Cuban-Style Skirt Steak + 5 Tips for a Better Sear

March 11, 2014

Sunday Dinners comes to us from our own chef/photojournalist/farmer/father figure Tom Hirschfeld, featuring his stunning photography and Indiana farmhouse family meals.  

Today: The secret to the perfect pan-seared steak? It's all about the sizzle.

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I won't lie to you -- I like steak. To be specific, I like pan-seared steak. It’s the roar of the hood fan as it comes up to speed; the exhilaration and anticipation of the pop, crackle, and sizzle of red meat on a hot pan; and the wisps of white smoke curling around the steak's edges, like a passionate embrace that gently kisses the bits of ground black peppercorn and fat. And, as always, the resulting taste of the brown butter against the crispy-edged meat. This kind of carnivorous zeal should be illegal.

Something as simple as pan-seared steak doesn’t need much adornment -- think of a classic Steak Diane, an Au Poivre, or one topped with a sauce Bearnaise or a simple compound butter. If you are anything like me, a mess of caramelized onions is about as good as it gets.

More: Try topping your steak with Tom's maitre d'hotel butter.

Nevertheless, I am always looking to improve on a good thing. And, as always, I am surprised at some of the places where you can discover improvement. Like when I sat down to a table at a mom-and-pop joint, a Cuban restaurant called El Siboney, while visiting Key West not long ago. I ordered something I normally wouldn’t when eating at a Cuban restaurant: a steak.

It must have been fate. To make a long story short, after devouring the sizzling hot skirt steak marinated in mojo and speckled with bits of onion tossed with parsley, I vowed to learn this steak’s secrets. As with most things Floribbean, when I can’t figure it out myself, I defer to one chef: Norman Van Aken. I cracked open one of his many cookbooks, New World Kitchen, and went directly to his recipe for Bistec de Palomillo. Just as I figured, the answers to my questions were there on the pages laid out before me.

Not one to leave well enough alone, I contacted Chef Van Aken. The answers begged more questions: What was the difference between Bistec de Palomillo and Bistec Encebollado? It turns out the first uses sirloin that is pounded thin, and the other uses skirt steak. As all great chefs do, he had some updates for those willing to stray from tradition, like using a chipotle vinegar in his mojo, and topping with cebollas fritas (fried egg-battered onions).

For my purposes here -- at least for today -- I am sticking to tradition: to the taste of quickly seared minced red onion and the mystery of a good mojo that rings true to what I tasted in Key West. For the latter, I already know that there is none better than Chef Van Akens' Classic Sour Orange Mojo.

Five tips for better pan searing:

1. Use the right skillet. I personally like cast iron, but I also know that any heavy-bottomed pan -- like stainless steel -- will suffice. You need something that will distribute the heat evenly.

2. Make sure the pan is hot enough, but not too hot. I can't stress this enough -- practice makes perfect. To me the ideal temperature is just before the oil starts to smoke. If I drop something into the oiled pan and it sizzles immediately (with vigor but not violently), then I am ready to sear my steak.

3. I always -- even if I am going to marinate -- salt and then air dry my steaks, chicken breasts, or pork chops in the refrigerator for at least 2 to 4 hours, and most of the time overnight. Drying out the surface in this manner will allow for good caramelization that merely patting dry never will.

4. Butter and beef are great together. If you clarify butter, it is a great fat for searing. If you can't be bothered, use a high-heat oil, like grapeseed. Toward the end of the sear, add a couple of teaspoons of butter and baste the steak with the butter-oil mixture. Be careful not to let the butter burn.

5. Even though you are pan-searing, it is very important to let the cooked steak rest, just as if you were grilling. For me, I like the fact that a steak needs a rest because it gives me time to wrap up and get the side dishes to the table. Look at the rest time as a positive, not a bother. 

Cuban-Style Skirt Steak with Classic Sour Orange Mojo

Serves 4

For the mojo:

6 garlic cloves
1 Scotch bonnet chile, stemmed, seeded, and minced
1 to 2 teaspoons cumin seeds, toasted
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup equal parts lime and orange juice (or 1/3 cup sour orange juice)
1 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons sherry vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

For the steak:

1 1/2 pounds skirt steak, trimmed
1 cup red onion, finely minced
1 tablespoon flat leaf parsley, minced
Grapeseed oil
2 teaspoons unsalted butter
1 lime, quartered 

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Tom Hirschfeld

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Rachel
  • Analida Braeger
    Analida Braeger
  • Desiree @ whatsinseasonwithdes
    Desiree @ whatsinseasonwithdes
  • katelyn
  • MRubenzahl
Father, husband, writer, photojournalist and not always in that order.


Rachel May 14, 2018
I wholeheartedly agree with you re: salt and air-drying the steaks. In addition to creating a nice dry surface on which to achieve beautiful caramelization, the extra time also allows the juices that the salt will initially draw out to be re-absorbed back into the steak. But I’m a little confused about the marinade: Wouldn’t covering the air dried steak in a liquid marinade (although it does sound incredibly delicious!) defeat the purpose of drying out the steak in the first place? Color me puzzled and also intrigued . . .
Analida B. January 11, 2018
This looks amazing and I will be making this soon! The mojo marinade is a fantastic way to prep it. I also have a similar Puerto Rican recipe with a simple marinade for Bistec Encebollado here :
Desiree @. April 30, 2015
I did a little experiment and used this marinade to roast some carrots. They were sweet, silky, and charred--and the flavors paired perfectly!
katelyn March 17, 2014
when you say air dry in the fridge, do you leave it in uncovered?
MRubenzahl March 16, 2014
re: If you clarify butter, it is a great fat for searing. If you can't be bothered...

Or buy it. I prefer to make my own (just because I'm like that) but you can find Ghee in jars at an Indian market or, very likely these days, in a regular market. Shelf stable, in jars.
Jason March 14, 2014
I am from California and visited Key West with my wife and boys 4 years and found this place. I have had this steak there and it was fantastic! I can't wait to try this at home and bring a little of Key West to Fresno. Thank you for reminding me of a great vacation.
ATG117 March 13, 2014
Always great writing...and food. How long do you guess you sear each side? As a veg, I still struggle with getting meat to the perfect spot.
Merrill S. March 11, 2014
This looks fantastic. Will be trying it soon!
thirschfeld March 11, 2014
I hope you do Merrill! and thanks
aargersi March 11, 2014
Gonna try this! We have been to El Siboney, and I have been working on my Cuban oxtail ever since ... love that place!!
thirschfeld March 11, 2014
I am working on my oxtails too! Add yuca to the list while I am at it.