Friday, March 05, 2010

"Well-Done" Steak? Please.

How do you like your steak? The answer is medium-rare. Maybe rare. There is no other answer. A well-done steak is a misnomer: there is nothing "well-done" about it; there is nothing steak-like about it. A well-done steak is no longer a steak. It's an "edible substance." Don't get me wrong. I do not consider a well-done steak edible. Some do, though. Dogs, for example.

Do you "prefer" your steak well-done? If so, you should know: cooks hate you. And happily, science justifies this hatred in several ways.

First, steak is prized, above all else, for its juiciness. In On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee writes:

"Food Scientists who have studied the subjective sensation of juiciness find that it consists of two phases: the initial impression of moisture as you bite into a food, and the continued release of moisture as you chew. Juiciness at first bite comes from the meat's own free water, while continued juiciness comes from the meat's fat and flavor, both of which stimulate the flow of our own saliva."

Well-done steak is almost devoid of what McGee calls "free-water"--or juices. McGee writes elsewhere: Well-done steak has "nearly all of its proteins denatured, is frankly stiff to the touch, little juice is apparent, and both juice and interior are a dull tan or gray."

Little juice is apparent. Quite simply, a well-done steak has no "initial impression of moisture" and "no continued release of moisture."

Second, steak is prized for its flavor. Cooking, of course, intensifies the flavor and aroma of food. Specifically, in steak, what is called the Maillard Reaction or "browning reaction" (the crust on a steak), might account for as many as six hundred flavor components. These components are present in well-done steak and certainly contribute to the "taste" of a well-done steak. And, in theory, because it is cooked longer, a well-done steak might have a deeper Maillard Reaction than a rare or medium-rare steak.

However, taste is very complex. The deliciousness of a steak comes from a variety of aromas and flavors, from the crust to the middle. Juiciness and tenderness are very important. Well done meat might have a deeper Maillard Reaction, but it misses many other flavor components. The ideal steak boasts tremendous flavor from a browned crust and a tender, juicy interior. This is why people who like the taste of food like medium-rare steak.

Third, it's a well-known fact that cooking meat at high temperatures creates unhealthy chemicals such as HCAs and PAHs. The longer you cook a steak the more unhealthy chemicals are produced. A recent study even showed that those who eat well-done steak are 60-70% more likely to develop pancreatic cancer then those who eat medium-rare steak.

The notion that "undercooked" meat is somehow unhealthy is nonsense. Yes, most meats must be cooked to 160 degrees or higher to guarantee the rapid destruction of bacteria, but bacteria do not exist inside intact steaks or chops. Bacteria exist on the outside of meat, and these bacteria are easily killed in searing. (Incidentally, ground beef is more risky because the interior and exterior have been commingled).

Of course, there are other, very important factors that determine the health value of steak, even beyond how it’s cooked. For example, conventional meat is loaded with pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and other chemicals. A far better choice is all-natural beef; better yet, grassfed beef.

As a human, I know I should not condemn a person for a simple preference. But I will say, as a cook, I have a very hard time not strongly disliking the person who orders a well-done steak. Perhaps "hate" is a strong word. But if you "prefer" your steak well-done you really should know: some cooks really do hate you. Or maybe not. Anthony Bourdain puts it this way in Kitchen Confidential:

"So what happens when the chef finds a tough, slightly skanky end-cut of sirloin that's been repeatedly pushed to the back of the pile? He can throw it out, but that's a total loss. He can feed it to the family, which is the same as throwing it out. Or he can "save for well-done"—serve it to some rube who prefers his meat or fish incinerated into a flavorless, leathery hunk of carbon, who won't be able to tell if what he's eating is food or flotsam. Ordinarily, a proud chef would hate this customer, hold him in contempt for destroying his fine food. But not in this case. The dumb bastard is paying for the privilege of eating his garbage! What's not to like?"

The Perfect Pan-Seared Steak

This recipe combines time-tested methodology with intuitive logic. The result: a perfectly seared steak, cooked to medium-rare. I wait until after cooking to add salt and pepper; salting brings moisture to the surface of the meat and might interfere with browning.

