7 Tips on How to Cook Great Steaks

Grilled rib-eye steak with baked potato
We love a tender, juicy, well-cooked beef steak. Because preparing it perfectly involves proper technique, temperature control, timing, and seasoning, cooking a steak is a great test of your culinary skills. Cooking the perfect steak might not be as easy as you wish, but with practice, and some insight, you can quickly master it. Here are seven tips on how to cook the perfect steak every time.

1. Proper Cooking Technique

Grilling is the best way to cook a steak. And, the best way to grill a steak is to get the grill very hot, and then place your prepped steak on the grill. Stand back. Don’t touch it. After about three minutes, use a long pair of tongs to flip it over. Grill it for another two minutes or longer, depending on how thick it is and how hot your grill is. A medium-rare steak will be light pink at the center and between 130° and 140° F. Don’t poke it with a thermometer, or cut into it to see what color it is, because the hole or slice will just let all the juices leak out, and your steak will be dry.

Grilling times depend on how thick the steak is cut. However, in every case, the grilling should be done on a very hot grill directly over the heat source. To cook your steak to medium-rare:

  • 3/4 inch thick – cooks 3-5 minutes per side
  • 1 inch thick – cooks 6-7 minutes per side
  • 1 1/2 inches thick – cooks 7-8 minutes per side
  • 2 inches thick – 10-12 minutes per side

These suggested times will vary, depending on how hot your grill gets. A little practice will help you nail down the perfect timing. Additional methods of cooking vary by the type of steak you’re serving, and there’s some great insight on cuts of meat and cooking techniques here.

2. Warming Things Up

Whether you’re cooking a thin strip steak, or a thick porterhouse, you have to plan ahead, and that means taking the steak out well in advance of actually cooking it to get rid of the chill, and reaching room temperature Why is this important? If you drop your steak right from the fridge into you’re hot pan, you’re going to get an unappealing gray exterior and risk an under cooked steak because the interior can’t cook as fast as the outside, and the exterior turns ugly.

So, how long is “well in advance”? For the thinner cuts, a half-hour or so on the counter will do. If your steak is over an inch thick, plan on at least an hour, and even up to two. Once it reaches room temperature you have about two hours before dangerous bacteria begin to grow.

3. Marinading and Seasoning

When it comes to marinading and seasoning, this is the time to be bold. Your marinade should point in the direction you want your flavor to go, or create a complementary contrast. Larry’s General Purpose Marinade is a perfect basic mixture that can easily be modified to suit your needs. Soak your steak in the marinade for at least ten minutes per side. If turning the steak, use tongs. We don’t want any holes that will let juices drain out during cooking.

In addition to providing great flavor for your steak, seasoning also aids the formation of a gorgeous crust. What we want to achieve here is big, bold flavor. We can’t season the inside of the steak, So we have to aggressively season the exterior without overdoing. Use coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, and season generously so that you can actually see the salt and pepper. If you want to use a flavorful rub to create that crust, visit our dry rub page, which lists some simple, easy to make rubs for various pallet pleasing flavors.

4. All Hail the Smoke

If you’re going to be cooking indoors, make sure your smoke detectors will allow for a little smoke. Smoke is good for flavor. Don’t be afraid to use a white-hot, heavy-bottomed, cast iron pan, which will make a little smoke as it sears the steak. For thick cut steaks, you will need to turn the heat down a little, or you run the risk of a gorgeous crust and a raw interior. To make sure your fat doesn’t burn, sear in an oil with a very high smoke point, like vegetable oil or grape seed oil. We also recommend buying boneless cuts for this technique, because they cook evenly by laying flat in the skillet.

For this white-hot technique, dry the steak well before seasoning to maximize the crust, and instead of salting the steak, salt the pan. Salt tends to draw moisture out, and we want all those juices to stay inside. After you have flipped the steak, you can finish with butter in the last few minutes. Melt the butter and baste the steak to pick up the fond and make your flavors pop.

