If I'm in the mood for a nice, juicy steak, I think barbecue first. But you can pan fry steak, too, and get wonderful results.
Sure, when summer comes around, what could be better that cooking steak on the grill? But what if it's cold out, or rainy? What if you don't have a barbecue? You don't want to be stuck wondering how to cook steak when the craving hits.
And this is where learning how to pan fry steak comes in. It's not quite the same as cooking steak on the grill — there are a few important differences that make it its own unique cooking method.
Alright, so you want to pan fry steak. The first thing to do is to pick a cut of meat. Here are a few things to look for when picking a steak for pan frying.
Pick a tender cut of beef. In some ways, cooking steak on the grill and pan frying it aren't so different. Both use a dry heat, which creates a delicious brown crust on the surface of the meat, and intensifies its flavor through evaporation. But a dry heat also causes the meat to become less tender, so to pan fry steak, you need to start with a tender cut — just like you would cooking steak on the grill.
The steak shouldn't be much thicker than an inch and a half. This is where pan frying steak is different from cooking steak on the grill.
When you pan fry steak, the heat is transferred from the pan to the meat by conduction. On a grill, the heat radiates to the meat. What does that mean? Well, it means that when you pan fry steak, the interior cooks more slowly. So, if you have too thick a steak, the outside will burn before the inside can cook enough. Yes, even if you like it medium rare!
Fat or no fat? It's a bit of a toss up. On the one hand, a bit of marbling will make your steak more flavorful. On the other hand, fat generally makes the steak less tender. It's all about balancing flavor and tenderness.
A nice marbling of fat means very thin veins of fat throughout the meat. If they're thick, they'll make the meat very tough. So look for fat, but just in very fine streaks.
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So what does all this mean? Well, here it is. The best cuts to pick to pan fry steak are the most tender ones — they usually come from the rib or loin sections of the animal.
Some good cuts are a rib-eye steak, tenderloin, porterhouse, T-bone, skirt steak, top sirloin, or filet mignon. Even a round steak or a flank steak can be great. Just be sure that the cut isn't too thick!
Now that you know which cut of beef to pick, the next step in knowing how to cook steak is knowing how to season it.
Basically, when you pan fry steak, there are three ways to season it. You can rub spices on it, you can marinate it, or you can make a sauce. Since the sauce usually comes into play after cooking the steak, I'll only go over marinades and spices here.
What's a marinade? Well, it's basically a liquid mixture. You can take your food, in this case, steak, and you soak it in the marinade for anywhere from 30 minutes to overnight. So why marinate?
Since the food is soaking for so long, the flavors from the marinade have plenty of time to penetrate deep. This can really add a lot of punch to a meal.
If your marinade is slightly acidic, it'll actually tenderize whatever meat you're soaking it in. The acids in the marinade interact with the meat proteins and make the meat more tender.
Usually, the acid comes from vinegar or a citrus fruit like lemon
You can also use things like milk or yogurt (although I wouldn't particularly recommend those for steak!).
So when do you want to marinate steak? Well, when you pan fry steak, you can marinate any cut that needs either a flavor boost, or a tenderness boost, or both.
Tougher cuts like flank steaks, chuck steaks, round steaks, or even sirloin can benefit from a little tenderizing. The tougher the cut, the longer you should marinate.
Very tender cuts like filet mignon, porterhouse, T-bone or even a particularly tender sirloin can actually get too soft if you marinate them. Generally, you only use spices or even nothing at all on those cuts.
Some marinades are non acidic, like a simple blend of olive oil and crushed garlic. You can use these with a tender steak without making it mushy.
Some marinades, like teriyaki, are very sweet, and the sugar can cause the meat to burn when you cook it. Cooking the steak over lower heat can help, but that can make getting a rare steak with a nicely browned exterior just a bit more difficult.
If you have a beautiful, tender steak, there's no need to marinate it. In fact, marinating it might make it too soft and ruin a perfectly good piece of meat.
Beef is pretty flavorful all on its own. A really good cut doesn't even need any seasoning at all. But, if you're cooking steak, and you want to add a little something, then you can add just a hint of spices.
Coarse salt, cracked pepper, and crushed herbs like rosemary or thyme, and fennel or coriander seeds, can all make a wonderful addition when cooking steak. But there are a few things to watch out for:
When you pan fry steak, adding salt can be a bit tricky.
