over easy

The Most Idiot-Proof Way to Cook a Steak

Meat. Photo: Madeleine Aggeler

Over Easy is a weekly food column by a 20-something woman who can barely cook an egg and just wants to learn how to throw together an elegant three-course meal for her friends.

It’s unsettling how much some people love tearing into a huge, bloody slab of flesh. We gather in fancy restaurants with plush, leather banquettes, or a friend’s backyard, and demand big chunks of a cow’s hip. Then some of us are like, “Cook it less so it’s even bloodier!” and others are like, “No, cook it more so it’s like I’m eating a shoe!” I understand that it’s an urge dating all the way back to our mammoth-hunting, finger-painting ancestors, but still, it’s pretty messed up. That being said, I absolutely love a good steak.

My first memory of eating steak was an ancestral celebration of sorts. I was 9, and my family was celebrating the purchase of my great-grandmother Shirley’s new walker, which the adults kept referring to as “the Cadillac of walkers” and laughing. I didn’t understand the joke, but I didn’t care, because to mark the occasion, we went to a restaurant and ordered tender, juicy steaks the size of my head. From the first buttery, fleshy bite, I was hooked on the smokiness and the umami and the cholesterol.

In the years since, my love for steak has not diminished, though my attempts to grill it myself have been somewhat harrowing. I was intrigued, therefore, when a colleague told me about reverse searing steaks. It’s the opposite process of a regular sear, he explained, and I nodded enthusiastically even though I knew nothing about the regular process of searing anything, let alone how to reverse it.

Searing, I gathered later, involves cooking meat at a high temperature until the outside is crisp and browned, usually in a pan over the stove, though it is possible to sear meat in the oven as well. For seared steaks, some recipes suggest finishing in the oven, and others say to eat it straight out of the skillet, after giving it a few minutes to rest. If you already knew this, great! If you didn’t, now you can nod enthusiastically and honestly if a colleague brings up searing steaks at a party.

The reverse sear, as you, a quick-witted reader might have gathered at this point, reverses that process. Instead of starting the steak at a high temperature, you start by cooking the steak at a low temperature in the oven — around 200 degrees — and then finish by searing it quickly in a hot pan on the stove. According to an extremely comprehensive article by chef and food writer J. Kenji López-Alt at Serious Eats titled “The Reverse Sear Is the Best Way to Cook a Steak, Period,” bringing a steak up to the desired temperature slowly and then searing it at the end makes for more even cooking, better browning, more tender meat, and produces more consistently positive results than regular searing. I was ready!

I invited my friends Caroline and Noah to join me in testing out this new method, and they agreed even though the last steaks I served them were practically inedible. I was grateful, though I couldn’t help but wonder how much more terrible food I could feed them before they set off for greener, more delicious pastures, friend-wise.

The reverse sear, López-Alt notes, calls for a thick-cut steak. At the grocery store, I grabbed ingredients for a side salad, plus three New York strips that I paid for and then promptly forgot at the register, striding out briskly with my salad bag and nothing else. When I returned bashfully 20 minutes later, the woman behind the register patiently handed over my steaks, and did not publicly mock me despite it being her legal right to do so. At home, steaks in hand, I preheated the oven to 200 degrees, then generously salted and peppered the meat. The reverse sear requires a wire rack, which I don’t own, but I was able to use the rack from a small countertop oven an old roommate had left behind, as well as a little, round, rack-like piece of equipment whose purpose I could not divine. I placed these on top of a baking sheet, the steaks on top of racks, and put them in the oven.

You should cook steak in the oven, López-Alt notes, until the internal temperature is 10 to 15 degrees below your final intended temperature. Wanting steaks that fell somewhere between rare (120 degrees) and medium-rare (130 degrees), I cooked the steaks for about 30 minutes, periodically checking them with a meat thermometer, until their internal temperature hit a little over 110 degrees.

Next, I scrambled a little bit. I hadn’t started heating the vegetable oil in the skillet soon enough, and it wasn’t hot by the time my steaks were done. I was worried my steaks might get overcooked, but this worry evaporated: Because after I dropped a tablespoon of butter in the pan, followed by the first steak, every single fire alarm in my apartment immediately started screaming.

While I finished the steak, which only needs to cook for about 45 seconds on each side, Caroline and Noah ran around waving dish towels in front of the alarms, and frantically opening doors and windows to let out the smoke. Once the alarms had quieted, and with every door and window opened wide, I was able to sear the last two steaks without incident.

Since reversed seared steaks don’t need to rest, we were able to plate and taste them almost immediately and — miracle of miracles! — they were amazing. The Cadillac of steaks, I would say. As promised, the outsides were crispy and browned, and the insides tender and juicy and rare. We all chomped on our bloody meat slabs and groaned happily and it was a very gross but delicious sight.

Photo: Madeleine Aggeler

My Report Card
Preparation: B+
Taste: A+++
Mornings: B+

My Overall Performance: A-

The Most Idiot-Proof Way to Cook a Steak