2 boneless strip or rib-eye steaks (1 to 1 1/4 inch thick; about 8 ounces)
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper, for finishing
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil or raw butter, for finishing

Remove your steaks from the refrigerator 30-60 minutes before cooking.

Heat a heavy-bottomed 12-inch skillet over high heat until hot. Gently place the steaks in the pan, leaving a 1/2 space between the steaks. Reduce the heat to medium-high and cook until steak is well-browned, about 4 minutes. Using tongs, flip the steaks and continue to cook for 4 minutes until steak is medium-rare.

Transfer the steaks to a cutting board. Spread 1 tablespoon olive oil or butter over each steak. Let rest for five minutes. Before serving, season liberally with sea salt and fresh ground pepper.


GC said...

why take the meat out of the fridge so early?

Seth said...

I think there's a lot of debate about whether steaks are better cooked at room temperature. The assumption, I think, is that room temperature steaks will cook quicker.

In my experience, room temperature steaks are easier to cook. What I mean is that I cook steaks better more consistently when I'm working with room-temperature steaks. I'm not entirely sure why. I typically take my steak out of the fridge well before cooking. At the very least, it's never hurt.

Bert J. Cattivera said...

I like to marinate steaks in olive oil overnight. Even a quick soak in olive oil neutralizes carcinogens in red meat.

Seth said...


I actually prefer not to cook my olive oil. I usually use it, as I do above, raw, to retain all the flavor and health value. That said, if I'm cooking a steak on the grill, I'll definitely give it a soak in olive oil and un poco lemon juice. I love how all the traditional ways to cook food also turn out to be the healthiest too: Old-school cooks, for example, had no idea that soaking meat in oil or acid might inhibit carcinogens. They just did it because it was good.

I love olive oil. I'll marinate olive oil in olive oil.

Bert J. Cattivera said...

I love it that olive oil is such a major part of your lifestyle. Olive oil will never let you down.

Your passion for steak comes as a surprise. I've yet to meet you in person, but I expect that, when we meet, you will smell of roasted chicken. Correct me if I am mistaken, but this is your personal scent?

Jeffrey Diamond said...

Your technique is perfect Seth. I do use a little bit of oil in the pan, for my favourite tepanyaki style a mix of peanut and sesame oil.

I marinate the steak in an authentic Japanese teryaki marinade (Kikkoman is fine) for an hour or so, this also brings it up to room temperature. When it's cooked, very medium rare, rest it for a minute then slice it into thick strips and serve over steamed rice.

A light sprinkle of fresh Japanese soy sauce or tamari, lemon juice and pepper, garnish with thinly chopped spring onions.

It goes well with stir fried or steamed dark green vegetables like baby bok choy or brocolli, finished up with sliced mushrooms fried in the same pan the steak was cooked in.

Seth said...

Bert, it might sound strange, but I swear, my naked body odor most closely resembles uncooked white basmati rice, the kind you find in the huge canvas bags at the local Indian food store. Otherwise, you're right, I almost always also smell like chicken, as I do now. (We're roasting chicken for dinner). I hardly ever eat steak.

Jeffrey, your cooking seems to be heavily influenced by the Japanese. I like that. Tamari is a staple of my diet and I think it pairs wonderfully with beef. And nothing's better-tasting than mushrooms cooked in a steak pan. :)

Jeffrey Diamond said...

I think I might have been Japanese in a previous reincarnation :) Also in my first year as an independent young man I had a Japanese girlfriend who lived with me in London. This was a very formative period for me food wise, and I was influenced by her.

I live on rice, so I like most asian and Indian food. Japanese cuisine is easy to prepare (bachelor style :) and relatively healthy.

Thea said...

Medium-rare. Every time.

But I'll say one thing - trying to find a chef who doesn't overcook a steak is a rarity itself...

Seth said...

Overcooked, Thea? I wonder if that's a cultural thing. The problem in the States is that steaks are often cooked too rare. Whenever I make a mistake it's on the too-rare side.

Thea said...

Yup - overcooked.