If you salt the steak right before cooking it, it can actually make your steak tougher and less juicy, because the salt will cause the steak to lose moisture. The moisture at the top will also prevent it from searing properly, so you'll lose some flavor.
Generally it's best to salt steak after it's cooked, either before the meat rests, or when it gets to the table.
Now, there is one trick if you want to salt your steak beforehand. They key is to salt it a lot, and at least at hour before, and rinse it and pat it dry before you cook it. Now, instead of just making the steak lose moisture, the salt will penetrate deep into the meat and enhance its flavor, and also prevent moisture loss when it cooks.
Before putting any kind of herbs or spices, it's a good idea to rub a bit of oil on the steak.
The oil will help the herbs and spices stick to the steak, and will help keep them from burning.
Oiling the steak instead of the pan means that the oil won't smoke when you're heating the pan.
The best oil to use when cooking steak is something neutral tasting with a high smoke point like peanut oil or safflower oil. It's healthier and less messy! You can also use olive oil if you want a bit of a different flavor.
It's not necessary to oil the steak, but it can make things easier. Try it out and see how you like it.
Knowing how to cook steak on a grill, and knowing how to pan fry steak are two different things. The mechanics of it are just different enough that you can end up with less than awesome results if you don't know how to pan fry steak.
Here are a few important things to keep in mind before you pan fry steak.
You'll get much better result cooking steak that you've allowed to reach room temperature. Take the steak out about 30 minutes to an hour before cooking it. Otherwise, the steak will toughen when the cold comes into contact with the heat.
The best pan you can use to pan fry steak is a cast iron skillet. Why? Well, there are two reasons:
Cast iron retains heat better than any of the non-stick pans. So when you add the steak to the hot, hot pan, the pan won't cool down. And so, you get a better sear!
You can heat an empty cast iron skillet. You can't do that with a non-stick or stainless steel pan, because it can damage it or release chemicals. Heating the pan empty is neat because it lets you oil the steak rather than the pan: you need less oil, and you don't end up with a smoky kitchen while the pan is heating up.
As mentioned in the seasoning section, you can rub a bit of oil on your steak. If you have a cast iron skillet, you won't even have to add oil to the pan.
Now that your steak is seasoned and your cooking equipment is all ready, here's how you pan fry steak.
Heat a pan over medium-high to high heat. If you're using a non stick pan or have decided not to oil the steak, you need to add a bit of oil to coat the bottom, preferably an oil with a high smoke point.
If you like rare steak, set the burner to high. It'll sear faster, but leave the inside less cooked.
If you like it medium or so, set it to medium high. The inside will have a bit of a chance to cook before the outside sears.
If you have herbs and spices that you think will burn, play it safe and sear the steak over medium high heat. Burnt spices really aren't delicious at all.
When the pan is hot, add your steak. Let one side sear completely, then flip the steak over and cook it until the other side is seared.
Don't move the cooking steak until it has formed a brown crust. It'll stick at first, and if you move it you'll tear off some meat. But it'll lift off the pan as it sears, making it easy to turn.
Searing the meat and forming a brown crust is called the Maillard reaction, and it means flavor. That crust you get when cooking steak is what makes it outstanding.
When red juices start to seep through the top of the steak, you know your steak is rare. You can cook more if you want, or take it out of the pan right then.
If your steak isn't cooked to your liking, reduce the heat to medium, and cook for a few more minutes on each side until it's ready.
Don't cover cooking the steak or you'll trap moisture in the pan, and you'll get... wet heat! You won't get the evaporation effect that intensifies the flavor of the meat. It'll just be a bit watery and bland.
If you have a particularly thick cut of steak, instead of finishing it off in the pan, you can put it in an oven preheated to 350F. It'll heat more gently than on the stove, and that allows the inside to cook without scorching the outside. Again, don't cover the cooking steak!
After you pan fry steak, let it rest on a warm plate for 5 minutes before serving. It'll allow the juices to redistribute evenly.
Cover the steak in foil to keep it warm.
The steak will continue to cook a bit as it's resting: its internal temperature will go up about 5 degrees. So be sure to take if off the heat a teensy bit before you think it's done.
When you pan fry steak, always use tongs to flip the steak or move it around! Don't use a fork, or you'll pierce the steak and lose all the juices.
