A med & grad student who used to work the line in LA, NYC, SF and Napa talking about the science of cooking and cooking with science. Harold McGee's On Food And Cooking - The Science and Lore of the Kitchen never satisfied my kitchen curiosity and more than one Chef grew exasperated with my asking "Why?" I'll try to stay on topic, but you may see a kvetch or two about the school & hospital.
My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.
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So you've got your 1-1/2 inch thick, 24-day, dry aged New York Strip, ready to try out my bordelaise, right? Now the question is, do you throw that perfectly aged, buttery piece of red meat goodness on the grill or do you stick it in a pan? Backyard enthusiasts would go for the grill. What's better than a hunk o' beast thrown onto the grill over a charcoal/wood/gas fire? What's more primal and better tasting than the juicy char derived from meat over fire? Well, they're wrong.
Now I'm not saying that backyard grilling and bbq are universally bad, it has its uses, but it isn't for that nice steak. We've all heard of the "Maillard reaction," right? Chemical reaction that happens with a lot of foods that involves non-ezymatic browning. Brown in this instance means flavor. You see, step one of the Maillard reaction is when the reducing end of a sugar reacts with the amine of an amino acid's backbone. This process produces an N-substituted glycosylamine and water.
Now that water is important. See, what are the byproducts when you burn a hydrocarbon? CO2(g) and H2O(g). That means that smoke you see coming up from your grill has water vapor. Now, if water is being formed, you want to completely limit its presence in any reaction. If a byproduct is water, why would you want to add more water? It will slow down the entire process that builds flavor. And in some particularly horrendous applications I've seen, like boiling ham in a giant pot of water (I'm looking at you, England), you end up with zero evolution of flavor. And the evolution of flavor is the whole point of cooking in the first place.
I know what you're thinking now, "But, Jay, that water isn't boiling the meat. How can the grill be bad?" Well, remember when I mentioned the water in Maillard? Yeah, that glycosylamine is really unstable when it's substituted. It breaks down and eventually produces more water and compounds called "melanoidins." These compounds are kind of soluble in cold water. That solubility goes up in hot water. Like, water vapor. Which means that the smoke from your grill is washing flavor away.
The solution? Get yourself a nice stainless steel pan. But let's step away from the All-Clad and Calphalon. You don't need to sink $130 on a single pan. Find your local restaurant supply store. Almost all of them allow the public (that's you and me) in. And you'll find yourself a good stainless steel pan for $15-20. It'll be heavy, which is good for heat regulation and you won't really freak out if you find your burner leaves marks on the bottom.
Bring your pan up to heat, and stick your fat of choice in the pan. I like butter or olive oil, but what you pick is totally up to you. Bringing it up to heat means that the pan should be hot. Not warm. Hot. If you just bought a pan, it'll take you a while to figure out how fast it heats up. If you're impatient, get your oven up to 450F/230C and stick it in there for 10 minutes, then put your fat in. Once your fat of choice is shimmering, stick your seasoned (you remembered the salt, right?) New York Strip in the pan. Shake it real fast with a pair of tongs, to keep it from sticking. 5 minutes on each side and replace in your oven oven (you didn't turn it off, did you?) until it's to your preferred doneness.
You don't know how to check doneness? Well, the best way is to use a kitchen thermometer. Instant read and digital is the way to go. It may sound insane to drop $40 on a thermometer, but it'll keep you from freaking out a guest or loved one by serving them something blue rare (my favorite) when they only want well done (blegh). The other way is by touch. And it takes a little trial and error to get right. Hold out your right hand (or whichever is your writing hand). With all 5 digits extended, the tissue between your thumb and index finger is approximately the springiness of raw meat. Close your pinky, and that's blue rare. Ring and pinky is rare. Middle, ring and pinky are medium rare. When only your thumb is out that's about medium-well. A closed fist is well done, tough and only good for hitting people with.
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The hand analogy at the end is awesome.
A closed fist is well done, tough and only good for hitting people with.
Now I want a steak.
I love the people who claim they are "steak and potato" folks, but then order their steak well done. Are you freaking kidding me! I'm a rare to medium rare steak eater myself.
TJ, but remember those who order well done usually get the skankiest oldest gnarliest piece of meat and its cooked with the least amount of care. They are getting what they deserved, the bastards are just dumb enough to enjoy it.
My mom's a well done eater. She doesn't eat steaks when out anymore after I pointed out that the places I've worked, and almost every other restaurant, uses the least properly handled, and longest residing in the reach in, piece of meat for well done. Also known as "saved for well." She wanted the names of all the restaurants so she could tell the Health Department, and I just laughed.
I am actually a member of "team skillet sear" over charcoal grilling for steak cuts, but I don't know if I buy this. A charcoal fire, made correctly, is cooking in the range of 600+ F temperature as opposed to 450-550 F in a pan sear situation. Sure, smoke contains water, and water is no friend to the Maillard reaction, but the added heat of charcoal cooking certainly must make up for any broken N-glycosylations by adding superheated steam and the recycled flavor compounds that come from drippings. I can't imagine that 5 minutes a side at 600 F is leeching away flavor compounds from the meat, especially since the flow of moisture would be from the meat, internal moisture coming outward, not smoke moisture flowing inward.
I think that the advantages of the pan sear are the flavor addition from fat as the cooking medium (flavor AND conduction of heat), and the even and direct physical contact with the meat surface from hot metal (as opposed to just the grill grates, which are probably 600-700 F). I mean, I can't argue that the reactions you lay out are producing water vapor, I just don't really think that's why searing results in better steaks.
Have you ever heard of the "face test" for doneness? Earlobe is rare, cheek is medium rare, side of your nose is medium and anything else is hardheaded.
And for pete's sake, CAST IRON not steel!
Cast iron is good, but you cannot build a pan sauce in cast iron. And all those yummy brown bits left at the bottom of the pan can be taken up with the addition of butter, red wine or brandy and time to deglaze the pan.
Well, when you pan sear a steak, you get a crust. This nicely crackled and caramelized surface from where the meat was in the pan. With grilling, that crust isn't present. A lot of it gets washed away by both the steam hitting the meat and the fat dripping down. Leaving you with grill marks and these pale bands. The fat used in the pan does factor into the flavor and mouth feel of the meat, but even if you dry seared the pan (something I only suggest if you can quickly manipulate the meat to keep it from sticking), there's still a lot more flavor and a better developed crust on the meat.
Or maybe I should run taste tests?
I realized I never got back here to comment. Thanks for this great article. It is really helpful. I have some really nice non-stick pans that I can put into the oven. They aren't stainless steel or cast iron. It is the Cuisinart's Green Gourmet line.
Have you seen these? I'll try cooking my steak this way next time.
I am the #2 rated Chef in my city. You can have the best of both worlds. First you place a saute pan or sizzle pan in your preheated oven 400-500 degrees works great. Then on your very hot grill put the grill marks on your steak cooking to 3/4's of the way. Slap that steak in the oven to finish and get that yummy caramelized surface.