive or other oils before cooking but this tends to create unwanted smoke; using a heavy, non-stick pan at a high temperature is a better plan. Seasoning is best added after cooking, while the steak is resting.
It is very important to keep the cooking temperature high; too low a temperature encourages moisture to escape, which means the steak will stew and toughen. Equally important is NOT to turn the steak constantly which makes timing impossible to calculate - once is enough. Avoid pressing down on a steak as this expresses moisture.
A reliable traditional test for cooking a medium-rare steak – cooked through but with a nicely pink interior – is to watch carefully for the first globules of blood to appear on the upper surface. Turn the steak immediately and cook until the same thing happens again; remove onto a warm but not hot plate and let rest for three to five minutes before serving.
Resting time is as important as cooking time, as this allows the juices brought to the surface by the high cooking heat to sink back into the flesh, which also relaxes and becomes more tender.
Experts in the meat trade suggest a steak should rest for as long as it has been cooked.
In the end, only careful observation of your technique and the results can teach you to cook steaks the way you like best.
Watch our video on how to cook the perfect steak: