Steak is not like other foods; it is sufficient in itself, or very nearly so. Add salt and heat (fire preferably), and you have something no culinary sleight of hand can improve on. Does a steak need a recipe? Heck no. But recipes abound, and with them come all manner of tips, tricks and techniques, most of which diminish your likelihood of cooking a great steak.
Frankly, most cookbooks are full of it on this one particular topic. Even great ones can’t seem to stop themselves from perpetuating falsehoods that don’t hold up to the most-casual application of scientific method. Here are some examples, culled from books that are, in every other aspect, totally estimable. (For the curious, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt penned the definitive work of steak demythification for Serious Eats a few years back. Read it and change your life.)
Noooooo: “Season steak at the end of cooking, not before.” – Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, Joy of Cooking (1975)
Great book, terrible advice. This is a crime against steak. Don’t just season before, season well before — an hour, a day, even two! Salt needs time to penetrate meat; salt added at the end just tastes salty.
Nope: “Allow the meat to come to room temperature.” – Marion Cunningham, The Fannie Farmer Cookbook (1990)
Not egregious, but don’t waste your time. After 30 minutes, even an hour, the steak will be nowhere near room temp. Anyhow, it’s a fool’s errand: The room-temperature injunction is intended to promote even cooking, which makes sense if we’re talking about a roast chicken, but not when steak is the issue. If a nice, crusty exterior and a juicy, tender interior are what you’re after, then even cooking is precisely what you don’t want in a steak.
Nuh Uh: “Don’t stick a fork in it. You’ll let all the juices out!” – Your Know-It-All Uncle George, Your Life (Every Summer for the Last 25 Years)
We’ve all heard this one before, and it does make intuitive sense. Sure, juice leaks when a piece of cooked meat is punctured — but not that much. Uncle George mistakes a steak for a water balloon, which it is not. Structurally, a steak is more like a collection of thousands of little water balloons. Popping a few does not have any discernible effect on juiciness. So, yes, stick a fork in it if you like. And while you’re at it, stick a knife in it, too, because a little nick and peek is a sure-fire way of determining doneness, and not the end of the world in terms of juice.
Now that you know the rules not to follow, check out these great steak recipes for ideas and get grilling.
Jonathan Milder is the research librarian in Food Network Kitchen.