Meat

The Absolute Best Way to Cook Steak Perfectly, According to Wayyy Too Many Tests

There was a grill involved. And an oven. And a stovetop. And a whole lot of butter.

August  5, 2019
Photo by Ella Quittner

In 1988, my parents bought their first meat thermometer.

They were in a butcher shop in Huntington, Long Island, and the white jacket–clad man with whom they were speaking was floored to hear that they didn't already own one. They'd just selected a New York Strip, a rare treat for young journalists paying off student loans, and they were afraid to ruin it. So they'd asked him: What's the best way to cook this steak?

"Sear it on the grill, to medium-rare," he'd said, volunteering some degrees-Fahrenheit benchmark they should use. And then, upon seeing their faces: "Don't tell me you don't own a meat thermometer. You don't own a meat thermometer?!" He rustled around in his meat surgeon uniform pockets for a Taylor model, and that was that.

His advice was, it turns out, just one of many answers. A quick Google search on "how to cook steak" reveals nearly 300 million suggestions. You could grill your meat. Or, you could cook it in a blistering skillet on the stovetop. You could start it on the stovetop, before transferring it to the oven. You could make like Bobby Flay and sear it on the stovetop, slice it, and then broil the other side. There's the reverse sear, and there's sous vide, and the list goes on.

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Top Comment:
“I do the sous vide and let the steak get cool. While the steak is getting cool, the grill is getting hot, hot hot on my stovetop. I brush olive oil on the grill listening to it sizzle, then I put the steak on and cover it with the roaster lid. That traps the heat and reflects in down much like the lid of a barbecue lid. I like my steak blue, so I sear it just until I can smell it then flip it and wait for the smell again. The roaster lid also does a great job for kebabs and grilled cheese sandwiches.”
— Adrienne B.
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Which makes steak a perfect candidate for our Absolute Best Tests series, in which I spend far too much time with one specific ingredient or recipe, in an effort to coax out perfection. (Afterwards, my home almost always smells terrible for days.) Shall we begin?


Control Factors

As always, I identified a few constants to maintain across tests. For these, each steak was:

  • ...a Porterhouse, roughly 1 1/2-inch thick.
  • ...patted dry and seasoned with ample kosher salt and black pepper—with the exception of the grilled steak, which was brushed lightly with oil before receiving its salt and pepper.
  • ...left to come to room temperature for 45 minutes before its test method (this enables steak to cook more evenly).
  • ...cooked in high heat–friendly vegetable oil anywhere oil is mentioned, and unsalted room temperature butter anywhere butter is mentioned.
  • ...cooked to medium-rare (130°F) according to a meat thermometer, then removed from heat. Note that, in lieu of a meat thermometer, there's a common touch test employed to ascertain whether steak is medium-rare: Use a pointer finger to test whether your meat is as firm as your inner thumb pad when you're touching your thumb to your middle finger's tip.
  • ...allowed to rest 10 minutes before slicing (though apparently, this is unnecessary for steak that's been cooked via sous vide or reverse sear).

Method #1: Stovetop Only

Photo by Ella Quittner

Method:

Add a few tablespoons oil to a large cast iron skillet, and heat over a high flame until the oil just begins to smoke. Add the steak and cook for 30 seconds. Flip, and repeat. Do this until a golden-brown crust starts to develop, which takes about four minutes, then add a few tablespoons of butter and continue to cook and flip until until 130°F is reached. (This is a loose adaptation of J. Kenji López-Alt's Genius pan-seared steak recipe.)

Overall Ease & Efficiency of Method:

The stovetop-only method was by far the easiest and most efficient, requiring no special equipment or hot–skillet transfers.

Tenderness of Meat:

Sixth most tender (last place). The meat was chewier in its center than the resulting meat from the other tests—but, that's on a relative basis. It was still thoroughly delicious and pleasant to eat.

Char:

Fifth best char, meaning it was decent—better than that of the sous vide steak (in last place), but not as deep as I would have liked, because the meat came to 130°F before it had developed a fully browned crust. This also meant I had a limited time to try to render the fat from its sides, which heated the meat several degrees more as I attempted it. (It's possible I could have better controlled for this by adjusting the flame temperature down, but I was worried that decrease would diminish the char as well.)


Method #2: Stovetop to Oven

Photo by Ella Quittner

Method:

Preheat oven to 375°F. Add a few tablespoons oil to a large cast iron skillet, and heat over a high flame until the oil just begins to smoke. Add the steak and sear each side (including the thin, fatty sides to render) for two to three minutes each without disturbing, until browned. Transfer to oven with a tablespoon of butter to finish cooking until 130°F is reached.

