6 Tips for Cooking the Best Steak, According to a Culinary Instructor

published Jul 23, 2022
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Medium Well Done Steak
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Although steak has a reputation for being a super-fancy meal, you definitely don’t need any special skills or training to cook an amazing one at home. A simple steak with a tasty side like these crash hot potatoes or this easy garlic Broccolini is an impressive meal that you can put together on a weeknight.

While there are many different cuts of steak (each with their own characteristics), as well as different levels of steak doneness you can choose, there are some foundational rules that always lead to a well-cooked piece of meat regardless of which cut, seasoning, or doneness you choose.

To make a perfect steak, you’ll need just a couple of reliable tools, like a cast iron skillet and a durable pair of tongs. In order to get the ultimate advice for preparing a flawless steak, we consulted expert Shawn Matijevich, lead chef for online culinary arts & food operations at the Institute of Culinary Education. Add these helpful tips to your steak-cooking playbook and never suffer from an overcooked or underwhelming piece of meat again!

How to Make the Best Steak

1. Buy good-quality steak.

“Quality of the meat matters just as much as your technique,” says Matijevich. “As a person who has tasted every level of beef you can imagine, quality of the product is the selling point of a great steak.”

One indicator of a quality piece of meat is marbling, or the ratio and distribution of fat to the meat on the steak. A steak that doesn’t have enough fat can lack flavor and be dry. Try and look for the type of “grade” the steak is: “Prime beef” has the most abundant marbling, “choice beef” has slightly less marbling than prime, and “select beef” has the least amount of marbling. A good balance of fat to meat results in a juicy, tasty steak.

2. Dry the steak out before cooking it.

If you buy the packaged, plastic-wrapped steak from the grocery store, you’ll want to allow around 24 hours for the steak to be unwrapped and dried out in the refrigerator. “Water is an enemy of the browning reaction that occurs when you want a sear,” says Matijevich. Allowing the surface of the steak to dry out will allow you to get a great sear and crust on your steak. You can do this by unwrapping the steak and setting it on a plate in the fridge, making sure it’s not touching the surfaces of other foods in the fridge.

3. Allow your steak to come to room temperature.

If you’re working with particularly thick steaks (1 inch or more), Matijevich recommends letting the steaks sit at room temperature for about an hour before cooking them in a skillet. This will help make sure the steak cooks more evenly in the skillet. For steaks that are less than 1 inch in thickness, you can simply cook these straight away.

4. Use a cast iron skillet.

If you want a great steak, you should definitely consider buying a good-quality cast iron skillet. Yes, they are heavy, but we promise you won’t regret getting one. “The only thing I sauté steak in is a cast iron pan. It has high heat retention and won’t warp,” says Matijevich. “Having a completely flat surface is very important to get consistent results.”

If you don’t have a cast iron pan, Matijevich says that a stainless steel skillet works too — the only downside is that if you’re using a gas range the sloped sides of a stainless steel skillet tend to get hotter than the bottom of the pan due to the design of the burners. Additionally, stainless steel skillets tend to require a bit more cleanup. Whatever you do, though, avoid using a nonstick skillet — you’ll never get a good sear on a steak using these!

5. Use the right kind of oil.

While a steak with enough marbling might not need added oil, if you do choose to sear your steak in oil, Matijevich recommends using an oil with a high smoke point, such as avocado oil, expeller-pressed sunflower oil, or canola oil. Refined avocado oil in particular has a very high smoke point, which allows you to cook at high temperatures without easily burning the oil or food. While you might see recipes calling for cooking steak in butter, Matijevich advises against cooking steak in butter alone. “Whole butter is not fine to sear a steak,” says Matijevich. “The solids in whole butter burn long before your steak starts to take on a nice crust.” Instead, Matijevich recommends reserving the butter (along with fresh herbs and garlic) for basting the meat right before the steak is done cooking.

6. Buy a meat thermometer.

A meat thermometer is one of the most underrated tools you can use in the kitchen. If you cook a lot of meat and poultry, purchasing a meat thermometer might just be the best decision you ever make!

While we often go off of visual cues like color or timing, Matijevich says that a thermometer is the most accurate way of cooking a steak to your desired level of doneness. If you’re particular about how you like your steak cooked, don’t hesitate to run to a cooking store to pick up a thermometer.