A gentleman should be able to cook for his guests. He doesn’t have to be a Michelin-starred chef (although that can always help) but it’s always good to have just a few dishes up your sleeve; preferably, ones that you can cook really, really well and present in an eye-catching way.
Steak is a particularly versatile favourite. If it’s a meal for a partner, something for the lads, or a more formal occasion, a well-cooked and perfectly-presented steak is a sure-fire hit. It is the preferred meat of the connoisseur around the world. So here’s a guide that will minimise the chances of you getting it wrong.
Choose the right butcher.
For the best quality, choose a really good butcher. It’s fairly self-explanatory, but shrink-wrapped meat at your local supermarket might be a good deal cheaper, but will have a far higher water content, and won’t have the flavour or texture of a quality meat from a quality butcher. You’ll also be able to boast of “my butcher” and earn some serious kudos.
Choose the right cut of meat.
First, where does the meat come from? Probably all UK beef is grass-fed. If it’s imported, then there’s a chance that it might be ‘corn-fed’ which means that it’s been raised on a maize-based diet (don’t be fooled into assuming ‘corn’ means ‘wheat’) which is unnatural for the animal and results in (what many consider to be) inferior meat. Grass-fed should have a more appetising look about it, and better ‘marbling’ (lines of fat running through the beef). Ask how old the meat is, how long it has been aged for; any cut other than fillet should be over 21 days old to allow the fat to break down, but don’t buy anything over 35 days.
- Rib-eye steak is an up-and-coming favourite in many top-class restaurants. Have your butcher cut it big – at least 3cm thick – and choose a piece with plenty of marbling, and a cube of fat at one end (the ‘eye’ in ‘rib-eye). Don’t trim the fat away, as the fat adds a lot to the flavour.
- Prime rib is often a big cut of meat (expect one steak to be approaching a kilogram before cooking). Some prefer this cut over a rib-eye, in the common belief that beef just tastes better when cooked on the bone. It will need to rest longer than any other cut. Remember that you are paying for the bone as well as the meat!
- Sirloin was a meat so beloved of King Henry the Eighth, he granted it a knighthood (hence, Sir Loin). Cook it with the fat still on to intensify the flavour and texture, though it’s still easy enough for the diner to just trim it away if they wish. Choose a thick cut; maybe 3cm thick.
- Fillet steak used to be the jewel in the crown. It’s not really in favour so much now, as it isn’t a muscle used much by the animal, isn’t quite as flavoursome as other cuts, and is one of the most expensive. It doesn’t need to age as it’s a lean cut with very little fat to break down.
- Chateaubriand is a bigger, more expensive version of a fillet. It’s seriously big, seriously expensive, and I’m often inclined to give it a miss.
- Rump steak is far cheaper than fillet steak, and has far more flavour. The best cuts come from the middle of the rump, cut against the grain. It can have a few sinews running through it, so get rid of these before cooking with a sharp knife. It’s a hard-working muscle of the animal, which can make it tougher, but much tastier.
- Porterhouse and T-bone steaks are pretty much the same thing as each other. Both tend to be rather more bone than meat, take longer to cook (good if you like it rare, bad if you like it well done). It remains a favourite of some folk – but I have absolutely no idea why, other than a complete lack of imagination.
Whichever cut you choose, make sure you remove it from the fridge in plenty of time. The best results come from cooking meat that’s already at room temperature.
Choose the right cooking method.
Steaks can be grilled; the best way, however, is in a frying pan or similar, over direct heat. The thicker the frying pan the better, as it will hold its heat, and preferably one with a good non-stick coating. A good cast-iron skillet or griddle would be even better as these can get really hot, giving your steak that sweet, charred finish on the outside that we all love.
If you pan is too small to fit all your steaks in, resist the urge to squeeze them all in at once. Far better to cook them in small batches and allow them to rest, wrapped in tin foil, while you cook a few more.
Choose the right oil.
Do not fry your steak in butter. Butter cannot handle the heat and will just burn, ruining the steak. If you want a little extra flavour and a creamy shine to your steak, add a dot of butter the moment it’s ready to serve.