Overall Ease & Efficiency of Method:

The stovetop-to-oven method is relatively easy, if you remember to preheat your oven while letting the steak come to room temperature. That said, it's a pain to transfer a screaming hot skillet mid-cook, and somewhat annoying to keep having to open the oven door to take its temperature. On an efficiency basis, it was a lengthier process than the stovetop-only and the stovetop-to-broiler steaks, about equal to the grilled steak, and quicker than the sous vide and reverse sear steaks.

Tenderness of Meat:

Fourth most tender. The meat was chewier than that of the reverse sear, stovetop-to-broiler, and sous vide steaks, a bit more more tender than the stovetop-only steak, and tied with the grilled steak.

Char:

Third best char. This test yielded a better char than the stovetop-only, reverse sear, and sous vide steaks, but a lighter char than the grilled and stovetop-to-broiler steak.


Method #3: Stovetop to Broiler

Photo by Ella Quittner

Method:

Preheat broiler. Add a few tablespoons oil to a large cast iron skillet, and heat over a high flame until the oil just begins to smoke. Add the steak and do not move for three minutes. Flip the steak, top with a tablespoon of butter, and transfer to broiler to finish cooking (just a few minutes) until 130° F is reached.

Overall Ease & Efficiency of Method:

Similar as the stovetop-to-oven steak, except a bit more efficient. But, the margin of error is slimmer with this method, vis-a-vis reaching medium-rare. So in that sense, it's slightly more anxiety-provoking.

Tenderness of Meat:

Second most tender, after the sous vide steak. (Somehow, more tender than the stovetop-to-oven steak.)

Char:

Second best char, after the grilled steak.


Method #4: Reverse Sear

Photo by Ella Quittner

Method:

Preheat oven to 200°F. Arrange the steak on a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet, and cook 30 to 35 minutes, until it registers as 115°F. Then, take it out and sear it in a hot cast iron skillet in which you've let a tablespoon of oil get to smoking over a high flame. Add a tablespoon of butter with the steak, and sear about 45 seconds on each side, including on the thin edges, until 130°F is reached.

Overall Ease & Efficiency of Method:

Equally easy as the stovetop-to-oven and stovetop-to-broiler methods (aka, you're required to move a pan of meat around), though it does result in twice as many dirty dishes. Less efficient than the stovetop, stovetop-to-oven, or stovetop-to-broiler steaks; about equally efficient as the grilled steak; and more efficient than the sous vide steak.

Tenderness of Meat:

Third most tender, after the sous vide and the stovetop-to-broiler steaks.

Char:

Fourth best sear, after the grilled, stovetop-to-broiler, and stovetop-to-oven steaks. As with the stovetop-only and the sous vide steaks, I wasn't able to get as intense a char as I would've liked before it came to temperature.


Method #5: Sous Vide to Sear

Photo by Ella Quittner

Method:

Place the steak in a plastic zip-top bag, and seal using the displacement method (or vacuum seal if you have a set-up). Use the sous vide to cook the steak at 129°F for 1 hour and 15 minutes. Then, remove the steak from its bag, and pat it dry with paper towels. Heat a large cast iron skillet with a few tablespoons of oil over a high flame until the oil starts to smoke. Add the steak and a tablespoon of butter. Flip roughly every 30 seconds, until steak has a golden brown sear going on all sides, including the thin sides.

Overall Ease & Efficiency of Method:

Not easy or efficient. Using the sous vide method means you need to purchase an expensive tool, and cook your meat for much longer (at a lower temperature) than any other method. It also means fiddling with a phone app for the appliance, which is never fun with messy cooking fingers. Plus, you still have to use a skillet for the sear at the end, meaning more dishes than any other method.

Tenderness of Meat:

The sous vide method, true to lore, delivered the most tender steak. That said—and it's hard to know why—the flavor of the meat was somehow flatter than that of the stovetop-to-broiler steak.

Char:

Sixth best char (last place). I wasn't able to achieve a deep enough char, because the meat came to 130°F well before the crust was fully browned.


Method #6: Grill

Photo by Ella Quittner

Method:

Preheat grill (I used a Big Green Egg and lump charcoal) to 600°F. Place the steak on the grill, close, and cook for about three minutes. Open the grill and check on the bottom side, which should have a nice char. Flip and grill the other side another three-ish minutes, until 130°F is reached.

Overall Ease & Efficiency of Method:

Having to buy charcoal and let a grill preheat to a high temperature is a pain. This was way less easy and efficient than the stovetop and oven methods, though still easier and more efficient than the sous vide steak. Also, unlike the sous vide method, if you're going to the trouble of stocking charcoal and preheating your grill, you can make a meal out of it with sides and other proteins.

