For as long as man has been eating cows, there has been debate about the best way to cook steak. It’s only a matter of time before archaeologists discover cave ancient drawings of men arguing over whether to cook their bounty over an open fire or on hot rocks.
We have an appreciation for any properly-cooked steak, regardless of the method used to get it there. There are a number of ways of cooking steak at home and each brings a different value proposition regarding convenience, time, cost and taste.
We regularly use three methods to make steaks in our kitchen: oven, grill and sous vide. Our choice of cooking method is driven by what’s on the menu and how we’re feeling.
Reverse Sear: The Best Way to Cook Steak
Whether we’re using the oven, grill or immersion cooker, we’re essentially doing the same thing; we see it as three versions of the same method. In each, we first cook the steak using indirect heat until it’s nearly fully cooked. Only then do we finish over direct heat. This method is called the reverse sear.
It is seemingly a common practice to sear steaks outside first. We will often hear of the desire to “lock in the flavor” or “seal in the juices”.
However, this whole notion of creating some form of impenetrable barrier on the outside of your steak to seal in the good stuff has been completely debunked. It’s 100% false. The outside of a steak is amazingly crusty and flavorful; it isn’t, however, a seal.
The proof should be obvious. When a steak is finished cooking the next step (an extremely important step) is to rest the steak. When the steaks are done resting and ready to eat, you’ll find some of the juices have found their way to the plate. If the crust is supposed to be an impenetrable force field, it’s clearly not doing its job.
We believe the crust has a different (but very important) job: Be delicious. And what happens when you save the crust for last is you get a beautiful Maillard reaction without burning the exterior of your steak.
Delicious crustiness aside, what we have found is that by employing the reverse sear – cooking steaks over indirect heat first, followed by a quick external sear – you’re cooking the steaks evenly inside, reducing or eliminating the overcooked rings you find in so many steaks. In our experience, that results in consistently juicy, flawless steaks.
We should point out that the reverse sear really doesn’t work very well with thin steaks. The thinner the piece of meat, the faster it cooks – just watch them cook it next time you order a cheesesteak. A cut of steak that is thin can be cooked pretty easily using just a cast iron skillet without too much of an overcooked ring inside. But there’s not much to get excited about with a thin steak. We recommend every steak you buy be 1 inch (preferably 1-1/4 inch) thick at a minimum.
To be clear, we’re not advocating that steaks cooked using other methods can’t also be wonderful and delicious. We love eating steaks cooked just about any way you can think of. But we’ve come to appreciate the consistent, steakhouse-quality results we get by employing the reverse sear method using three common cooking devices.
Reverse Sear Method #1: Oven
Thankfully, one of the best ways to cook steak at home requires no special equipment. Ninety-nine percent of homes in the US have an oven. The odds are that those same 99 percent also have a pan. That’s all you need to make a pretty amazing steak.
The Secret Steak Machine
We call our oven the secret steak machine. Normally used to cook roasts, casseroles and the occasional holiday turkey, it’s an unlikely hero in the quest for steak perfection.
But we love it because any time of the year, with very little preparation, we can use it to easily cook our steaks just the way we like them: perfect medium rare all the way through.
Indirect Heat is Key
Our goal is to get the steak to it’s target temperature with as little direct heat transfer as possible. The goal is to let the air do the cooking. Heck, we would have it floating in air if we could.
Thankfully, indirect heat is exactly what an oven does.
In an effort to minimize the amount of direct heat transferred from the oven to the steak, we use a baking rack. Setting the steaks on a backing rack inside a cookie sheet allows the steak to cook with very little direct heat.
Low & Slow
We like to pull our steaks out of the refrigerator and set them on the counter for about 15 minutes prior to putting them in the oven. Somewhere in that 15 minutes, you’ll want to start preheating your oven, but because it’s a low temperature cook, it probably won’t take too long to get to temperature.
- Preheat the oven to 260 degrees F. That temperature allows those steaks to cook nice and slow.
- Pat the steaks dry with a paper towel.
- Salt and pepper both sides with kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper.
- Set the steaks on a baking rack inside of a cookie sheet.
- If your oven has a temperature probe or if you have a remote meat thermometer, put one in the thinnest steak and place the steaks in the middle rack of the oven.
- If it’s a nice, thick slab of meat it will take about 30 or 40 minutes to get to 130 degrees (our target temp for medium rare steak), depending on what temperature they start at. As the steak rests and then is seared, the internal temp will continue to rise to roughly 140 degrees.
Then we take them out and let them rest. As mentioned earlier, the temperature will keep rising a few degrees, which is great. Tent them in aluminum foil and let them sit there for about 7 to 10 minutes.
