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.

28 Comments

Denise D. August 12, 2019
For me, all these "best and most perfect ways" to cook things just kills spontaneity and creativity. Yes, I get that cooking is a science, but it can also be an art. The idea that a particular way of cooking something with no deviations will result in something that objectively "tastes the best possible", as if that's even achievable in reality since everyone's tastes are subjective, strikes me as almost fascist. Maybe that's overkill, but it's definitely soulless. I stopped watching America's Test Kitchen for that reason. As for cooking steak, my guess is that there are many ways to do it that end up with tasty, succulent meat. True cooks will experiment with their own methods and find the one they like best.
 
Ace August 8, 2019
OMG!! Buy Prime-graded steaks, model the best chefs, the quality of the products determines the quality of the dish, and, allow the meat to be the star, forget about enhancing a top quality ingredient.. no brining, no rubs, etc., lower quality meats, disguise with what you like ... maybe rub with a compound butter before serving
 
Gay D. August 8, 2019
Oh, and salt the steak well when you bring it home, wrap it up till time to cook. A la myself and Samin Nosrat!!
 
Gay D. August 8, 2019
Why the reverse sear? We cook steak over a very hot grill with flame, mark on both sides with great char, (or in a smoking hot cast iron pan, 3 minutes side one, 2 minutes side two) put into a 200 degree oven until at temp. A riff on Jose Andres Beef Tenderloin, it's always perfect, and juices intact. Try it!
 
Robert H. August 8, 2019
If you leave a 1.5-2” thick steak out of the fridge for 45” it won’t be room temperature in the middle, so if you then cook it over high heat you will likely be left with an unevenly cooked steak - either underdone in the middle or overdone on the portion that did reach room temp.

In my view it’s best to dry brine the steak for 1.5 -3 hours leaving it uncovered in the fridge until it’s time to cook, then pat it dry and put it on the grill or in the pan, flipping it every 45 seconds or so until it reaches the desired temp in the middle. Since all of the steak was the same temp when it hits the grill or pan there is less risk of an unevenly cooked piece of meat.

Also, always pat dry any meat before grilling, otherwise you will initially be steaming it.
 
joleger August 6, 2019
I will echo the other comments on the sous-vide method:
- Immersion circulators (sous-vide machines) are NOT expensive.
- When I first started with sous-vide I to struggled with my finishing technique. There are a few tips and tricks that help. I personally use a charcoal chimney now. Works better than cast iron or searzall (blow torch attachment)
- It does take time to cook steak via sous-vide. It isn't spur of the moment type of thing.

I've never had a better steak than sous-vide steak. The ENTIRE center is medium rare...not just a strip of pink in the middle....and is juicy and tender.
 
insan_art August 6, 2019
You shouldn't need oil on your grilled steak if the grill is nice and hot. Salt and pepper WHILE the steak is coming to room temp. The salt melts nicely into the surface of the steak. Perfect season every time.
Also, charcoal is disgusting. ALL OF IT. Gas or wood!!!
 
trvlnsandy August 6, 2019
Does not sound like she knows her way around a sous vide. You can buy the wands for $1-200, which does not make them 'expensive tool(s)' relative to things like Instant Pots, etc. Is there a reason the author flips every 30 seconds? We bring 2" steaks to temp in our sous vide, well salted and seasoned (thyme, rosemary, garlic, shallots, pepper or whatever we have) and then sear in a smoking hot iron sear pan for a minute per side. I rotate 90 degrees after about 30 seconds. Only way we'll eat steak now. Gives us perfectly medium rare every time with wonderful flavor. I realize sous vide is not for everyone, but we think just this one dish made ours worth the money spent.
 
Adrienne B. August 5, 2019
I have a nice cast iron griddle/grill for the stove top, and a Graniteware roaster lid. 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.
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. August 6, 2019
Interesting! What temp do you go to with the sous vide before cooling?
 
Mychalleah W. August 5, 2019
We had this same issue when we sold vide ours, so now only bring it to 104-110 (rare or med-rare) in the bath, then we can get the best crust by the time 130 is reached.
 
Ace August 5, 2019
You never mention the quality of the steak!! Prime, well marbled makes all the difference. Use 120 degrees, heat will creep up while resting, you’ll get a rosy pink, why sear both sides? You only see one 😋. A glaze of grapeseed oil - gets hotter than other oil, sear 3 minutes, pop in the oven, depending on thickness 4-6 minutes, lump of butter the last minute, or make a compound butter and smear on steak. Rest five minutes. Grills are tricky, heat varies by grill, melting fat can result in flame ups, takes experience.. searing and placing away from the fire to finish, and, always salt well before cooking
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. August 6, 2019
Good point! It was high-quality, well-marbled meat. I got the Porterhouses from a local Whole Foods.
 
Richard R. August 5, 2019
Actually if you're a sad city dweller or a rural dweller your in good shape. The gist of the steak on the grill thing is a HOT HOT HOT grill. Gas grill will not do it. Large charcoal grills will not do it. A Green Egg sure as heck will not do it. A small grill made of a thick refractory material, like a Konro grill, is best. Stuff it full of 100% charcoal briquettes ( lump is silly ) and let it come to full heat. Add hickory or other wood if you want that flavor. Use as minimal a grill grate as you can. Don't get hung up on grill marks. The meat should be less than an inch from the coals. Sear with frequent flips until the desired internal temp is reached. Practice. You can do it on an NYC balcony or rooftop. Practice. No two step method needed. Sous vide definitely not needed. Practice. You'll beat the steak joints in time.
 
insan_art August 6, 2019
Charcoal is disgusting.
 
Heather G. August 8, 2019
In your humble opinion...
 
Jim August 5, 2019
Sous vide, don't forget to season, sear with a torch. Delicious and tender.
 
ric0suave August 5, 2019
I too do the sous vide and finish with either the Searzall or buttered cast iron. Instead of a 1.5” steak, go for 2”. Get the largest flakes of salt you can find.
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. August 6, 2019
Do you recommend a specific torch?
 
Rui August 5, 2019
The only comment I would have about the sous-vide to sear method would be to chill the steak before searing. Yes it adds even more time, but you can get a good crust without overcooking the inside of the steak.
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. August 6, 2019
Interesting approach! Good to know.
 
GordonW August 7, 2019
If you use an ice bath, this only adds a minute to your cook time. Go from sous vide to ice bath without removing the steak from the bag.
 
Kjones2840 August 5, 2019
I reverse sear using an offset smoker, a Meadow Creek TS70P stick burner, transferred to a blistering hot gas grill for the char after reaching 110°. We like our steaks rare. S&P being the only other seasoning.
 
Kjones2840 August 5, 2019
Oh, and also, no need to leave a steak out on the counter to get to room temp for reverse sear, especially with a smoker. Meat absorbs smoke better and longer when cold.
 
Charlie K. August 5, 2019
You forgot boiled over hard in milk with a side of raw jelly beans.
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. August 6, 2019
OOPS! Next time :)
 
Eli August 5, 2019
With regard to tenderness, unless you can prove that each of the steaks was EXACTLY IDENTICAL (which of course is impossible) then you really can't prove which method is best.
 
Richard R. August 5, 2019
If you give that comment some thought it mutually includes making any comment about any food or cooking comparison null and void.