Tenderness of Meat:

Fourth most tender (tied with stovetop-to-oven steak). That said, the grilled steak tasted heads and shoulders above the other steaks, despite being slightly less tender.

Char:

Easily the most charred (first place).


TL;DR

If you have a grill and you can get it really hot, what are you waiting for? Do that. It just tastes better.

If, like me, you're a sad city dweller most of the year, go for the stovetop-to-broiler for the most efficient method with the charriest char and the most tender meat.

What method do you swear by to cook the perfect steak? Let us know in the comments.
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Ella Quittner

Written by: Ella Quittner

Ella Quittner is a a writer at Food52. She covers food, travel, wellness, lifestyle, home, novelty snacks, and internet-famous sandwiches. You can follow her on Instagram @equittner, or Twitter at @ellaquittner.

69 Comments

Sandra R. September 11, 2019
I love the tried and true method of dry off the steaks salt and peppered in a smoking hot black iron skillet sear the steak for 2min flip it 2 min. Depending on the thickness you temp the meat for your liking and repeat the 2 min drill. Comes out perfect each and every time. For thin steaks. dry season pop into freezer for 10 min or so then put on super smoking black iron pot. great results.
 
John September 9, 2019
I have cooked steaks (beef & pork) using all these methods. I agree, that choosing which method to use comes down to quality of the meat, size, taste profile. Tough cuts, I slow cook or Sous Vide. About Sous Vide steaks, I've tried the reverse sear method with Sous Vide and it's usually pretty good. However, I prefer to sear the steak first and then Sous Vide it to 138 degrees for 90 minutes and it comes out as the best and juiciest steak for me. Note: I have an upper denture so the tenderer the better :)

If the weather is good, I BBQ. If the weather is poor then depending on time I use the Stovetop, Stovetop and Oven and the stovetop and broiler methods.
 
keg72 September 9, 2019
I was struck by the fact that the author noted several times that a particular cooking method didn't give a great sear because the steak reached 130 before the sear was achieved. What that says to me is that the author cooked the steaks too long before doing the thing that would cause the good char. For instance, the steaks were too hot coming out of the sous vide (or weren't cooled a little post-sous vide prior to putting them in the pan). Or, the steaks were left in the oven too long in the reverse sear method (or, again, not allowed to cool a bit before going in the pan).

I think a good char is achievable with any of these methods, but it's a matter of the temp of the pan and the temp of the meat -- something that maybe wasn't managed ideally.
 
Christina September 9, 2019
First I have to ask which Butcher in Huntington. That's where I grew up and my parents still live there. Second, I have a meat thermometer and can't wait to make a Perfect Steak! Thank you for posting!
 
Paul A. September 8, 2019
Various excellent tips . . . but no surprise charring is the best.
The beginning of the article, i.e." a couple of students . . . " is nothing but BS. I have never seen, nor have any of you ever seen a BUTCHER with a meat thermometer on hand . . . really, when was the last time you saw a bbq in a refrigerated butcher shop?? Please.
 
David C. September 8, 2019
Is anyone surprised that charcoal grilled tastes best?
It's not too much work to get a charcoal fire going--really. Besides while the coals are lighting, prep the other items to grill as well.
 
Tim K. September 8, 2019
1. steaks differ--not just cut but age, method of feeding the animal, quality of kill, care of the carcass.
2. but figuring commercial u.s.d.a. prime porterhouse, straight up grill for me [74 years old, used to travel a lot, some butchering experience, frequent cook. one method, perfect finish if you pay attention AND SALT APPROPRIATELY, no grease splattering on the stove or condensing on the kitchen walls and exaust. easy clean up.
3. best method: what you enjoy, what you can do. IF YOU'VE NEVER HAD HOME RAISED/HOME BUTCHERED BEEF [pork or lamb too] i hope you get a chance. THAT'S the best across cooking methods.
 
Daniel September 8, 2019
Now I want a steak.
 
Tom September 8, 2019
It’s easy to get a perfectly cooked steak using the sous vide method. But, I agree with the author that the steaks just do not taste that great - flat.

Get a nice thick ribeye, salt it real well and leave it unwrapped on a rack in the refrigerator for a day. Then throw it on a hot hot hot grill.

Reverse hearing it is also pretty good
 
cosmiccook September 9, 2019
That's how we do it--I can't wait till next week for steak day!
 
Linda B. September 8, 2019
One method I have not seen mentioned (I did not read every comment) is to just throw the steak on the coals. We read about this years ago and thought it sounded nuts but tried it anyway and it was one of the best steaks I've ever eaten. It produces a great char as one could imagine and it was very tender and super juicy.

