Thursday, October 22, 2009

Attention carnivores: Improving on perfect steak

Five of my seven uncles were butchers, and red meat has been a part of my diet since I grew teeth. Knowing how to cook a piece of meat, from the simplest hamburger to the priciest prime rib roast, is something I learned early and have mastered.

Or so I thought.

Who knew after cooking at least a couple thousand steaks in my life that my approach could be improved upon? Chef Tony Marano showed our class at the California Culinary Academy this week when he demonstrated two of the seven classic French cooking techniques -- sauter and griller.

The key starting point is a good, tender piece of meat. In this instance, Chef Tony used two cuts from the butt end of the New York strip, from the back of the beef near the ribs.

Another key: "Don't be stingy with the salt and pepper," Chef said. He used white pepper. Why? he asked us. Simple answer: "Because it's there." Black pepper will work just fine, too. Also, season immediately before cooking, not a moment sooner.

Then comes the cooking itself. For sauté, use a hot sauté pan and a drizzle of oil (Chef used canola). For grilling, season the grill with a little oil and put a drizzle on the steaks, oo.

In both cases, the thinner the piece of meat, the higher the heat and the shorter the cooking time. Thicker steak should be cooked at a slightly lower temperature, so the outside doesn't burn before the inside is cooked.

The browning or crusting of the surface adds a great deal of complex flavor through a chemical change called the Maillard reaction.

The ideal is medium rare (I like mine rare). One can learn to tell if the steak is done by touch, but watching the sides and the color creep up to the interior is an easier way. Cutting into it, though not ideal because it lets out the juices, is a good way to start learning when a steak is done; cut it open to see, then feel it to get accustomed to the feel at the right moment.

When Chef Tony's steaks were cooked, he put them on grill bars to let them "rest." Resting is less necessary for grilled meat. Rule of thumb is to rest meat for half the time it cooked. Resting allows the steak to re-absorb juices that came out in the cooking.

A bonus was when Chef whipped up what he called "the simplest sauce there is," marchand du vin, a red wine sauce made by putting a bit of wine in the hot pan, after wiping the grease from it. When the wine reduced, burning off the alcohol, he added four times the wine's volume in veal stock. He cooked it down by half. If a thicker sauce is desired, add a bit of butter.

Having cooked, as I said, a couple thousand steaks in my lifetime, I was amazed and pleased to have learned a few tips that will make the next steaks I sauté or grill even more flavorful.

(Photos: Chef Tony's grilled (upper right) and sautéed (lower left) steaks)

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