At this point, the steaks won’t be much to look at. In fact, they look downright sad. They’re fully cooked, but they don’t yet have that beautiful crust. Fear not, for the next step is to brown those steaks up perfectly.
Crust it Up
There are two great ways to finish your oven-cooked steak. Either way is great, because they use your everyday kitchen gear to put a gorgeous brown crust on your already perfectly-cooked steak.
If you’re like most people, the chances are that you’re pretty unfamiliar with your oven’s broiler. Perhaps you’ve never pressed (or noticed) the button on your oven. But it’s nothing to be afraid of, and it turns out it’s actually a pretty good crust-making machine.
Modern ovens come equipped with a broiler on the ceiling of the oven. An electric oven typically has a heating element that snakes back and forth across the top of the oven. Each run of the element is called a pass, so you’ll often hear of broilers described as a 6-pass, 8-pass or 10-pass broiler. A gas oven has a uniform broiler with an even flame, so it’s not measured in passes.
Either an electric or gas broiler can achieve that high direct heat that’s needed to get the Maillard reaction going and develop a crust on your steak.
- Position the oven rack 6 to 8 inches from the broiler element at the top of your oven.
- Turn the broiler on high.
- Put the steaks on a broiler pan and put them on the top rack.
- If you’ve got a good, high-temp broiler, it won’t need much time. Keep an eye on the top of your steak, and flip it when it’s become nice and brown – about 2 minutes or so.
It may take some experimentation to get this right. Each broiler is slightly different, so you may need to adjust the distance to the element and the time to find the right combination for you. But when you do, you’ll find it’s a great way to cook a steakhouse-quality steak using just your oven.
Using a cast iron or stainless steel skillet is another great way to finish the reverse sear you started in the oven. This is our go-to method of searing.
- Very lightly coat your pan with oil. All you want is a film. We prefer an oil that can handle high heat such as grape seed oil.
- Heat the pan to medium-high.
- When the steaks are done resting and the pan is pre-heated, put a small pad of butter in the pan, immediately followed by the steaks (you should hear them sizzle right away).
- Swirl the steaks around in the butter for just a couple of seconds, and then let them sit for 45 seconds.
- Flip them, swirl in the remaining butter and let them sit again for another 45 seconds.
- If your steaks are good and thick, sear all the edges for 15 seconds a side
When you’re done, remove the steaks and serve them immediately. There is no need to rest the steaks again, as they’ve already rested after cooking them in the oven.
Reverse Sear Method #2: Grill
We live in Ohio, where we convince ourselves that the reason we don’t live in the south is because we love the changing seasons. It’s a happy fantasy until the bitter cold of February hits and we can’t feel our toes; we invariably pack up the kids and drive somewhere warm.
The truth of the matter is we don’t care for winter very much. One of the main reasons is because we love to grill. And, while grilling out on a sunny summer afternoon usually means burgers and brats, it also occasionally means ribeyes and strips.
We own both natural gas and charcoal grills (although we recently moved out to the country where natural gas isn’t available so it’s sitting in our garage until we figure out what to do with it). Charcoal is what we grill with – we prefer the taste of charcoal, it’s not just because our gas grill is gathering cobwebs – but the grilling method we describe can be done either way.
Slow, then Sear
As with the oven, the principle here is that the best way to cook steak is slowly using indirect heat and then sear a nice crust over direct heat. Any charcoal grill or a gas grill with more than one burner will do the trick very nicely.
If using the ubiquitous Weber kettle grill (our grill of choice), we highly recommend purchasing a Slow ‘N Sear from Adrenaline Barbecue Company (you can also find it on Amazon). The Slow ‘N Sear allows you to stack the charcoal on one side of the grill, creating a two-zone grilling platform, which is perfect for cooking large cuts of meat (like a couple of thick steaks, for example). This is a very well-made grill accessory that will last a long time. As a bonus, it can turn your grill into a smoker for when you’re craving brisket or pork butt.
You don’t need the Slow ‘N Sear, but it does help a lot if you have a Weber kettle. Either way, here’s how to get a flawless steak using your grill:
- Start by creating a two-zone fire. If you’re using a charcoal grill, pile the charcoal to one side and leave the other side free. Set the vents to about 1/4 or 1/3 open. If you’re using a gas grill, turn one of the edge burners to medium high and leave the other two off (if you have a two-burner grill, light one. If you have a four burner grill, light two).
- Let the grill heat up to about 250 degrees and then put the steaks on. Never trust the thermometer that comes in your grill hood. They are notoriously inaccurate. Get an accurate grill thermometer like the iGrill 2. If you’re going to be doing a lot of grilling (why wouldn’t you?) sure to get both a meat temperature probe (tells you the temp of the steaks) and an ambient temperature probe (tells you the temp of your grill).