Heavy and the salt and pepper and meat brought to room temp. The coals need to be just going past red hot and in an evenish layer. Time depends on the thickness of the steak, of course, and the hotness of the coals. I don't think it would work for a very thick steak unless you like your meat "blue". We do 1" - 1½". Rib-eyes flatten out as they cook so you can go thicker with those.

Surprisingly there is no charcoal on the meat and it doesn't burn if you're cooking it rare. Don't try this if you're a well done meat eater as I think it would combust before it was done.

It might require some trial and error so hold off on the prime stuff until you have it down. It won't take long. Our first try was almost perfect. It's also a hoot to watch your guests as you throw the steaks onto the charcoal.
 
arbeenyc September 8, 2019
No one has mentioned it but by far the best steaks I have had were the ones we grilled over a bed of hot embers in France. Often a thick côte-de-boeuf. Near the end, I would place a bunch of rosemary branches on top of the coals for the finishing touch (we had a great big rosemary bush in the garden). Nothing has ever come close. Environment and quality of meat count for a lot with food.
 
Paul D. September 8, 2019
The steak that stays in my memory was a NY strip cooked in a skillet on the range. I was a college student living off-campus. It so far exceeded any steak I had had up to that point that it has become legend. Now, as a (much) older adult, I like grilling steaks on the back patio with my wife and sometimes my brother in law, having a beer, eating boiled peanuts, and talking, while we wait for the charcoal fire to come up. In other words, the steak is great; but I like the ritual, too.
 
cosmiccook September 8, 2019
You are so right! It is a MAJOR ritual for my husband it means A)tunes B)spirits C) nibbles because he takes FOREVER to be "ready" to grill (gas) which gets PLENTY hot for us thank you very much. Sometimes if it's not TOO hot, I'll ask him to fire up the wood grill. I don't always care for that type of cooking the smoke flavor overwhelms the meat flavor.
 
Gari September 8, 2019
I sear both sides of a 1.5" striploin in a cast iron pan for about 1 minute each, untouched, to get a good crust, then turn off the stove and allow the residual heat to finish cooking the meat, turning once for another 2-3 minutes per side, it is pretty good. Although, I prefer a medium rather than rare steak and i don't use a thermometer either...if the blood starts to pool on top it is good to go!
 
Tom H. September 8, 2019
That's not actually blood. It's myoglobin.
 
Gari September 8, 2019
Thanks for the clarification, it is pinkish/red and a good indicator for me.
 
cosmiccook September 8, 2019
We typically buy the Welfare rated # 4 from Whole Foods. Not the grass-fed (I know its much better meat if you have to eat meat). Butcher shops are practically non-existent in N.O unless you want to pay $25-30 for a steak or get them frozen from small farms.
 
Tom H. September 8, 2019
I'm the same. Using sous vide, I can turn any cheap piece of meat into filet mignon.
 
Tom H. September 8, 2019
I'm the same. Using sous vide I can turn any cheap cut of meat into filet mignon.
 
cosmiccook September 8, 2019
Living in New Orleans we grill almost year-round (its currently 99 degrees in September). We never cook steak on the cooktop or oven. We adhere to the Serious Eats method A)buy steak a few days in advance, salt/season and let it sit uncovered on a plate for 2 days, flipping it for the duration. Take it out to room temp for the REVERSE SEAR method --and gods help my husband if my steak is cooked over 119 degrees! I'm almost a black and blue kind of eater--I want to see RED and blood and nice charred fat. Yes, it's not good for me which is why we have it every month or six weeks.
 
Ace September 8, 2019
The best steak restaurants use prime graded steak, not easy to find, sears, ands rests, (120-130), it’s about the quality of the product
 
Bryon K. September 8, 2019
I am a sous vide fan. To get a good char all you need to do is cool down the steak (ice bath the bag) before charring to get more time searing. Also get a sous vide without a stupid wifi control. To me the simplest method, you throw away the bag and dirty a fry pan like any other method. Sous vide itself requires no cleanup
 
Matt N. September 8, 2019
Use sous-vide to 125F, then sear. On really thick steaks -- like a 2" or 3" thick Porterhouse -- sous-vide is still the best way to get a uniformly cooked and tender steak.
 
hchambers86 September 8, 2019
Bit of a random question: the email that went out featuring this recipe also features a mustard-y looking sauce on the side - does anyone know what that is/recipe?
 
Daniel September 8, 2019
I also think that you have an incredibly cool job. You write well, and I bet you're funny, too.