Groundnut oil is recommended by many chefs; my personal favourite is cold-pressed rapeseed oil, which is grown in the UK, delicious, and far cheaper than olive oil of the same quality.
Some chefs pour oil straight into the pan; others prefer to oil the steak, ensuring it’s completely covered, then put the steak into a dry pan. Unless you’re experienced, I’d put the oil into the pan which will show you when the oil is hot enough and ready (it should just be about to separate and almost smoke). Make sure the oil is spread all over the pan, and don’t put your steak in when the oil isn’t hot enough. You’ll be disappointed with the greasy, grey lump of meat you’ll end up with.
While the oil is heating up, sprinkle sea salt and black pepper onto a plate and lightly press your steak into it immediately before cooking (adding salt too early will dry out your steak). Fancy a little variation? How about seasoning it with a load of crushed black peppercorns (say, one teaspoonful per steak)? Or dried coriander seeds? Or a marinade, such as balsamic vinegar or honey and wholegrain mustard, both of which will give your steak an extra flavour and a beautiful glaze?
Choose the optimum cooking time.
Obviously there’s quite a few factors that will affect cooking times; the thickness of the meat, the cut, the fat content, just to mention a few. So here’s a rough guide for you;
- Blue: about 1 – 1½ minutes per side. Your meat should be a dark, purple-ish colour, and fairly warm. It will feel soft and spongy to the touch.
- Rare: anywhere from 1½ – 2½ minutes per side. The steak will be dark red with a few juices still flowing. It will also feel soft and spongy, but slightly firmer than a blue steak.
- Medium-rare: allow 2 – 3 minutes per side. This meat will be pink in the middle, with a little pink juice flowing. It will feel spongy still, but slightly springy.
- Medium: allow 3 – 4½ minutes per side. Your steak should be pale pink in the middle, with barely any juices, and feel firm and springy to the touch.
- Well-done: allow 4 – 5 minutes per side. Maybe a hint of pink in the middle; it should feel springy and soft once it’s rested.
Any doubts over the cooking times? Ask your butcher when you buy your meat for his recommendations.
Once cooked allow the steak to rest, covered loosely in kitchen foil, for around ten minutes (certainly no less than six minutes). This allows the meat to re-absorb the juices, making your steak moist and tender, whilst freeing up the pan for your side dishes. Which brings us to….
Choose your accompanying sauce and dishes.
A good steak deserves a good sauce. Here’s a few suggestions;
- Peppercorn sauce is a favourite, but why make it from a packet? Just pour off the excess oil from frying your steak, add a tablespoon of red wine vinegar and half a cupful of beef stock; boil it, reduce it by half, add some thick double cream and as much black pepper as you dare.
- Béarnaise sauce is equally easy; pour off the excess oil and add a tablespoon of the same vinegar; add a few dollops of crème fraîche and stir in some chopped tarragon. Keep stirring, and it will melt into a delicious sauce.
- Make a tasty flavoured butter in advance and keep it refrigerated until you’re ready to serve. Try stirring finely-chopped parsley and a clove of garlic into room-temperature, good quality butter; horseradish cream and chopped chives; chopped sundried tomato and basil. Roll it into a sausage, and slice off as much as you need when you’re ready (you can freeze the rest ready for next time).
What sides go well with a steak? Tradition dictates chipped potatoes, or maybe wedges. If you don’t have a Deep Fat Fryer, par-boil some peeled and chipped potatoes. Coat them in oil, salt and pepper, and roast them in a hot oven for 20 – 30 minutes. Looking for something different? Make wedges from sweet potatoes with the skins still on.
A few peas wouldn’t go amiss – nothing fancy needed, just boil some frozen ones they way it says on the bag.
Apart from that, feel free to ring the changes. You know who your guests are and how far you can push your luck. The star of the show is always going to be the steak, so as long as the steak itself is cooked to perfection, you will have achieved greatness.
Finally – want to make absolutely sure of getting it absolutely right on the night? Why not treat yourself to a practice run, a few days before your guests arrive – you’ll be glad you did!