How To Make The Perfect Steak At Home

So much to know, so little info. Go beyond the buzzwords—rib-eye, strip, filet mignon—and it’s a whole other, um, animal, to comprehend. Wet-aged, dry-aged, grass-fed, prime, choice, boneless—the options seem endless. And that’s before you start cooking—another challenge. So here, a primer to educate, clarify, and recommend, to find and choose the beef, season it, and cook it like a pro.    

Making the Grade

As with British television and New York ZIP codes, class in beef matters. The USDA designates three retail grades based on an animal’s age—18 to 24 months when grain-raised, grass-finished; 24 to 28 months for grass-raised-only—and its marbling content. Oh yes, marbling: another buzzword. The USDA defines it as “fine threads of fat,” the white veins that run through the beef to impart flavor, juiciness, and tenderness. Steaks graded USDA prime, just 2 to 3 percent of retail cuts, have the most marbling; those graded choice, 54 percent of retail, have less. And those cuts marked select—well, just be prepared to chew.

Cuts, of course, are the great divide. Most chefs and butchers I talked to were devotees of rib-eye, bone-in, and dry-aged (we’ll get to those). To wit: Ethan Kostbar of Armonk’s Moderne Barn: “It’s the blue cheese of steak, deep and intense.” A&S Fine Foods of Millwood owner and butcher Michael Competiello concurs: “Rib-eye is tender, fattier, juicier.” Hemlock Hill Farm’s Laura De Maria goes for its “nice marbling and fat.” BLT Steak’s Andy Schilling likes “the meatier, earthier flavor that the bone gives to the meat.” The one outlier: Tarry Market Chef Patrick Lacey*, who loves his skirt and hanger steak.

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That’s a lot of cut names, and, to further confuse us, they often refer to the same piece. Gary Parks, meat manager at Montrose’s Cole’s Market, has been reciting them for 44 years: “New York strip, boneless shell, and Delmonico are all the same cut. With the filet mignon attached, they’re a T-bone or porterhouse.” That’s a basic explanation; for the geekier among us, know that the porterhouse is bigger because it’s carved from the larger portion of the animal’s short loin. The filet mignon lies at the tapered ends, the part of the muscle that’s never exercised, provoking that great compromise: tenderness for flavor. 

Age Gap: Wet vs. Dry 

Aging is crucial for tenderizing beef. There are two methods, with no difference in quality, just in taste and texture. Approximately 90 percent of beef is wet-aged.

Wet-aging: The meat is vacuum- sealed in plastic and refrigerated for at least 10 days. It is moister and more mineral tasting since it’s aged in its own blood and doesn’t lose water. Because there is no loss in water weight or trim, and it’s a quicker process, it is much less expensive. 

Dry-aging: The meat is usually hung for at least two weeks. Water loss increases its beefiness, and microbial digestion affords a deeper, funkier flavor.

All of these are available to us thanks to the county’s myriad markets—Whole Foods Market got a shout-out from several chefs I spoke with—though some are standouts. Cole’s and A&S Fine Foods of Millwood and Thornwood, for sure, where custom-cut complete lines have been offered for decades. Tarry Market lacks the history but not the quality; its porterhouse, strip, and hanger steaks derive from butcher to the stars Pat LaFrieda, who also supplies White Plains’ BLT Steak restaurant. And then there’s the De Maria family’s Hemlock Hill Farm, which not only carves and sells all cuts but raises the animals they’re from: 80 head of them. 

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Now You’re Cooking

Get salty: Cut, grade, aging, diet—all important. But the crux of the matter is cooking. Start with crucial seasoning, that most prosaic of accoutrements: salt. The kosher variety is best; it lacks additives and iodine, so it tastes milder and cleaner than table salt. Another plus: The larger grains let you control the amount used. The other essential is freshly ground black pepper. You could fancy up the endeavor with garlic and onion powders or the infinite array of steak seasonings on the supermarket shelf, but why? You want to taste meat, not flavorings. Better to focus your energy on cooking it right.

Mind your temp: BLT Steak Chef de Cuisine Andy Schilling has cooked a lot of steak. The first step, he says, is removing it from the fridge at least a half-hour prior to cooking to bring it to room temperature. “It will cook more evenly,” he explains. “The cold slows it down.”

Bone-out, bone-in: As noted, Schilling and the other pros prefer their steaks on the bone for the extra flavor it imparts, but they advise beginners to stick to boneless cuts. They’re less tricky to cook, easier to carve. Cole’s Gary Parks recommends a boneless rib-eye: “It has some fat, which keeps it more juicy.” Michael Competiello suggests a boneless New York strip, “a perfect balance of flavor and chew.” And A&S’ marinated skirt steak, he vows, is foolproof. “Even if you overcook it, it’ll still be tender and flavorful.” More experienced grillers, Competiello says, will want a bone-in New York strip, or, to feed two, a porterhouse. “You’ll want to separate the meat from the bone first,” he advises. “Cut a notch where the two bones meet in the curve. If you don’t, the outside will sear, and the inside won’t cook properly. The meat cooks more rare at the bone, so with the incision, it will cook more evenly.” Like we said, tricky. 

It’s a matter of degree: What’s not tricky is heating your grill or, if you’re inside, cast-iron pan. Get it super-hot. Then oil it, place your seasoned bounty on, and leave it there. When it’s well seared, flip it over and sear the other side. Thick steaks should then be moved to a cooler part of the grill to finish interior cooking, or you can just lower the flame. Indoors, move the pan to the oven; Competiello suggests eight minutes in a 250°F to 300°F oven, covered with foil. And forget anything you’ve heard about testing for doneness by pressing your palm or fist. All the pros agree: Use a thermometer. At 100°F for rare, Competiello advises, remove the steak to a plate, then put it back in for five-minute intervals if desired (it’s 105°F  to 110°F for medium-rare). 

Give it a rest: There’s no instant gratification, gorgeous as your prize may look. “Let it rest for at least five minutes,” instructs Gary Parks. “The interior keeps cooking, so the temperature will come up.” Parks, who has grilled steaks at home for more than four decades—“rain, snow, I’m out there”—offers a doneness tip: “After flipping, when you first see juice on top, it’s rare. The more juice, the more well-done.” Parks doesn’t use a thermometer, but you probably should.

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So there it lies, beckoning in all its glistening mahogany glory. But hold on—there’s one last coddle. For our experts, that’s sea salt—Maldon wins honorable mention—and more freshly ground black pepper. Tarry Market’s Patrick Lacey will occasionally add a drizzle of grassy Tuscan oil, and Laura De Maria an accompaniment of garlic and herb chimichurri sauce. Could they whip up a red-wine reduction pan sauce with shallots, mushrooms, maybe some pancetta, finished with a silky swirl of butter? Sure. But why? “I don’t want anything to mask the flavor of the meat,” says Lacey, echoing a unanimous opinion. If it’s sauces you want, BLT Steak offers many. But at home, it seems, simplicity rules. “If my guests want to,” says Competiello, “they can add condiments or barbecue sauce. For me, it’s salt and pepper. I’m a purist.” 

*Since press time, Patrick Lacey has left Tarry Market and Jon Katz is now chef.

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