It's my biggest bugbear over here. Which is why your comment about chefs hating customers for ordering well cooked steaks, amused me. In the UK, I'm actually beginning to believe they hate you for ordering medium-rare.


Jeffrey Diamond said...

The English have always had a reputation for overcooking EVERYTHING, sad to hear it still holds. Oh well, your mushy peas, soups, pies, stews and roasts are still great :)

Steve said...

Sneer if you will but I've always preferred steak cooked about halfway between Medium and Medium Rare.

The sight of a blood-red slab of flesh sitting on my plate gives me the chills, and I've never been able to eat it without a heavy slathering of condiments--usually Bernaise or BBQ sauce. Weirdly enough I have no problem eating raw fish though. Not sure what that's supposed to mean.

But I'm still not entirely comfortable with the fact that I even eat meat, and I usually don't eat it for weeks and months after I've visited a farm or something like that.

The idea that we have to call our meat by another name is telling, I think. Pig= Pork, Cow = Beef Chicken= Poultry. It's as if we need some sort of euphemism t distance ourselves from the notion that we are eating an animal. How many people would eat a lot less beef if it were actually called "cow"?

Roast bull penis is traditionally eaten some Asian countries, like Taiwan, for instance. I'm not sure what they call it on the menu over there, but you can be sure it's not called anything even remotely similar to "Roast bull penis", "grilled cow dick", or even "Live-Stock Cock".

Seth said...


You're hilarious.

Halfway between rare and medium-rare isn't terrible. I often like my rack of lamb cooked that way.

But, really, medium-rare should be pink, not blood-read. Pink, I think, is the best.

They eat sill-beating cobra-heart in Vietnam. I wonder what they call that on the menu?

Stephanie said...

Steak. Butter. Medium rare. Happiness.

Steve, I think Mark is quite the expert on bull testicles - and they actually call them, uh... testicles. Ask him about the testicle festival.

Healing Woman said...

I made the squash soup tonight and it was fabulous! Being a big fan of coconut it doesn't surprise me that I loved the soup. The only change I made was to use chicken broth in place of the vegetable. Now, if we could just find an easier way to peel and chop the squash! Thanks for this great recipe.

PS: I'm the crazy lady that your mom took the sculpture class from in August. She turned me on to your great food blog.


Seth said...

Thanks, Cheryl. I'm glad you enjoyed the soup. Yes, I know who you are. My mother came home from your class incredibly inspired. Thanks for reading!


Anonymous said...

F you chef, when I say cook the steak well cook it well done, I am paying for it...don't hate me, just do your job...and cook's not some magical task you are doing, just cook it! If I wanted a bloody meal, it'd be more like a dog and kill and eat it raw off the ground with all the "blood and juicies" you chefs keep saying is so nice....

Vanessa Doyle said...

If you feel so strongly about it, own your words. Don't hide behind an Anonymous handle, muppet.

I have a gentle suggestion for you. The next time you crave a steak, buy yourself a bag of charcoal and munch on that. You'll save money!

Leave the "blood and juicies" to the rest of us heathens.

Rogger Mcloud said...

I like food very much. But I was on a diet and I was not abel to eat any meat. So I decided to stop it. It was so much pain. And I am glad eating meat. Also I rent apartments in buenos aires and the people here eats a lot of meat. So is very difficult to have a diet here.

TheAbbott1000 said...

If you can't make a steak taste good by cooking it "well done", what can I say? YOU CAN'T COOK. You just need to slow cook it in butter. DELICIOUS! It is probably the best, most tender steak you will EVER eat! If you disagree with me.... you are a food snob.

Anonymous said...

I'd hate u if I had to eat medium rare!!!!

Marc said...

I've tried a similar method, Seth. Cover your steak with Olive oil on both sides and edges, then sear in a hot iron skillet for 1 minute per side till brown and carmalized. Then transfer the irons skill to the broiler oven, 4 minutes per side.
Remove and cover with Saran Wrap for 5 minutes, and you get a perfect juicy steak.

John said...

I would not call blood "juices"...LOL at that! My name is not dracula and I'd prefer not to taste iron. I prefer medium to medium well (but closer to the medium side). Calling "blood" juice is ridiculous.

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