How To Cook Perfect Steak on the Stovetop in 3 Steps

How To Cook Perfect Steak on the Stovetop in 3 Steps

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Meghan Splawn
Oct 26, 2017
(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

What if I told you the very best stovetop steak of your life can be enjoyed in as little as 45 minutes, with only four extra ingredients and 15 minutes of hands-on cooking? It's true! Busting conventional steak-cooking wisdom makes for better steak.

When you really want a straight-forward, no-fuss steak with a crisp crust and juicy center, I can say without question that the most fail-proof way to cook it on the stovetop only requires three steps. Partnered with a few essential tips, this simple three-step method will give you a perfectly cooked stovetop steak with a tender buttery flavor, cooked just the way you like it, every time.

(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

The 3-Step Method for Perfect Pan-Cooked Steak

Cooking a very good steak on the stovetop goes like this: Buy the best steak for pan-searing (boneless NY strip or rib-eye), season it very well with kosher salt for just 30 minutes before you plan to cook it, and finally cook it hot and fast with no oil to start and some butter to finish. What about the steak resting step? Well, it turns out resting might not be as important as we all once thought. More on that juicy tidbit below.

1. Buy the best steak for pan-searing.

The best steaks for cooking on the stovetop are boneless steaks that are between one and one-and-a-half inches thick. Thicker cuts like a New York strip steak or a boneless rib-eye work best for this method. Look for a steak with plentiful marbling (the white fat that runs throughout the meat) and don't be afraid to ask your butcher to cut a thicker steak if needed. When a steak has enough fat, it tends to remain juicy during the cooking process and has the meaty flavor and texture you want from a steak.

Buy the best steak you can afford. It will cost you more than stew meat or burgers, but cooking steak at home — even with a decent bottle of wine, appetizers, and sides — will still cost less than the cheapest steakhouse steak.

Do Other Cuts Work?

This method of pan-searing a steak would work with steaks that fall under one inch (flank, flat-iron) although the overall process of cooking these cuts happens much faster. Be ready with your digital thermometer after the two-minute mark to begin testing for doneness.

Bone-in steaks are more difficult to properly pan-cook and can lead to uneven cooking. They're better suited for cooking in the oven or on the grill.

More on shopping for steak: Shopping for Steak? Here Are the 4 Cuts You Should Know

(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

2. Season it well.

Salting steaks, and the salt's ability to season the meat, works like a curve. On one end of the spectrum, if you season the steaks just before searing you'll get a nicely seasoned steak. On the other end, if you season the steak a whole day ahead, you'll end up with a similarly well-seasoned steak. Any length of time in between results in the salt pulling out surface moisture, which inhibits a great sear.

  • Salt steak for 30 minutes: This is the best option for those nights when you're cooking steak on a whim, and it's also my preferred method. Salting relatively close to cooking seasons the steak and helps create a dry surface for searing.
  • Salt steak for 24 hours: Salting your steak overnight (18 to 24 hours before you plan to cook it) also creates a dry surface for searing, but with the added bonus of a bit more concentrated flavor in the interior tissue. You'll need plenty of fridge space for this maneuver, however, as you'll want to let the salted steak air-dry on a cooling rack set over a tray.

Personally, I never have the forethought to season my steaks the night before; I'm usually picking up a steak to cook that evening when the craving strikes.

Spice After Searing

Steer clear of ground pepper, steak seasoning, or other rubs for these pan-seared steaks. The extremely hot pan will burn these spices before they can flavor the steak.

(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

3. Cook it hot and fast.

Here's where I'm going to ask you to trust me. Put your heaviest pan, preferably cast iron, over high heat and let it get so hot it smokes a little before adding the steaks to the pan. The hot, hot heat is essential to a creating a nice crust on your steak. Searing isn't about keeping moisture in (research has proven that to be a false theory) — it's about creating a crisp crust on the outside that adds a ton of flavor to the finished steak.

Keep the steaks moving, turning or flipping every minute or so to create a thin, even crust on the outside. About halfway through cooking, add a few tablespoons of butter, herbs, and aromatics to make a hot baste for finishing the steak. Use a large spoon to bathe the steaks in the hot butter and continue flipping until the steaks reach your desired doneness.

Skip the Oil

You'll notice this recipe doesn't call for any oil on the steaks or in the pan to prevent sticking. Oil can inhibit browning, which slows searing. As long as you're using a very hot cast iron pan, sticking shouldn't be a problem.

Determining Doneness

The best and easiest way to determine the doneness of steak is with a probe thermometer. There are so many factors at play — the steak, the pan, the oven — and the only way to ensure you'll end up with the doneness you want is by taking the temperature.