There are three ways to test if your steak is done: by touch, with a meat thermometer, and by cutting it. And it's pretty much universal, the best by far is the touch method, followed by the thermometer, followed by cutting.
Whether you pan fry steak or cook it on the grill, this is by far the best way to tell if it is done. Unlike a meat thermometer or cutting into the steak, you're leaving the steak whole. That means that you won't have any delicious juices dripping out, and the steak will be that much better!
The only trick is, it takes a little bit of practice before you can tell how done a steak is just by pressing on it! But it's definitely worth learning.
Just press lightly on the surface of the steak. Be careful not to burn yourself!
If the steak feels soft, then it's still rare. You can press the steak before cooking it so that you have something to compare to. A rare steak won't be all that much firmer.
If the steak feels firm on the outside, but it's still yielding on the inside, then it's medium.
If the steak is very very firm and doesn't yield, it's well done.
If you're just starting out cooking steak, you may want to press first, try to guess, and then cut to see if you were right. Just experiment until you get the hang of it.
Using a meat thermometer is a reliable way of checking if your steak is done. Unfortunately, it makes a small hole in the steak, and the juices can get out through it, so your steak won't be quite as juicy.
Still, until you get the touch test down, a meat thermometer is great. Just stick it into the thickest part of the steak. Here are the different temperatures for steak:
If you don't feel confident about the touch test, and don't have a meat thermometer, you can cut into the meat a bit to tell if it's done. It's really not the best way because you lose a lot of the juices, but it's still better than a steak that's not done to your liking.
And when you pan fry steak, you can always save those juices for a delicious pan sauce.
Just slice into the thickest part of the steak and see if the color looks right for you.
Some people will tell you that it's a crime to pan fry steak to well-done. Now, it's true that the more you cook a steak, the less tender it becomes, so a really good cut kind of loses what makes it so great in the first place. But there's no arguing with taste, so if you like cooking steak to well-done, go for it... just don't serve it to people who like their steak rare!
We're almost done learning how to pan fry steak. In fact, you could just stop right here.
But one of the major advantages of cooking steak in a pan rather than on a grill — apart from avoiding frostbite in the winter — is that you can make an awesome pan sauce when you're done.
Ok, so you've taken the steaks out of the pan, and they have to rest for 5 minutes or so. If you look in the pan, you'll see all sorts of little brown bits stuck to the bottom. This is called the fond. It's very flavorful, and will make the base of our pan sauce.
The first step is to pour out or spoon off the fat from the pan.
You don't have to get every last drop off — anything left over will add a bit of flavor. But at the same time, you don't want the pan sauce to become a greasy mess.
Next, you need to deglaze the pan. While the pan is still hot, just add a cold liquid like wine, beer, stock, broth, juice or even vinegar to the pan, and stir it very quickly, scraping the bottom. The fond should dissolve into the liquid.
If you use alcohol to deglaze, make sure to take the pan off the burner to avoid any fireball-type incidents. For other liquids, you can leave the pan on the hot burner.
The fond should be made up of brown bits... if it's black, it's burnt, and your sauce will taste like burnt, unfortunately. Still, deglazing is a good way to clean the pan if that happens.
If you use wine to deglaze, it'll have a harsher taste than if you add it to the sauce later. Try both ways to see which you like better.
Now you have the base for a wonderful sauce, but you can make it even better by adding various ingredients.
Wine gives a nice taste to a sauce and goes great with steak. If you add wine, let the sauce reduce by about one half to get a good flavor.
Butter, of course, has its own yummy flavor, but it also helps the other flavors blend and carry better.
You can also add beef stock. It'll add its own nice flavor, and just like butter, it'll help the flavors blend better. If you add a good beef stock, you really don't need butter.
You can saute some sliced mushrooms or aromatics like garlic or green onions to add a little kick to the pan sauce.
Herbs and spices can add a nice depth of flavor to your sauce. Try salt, pepper, rosemary, mustard seeds, or any other herb you like with beef.
The steaks should have had time to rest by the time you're done with the sauce. Some of the juices may have pooled at the bottom of the plate they were resting in. You can add those juices to the sauce if you don't have another use for them.
And that's how you pan fry steak. It's easy, delicious, and doesn't take a whole lot of equipment or nice weather. So now you know how to cook steak all year round!