5. Touch Test Your Steak

To test how done a steak is, just press the center of the steak with your thumb. If it feels soft or jelly-like, it is still rare. When the center of a steak just springs right back, its perfectly medium rare. Remember, it should spring back. If it’s just firm and hard, you’ve overcooked it.

Some chefs can tell when a steak is done just by feeling it. And, there are various ways of learning to do this, but it takes a lot of experience. There is the face test, where the firmness of the steak is compared to various areas of the face, but we don’t care for our cooks touching their face while they’re cooking our food. We like the Palm of your Hand technique. You’re hands are more likely to be clean. Here’s how to do it, and it’s fairly easy:
Palm tests for steak doneness

  • Hold your hand out, palm up. Poke your hand by the base of the thumb. This is what raw meat feels like.
  • Now, make an OK sign with your hand by touching your forefinger and thumb together. Feel the same part of your hand. It’s a little firmer. This is how meat feels when it’s rare.
  • Move your other fingers to your thumb. As you do, you’ll notice the pad of your hand will get progressively firmer.
  • Touch your middle finger to the tip of your thumb. That’s how a medium rare steak feels.
  • Next, touch the tip of your ring finger to your thumb. This is what a medium-well will feel like.
  • Lastly, touch your pinkie to your thumb. That’s the equivalent of a well-done steak.

If you would rather go with an instant read thermometer, here are the temperatures for doneness:

  • Extra Rare – 115-120 degrees
  • Rare – 125-130 degrees
  • Medium Rare – 135-140 degrees
  • Medium 145-150 degrees
  • Medium-Well – 155-160 degrees
  • Well Done – 165 degrees

What happens if the steak has a gorgeous crust, but the temperature clocks in too low? It’s time for pan roasting! Fire up the oven and preheat it to 400 degrees F. Meanwhile, put your steak on a roasting rack set in a baking sheet. Stick it in the oven. It’ll finish cooking without getting too dark.

6. Chilling Out About Resting Your Meat

Aside from over or under-cooking and incorrect seasoning, not allowing meat to rest properly is probably the cooking blunder of which we are all most guilty. Cutting into hot meat before it has properly rested lets all the juices run out, causing dry, chewy, meat. Here’s why: when you place your steak into the hot pan or grill, the juices are forced away from the heat towards the center, increasing the concentration of moisture in the middle of the steak.

When the steak gets flipped over, the same thing happens on that side. The center of the steak becomes supersaturated with more liquid than it can hold on to. So, when you slice it open, all that extra liquid pours out. By resting the steaks, you allow all that liquid in the center time to migrate back out to the edges. How long to let it rest? For thin cuts, 5 to 10 minutes will do; for larger, thicker steaks, plan for 10 to 15. Don’t worry, your steak will not get cold, it will still be quite warm, juicy, and delicious.

7. Slice Against the Grain

Fat marbling in beef
Grain visible in beef
There seems to be some confusion around cutting meat “against the grain,” or, “across the grain.” Those terms mean the same thing, but just what does that actually mean? It means to slice those long strings of muscle into short pieces so they can be chewed more easily. Some cuts of meat have visible lines in the muscle. Flank steak, skirt steak, brisket, and London broil are good examples. These are typically long, flat, and prized for the flavor, rather than tenderness. Remember that pot roast you chewed and chewed until your jaw was tired? You can actually see, and feel in your mouth, the muscle fibers.

These cuts of meat are usually sliced in a way so that the fibers are cut through, making the meat more tender and easier to eat. Notice the horizontal lines of fat running in long lines throughout the raw steak shown here. If you slice this steak in the same direction as those lines, you’ll have to chew through those long fibers that will end up like strings. If you cut across the lines, however, the knife will have already done that work, and the meat seems to be more tender. Try slicing thinly while holding the knife at a 45-degree angle for a more elegant presentation.

Ready to make some magic happen? Try these great recipes:

Pan-Roasted Rib Eye Steak
Malted Pepper Steak
Browned Steak Strips with Pan Gravy
Jamaican Jerk Beef-Tenderloin Steaks
Grilled Rib-Eye Steak
Horseradish & Black Pepper Crusted Rib Eye