Begin to check the steak's temperature with a probe thermometer about halfway through cooking, at about four minutes, as a guide for how much longer to cook it.

  • For a rare steak, remove the steak from the heat at 125°F, about six minutes total cooking.
  • For a medium-rare steak, aim to remove the steak from the heat at about 130°F, about eight minutes total cooking.
  • For a medium steak, 140°F is the sweet spot at a total of nine to 10 minutes cooking.
  • A well-done steak will take about 12 minutes.

Don't worry — the butter-basting step helps ensure that even the most well-cooked steak is moist and flavorful.

(Image credit: Lauren Volo)

Resting Not Required

I once believed that even a short rest between cooking my steak and cutting it made a world of difference in the quest for a juicy steak. And I know I'm not alone — this is cooking wisdom that gets passed along unchecked pretty easily. But Kitchn's Food Editor, Hali, sent me a link to an article that argued (pretty convincingly) that resting steaks wasn't nearly as important as serving a hot steak. Reading this theory from Meathead over at Amazing Ribs countered everything I thought I knew about steak. After our convo, I ran a side-by-side test in hopes of proving the theory wrong.

Hot Steak Is Tasty Steak

A steak is a relatively small piece of meat compared to a brisket or roast, so it heats and cools quickly, allowing only for a few degrees of carryover cooking, if any. In between the resting, slicing, and moving to the plate and table, most home steaks get pretty cool before we actually eat them. The pleasure of eating a hot steak is manyfold: the crust is still incredibly crisp, the butter from cooking is still warm and dripping, and the juices pool on the plate into a playground for dipping.

In a side-by-side taste test of a rested steak and a steak that was cut just moments out of the pan, I barely noticed a difference in the tenderness and juiciness in the hot steak. It was just more pleasurable to eat! Side by side, I'd pick the hot steak every time.

If you need a few minutes to make a pan sauce or to sauté some spinach in the still-hot pan, go ahead and let your steak rest. If you followed the other three hallmarks of this recipe — buy a great steak, season it well, and cook it hot and fast — then you already did all the important stuff to make a perfect steak. Now you'll have a perfect steak with really good pan sauce!

Across the Grain

Slicing steak across the grain creates shorter meat fibers, making for a more tender, easier-to-chew piece of steak. Not sure what the grain means? Look for the long striations that run across the steak — usually from tip to tip — and cut across them. In some cases you may need to move the steak slightly as you slice to cut across the grain.

How To Cook Steak on the Stovetop

Makes 4 to 6 servings

What You Need

Ingredients

  • 2

    (at least 1-inch-thick) rib-eye or New York steaks (about 12 ounces each)

  • 1 teaspoon

    kosher salt

  • 3 tablespoons

    unsalted butter

  • 3

    cloves garlic, smashed

  • 2 to 3 sprigs

    fresh thyme or rosemary

  • Equipment
  • Paper towels

  • Plates

  • Cutting board

  • Knife

  • 12-inch cast iron skillet

  • Tongs

  • Instant-read meat thermometer

Instructions

  1. Prep the steaks: Remove the steaks from the refrigerator about 30 minutes to 1 hour before cooking. Place them on a paper towel-lined plate and pat dry with more paper towels. This will help dry the surface of the meat, making a better crust.

  2. Prepare the rest of the ingredients: Because cooking the steaks will go quickly with almost no hands-off cooking time, make sure you have the rest of the ingredients handy, as well as a probe thermometer and a clean plate for resting the steaks.

  3. Season the steaks: Just before cooking, liberally coat the steaks with the salt, making sure to coat the sides of the steaks as well.

  4. Heat the pan: Heat a 12-inch cast iron skillet over high heat for about 10 minutes; the pan should smoke just a bit when it is properly heated.

  5. Cook the steaks: Carefully place the steaks in the hot pan and cook on the first side until enough of a crust has developed that the steaks no longer stick to the pan, about 1 minute. Flip and cook on the other side for 1 minute. Continue cooking and flipping for a total of 4 minutes.

  6. Flavor and baste the steaks: Carefully add the butter, garlic, and herbs to the pan. Flip the steaks once more. Tilt the pan so the butter pools on one side and use a large spoon to baste the butter over the steaks. Flip again and repeat. Begin checking the internal temperature of the steaks at 6 minutes total cook time for your preferred doneness. Medium rare is between 125°F and 130°F.

  7. Rest the steaks (optional): Transfer the steaks to the plate to rest for 5 minutes. While the steaks rest, prepare a pan sauce if desired.

  8. Carve the steaks: Transfer the steaks to a cutting board and thinly slice across the grain. Serve immediately with the pan juices or pan sauce.

Recipe Notes

Storage: Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.

Related Video: How to Cook the Perfect Steak in the Oven

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