- Put the steaks on the indirect side of the grill with a meat probe in at least one of the steaks.
- Flip the steaks once when they’re about 100 degrees, but otherwise leave them alone and leave the lid on. Cook until the internal temp reads 130, then remove to rest under aluminum foil.
- Crank up the heat. If using a gas grill, turn all the burners to the highest setting. If using charcoal, pile more charcoal on top and open all the vents to the max.
- Once the grill is hot and the steaks have rested (7-10 minutes), put the steaks back on the grill, but this time over the direct heat. Grill for only about a minute or two per side, until you’ve got a beautiful brown crust. Don’t poke a the meat and don’t flip it more than once. Less is more.
- Remove from the grill and serve immediately. Remember, you already rested the steaks.
Another tip: turn the steaks 90 degrees during the final sear if you want those lovely grill hash marks (that’s half the reason you’re grilling the steak, right?).
Using this reverse-sear grilling method, you’ll have some of the most delicious steaks you’ve ever tasted. Throw in a few cold beverages and some good friends, and you’ve got a perfect summer afternoon.
Not many people have an immersion cooker. That’s changing. They are becoming much more popular and have dropped in price significantly. We picked up our Anova on Amazon for $129 and now we use it all the time.
First invented in the late 1700’s and revived in the late 20th century, Sous Vide (which means “under vacuum” in French) is a way of cooking that reduces fat loss, keeping most of the natural juices in the food as it cooks.
We love it because it’s a very precise and convenient way to cook a steak. Really, the beauty is three-fold: it provides precision temps, you can’t overcook it, and the long cook times enhance food safety.
Our immersion cooker measures the water temperature to the 10th of a degree F and controls to 1/2 of a degree F. Your oven and your grill don’t come close; there simply isn’t any other method of cooking available that offers this kind of precision.
Can’t be Overcooked
Using sous vide, your steaks are cooked in a vacuum sealed pouch in a water bath. Because the water remains at a precisely-controlled temperature and the food is vacuum-sealed, it’s just about impossible to overcook it.
Long Cook Times = Food Safety
One of the complaints about medium rare steak is that it might have some lingering bacteria. Well, the great thing about sous vide cooking is that if you leave the steak in there longer, you’ll kill more bacteria without having to raise the temperature. Germaphobe, meet medium rare steak goodness.
The Sous Vide Process
- Attach your immersion cooker to the side of a large pot, then fill with water (don’t fill beyond the “max” marking on your immersion cooker!).
- Pat the steaks dry with a paper towel.
- Vacuum seal your steak(s) in a pouch. Whether you’re cooking one or ten steaks, it doesn’t matter. You can cook as many steaks as you can fit in the bag/pot.
- Put the bagged steaks in the water and use a clothes pin to clip the top of the bag to the pot.
- Cook for at least 50 minutes.
- Remove from the water (and preheat a skillet over medium-high heat).
- Cut open the bags and dry off the steaks with paper towels.
- Season the steaks with salt and pepper.
- Sear the steaks in the skillet with a little oil and butter, about 45 seconds per side.
You don’t need to rest steaks that are cooked sous vide, so as soon as you’ve seared a beautiful brown crust you are ready to serve.
As a bonus, in order to do this you really need to own a vacuum sealer, which is an awesome kitchen appliance to have anyway. We own a Foodsaver and we love it. Tip: don’t buy the fancy expensive one. The only real difference is that it has a bag storage and cutter built-in, but it’s also huge and ugly. Get the small one, keep the scissors handy, and you can fit everything in a kitchen drawer.
We’ve only been cooking sous vide for a short while now, but we are absolutely fascinated and we love showing our friends this great way to cook a steak.
Which is Best?
Because our lives are very busy, our decision on which device to cook with has more to do with convenience than anything. If we’re grilling out anyways, we love the extra smokiness of steaks cooked on the grill. If it’s cold outside, we’re going with sous vide. If we just feel like keeping it simple and hassle-free, we’ll use the oven.
And we love them all.
Here’s the bottom line: we believe that the reverse-sear is the best way to cook steak. Beyond that, we can’t tell you the best method for cooking a steak because there isn’t one. We truly appreciate each of these methods in their own way. We appreciate the simplicity of the oven. A cold beverage and a char-grilled steak make for the perfect summer Sunday afternoon. The precision, safety and flexibility of sous vide are big advantages.
In our opinion, you should at least try them all, if not make them part of your repertoire. As long as you end up with a beautiful piece of medium rare meat you’ve done it right.