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.