The quest for the perfect steak

by Forager on January 25, 2011

The “perfect steak” is an elusive concept that titillates meat lovers around the world and it conjures up a smattering of images that oscillate from the barbeque enthusiast in his humble backyard to top chefs creating carefully temperature controlled slivers of delicate beef art.

But before I even embark on the challenge of creating the perfect steak, I should address the inherent challenge of defining the perfect steak first. What distinguishes a “perfect steak” and whose definition of “perfect” do you use? If you talk to my traditional Chinese-born mother, the perfect steak should contain not the slightest hint of blood, should be cooked to an inch of its life and then some 3 hours more, and is ready to serve when the colour is an unappetising grey and the texture more resembles my dog’s chew toy. But then, she is a woman who carries the lessons of her upbringing and thinks I’m mad for drinking germ-riddled tap water and not pre-boiled water as civilised people drink and I suspect would sooner ingest molten lava that a piece of raw fish. And those that have read “Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain will be familiar with the perils, social or otherwise, of ordering a steak well done.

From our travels to the beef and steak obsessed Argentina where a whopping 70kg of beef is consumed per capita annually, we’ve discovered that a perfect steak to Argentines might consist of “chewier” cuts (like skirt steak), than those celebrated in Western countries and prefer their steaks a tad more well done than we generally prefer ours. But perfection is in the eye of the beholder, so what’s “perfect” is really a matter of perspective and opinion. Besides, it seems a wee bit arrogant for anyone really to declare the conditions for a perfect steak when there are people in the room that eat oh, approximately 60kg more beef than me each year. So, on the back of my recent outing to Kingsleys and experiencing a pretty damn satisfying steak there, I decided to investigate what makes a “perfect” steak.

I once stumbled upon the palm method and being a methodical creature that favours clinical steps thought it was my cheat sheet to creating perfect steaks. Key to this method is the firmness of the fleshy muscle of the palm beneath the thumb (which is actually a group of three muscles), and by testing how the firmness changes when you touch your thumb to the other digits, you can get a guide on how a rare, medium rare, medium and well done steak should feel.

Steak palm test method

The steak palm test method (clockwise from top left): the fleshy palm pad shows the guide for a rare, medium rare, medium and well done steak

But I quickly realised the method is flawed. For a person who routinely gets blisters when I sweep Nonno’s garden paths (to which both Nonno and the Co-pilot just sigh and shake their heads in comedic unison), you can be assured that my interpretation of a well done steak is going to be different to say, Nonno’s, as you can see from this gratuitous shot of Nonno’s massive bear-like paws.

Comparing two "well done steaks"

Comparing two "well done steaks". Since hands vary vastly, it was hardly surprising that there was a marked difference between Nonno and my palm test guides for a well done steak!

A much more reliable method is called for and much to my surprise I managed to snaffle Kingsley’s official steak training manual. Before I’d even glanced inside the manual  I was giddy with excitement as there was a palpable sense that I’d found the equivalent of some sort of secret ancient martial arts training scribes. I eagerly devoured the many detailed pages but was slightly disappointed to discover that the information within was a collation of readily available information and not secret Kingsleys business; but more disappointingly, that there indeed was no one-size-fits-all magic steak guide. Although my inner sloth hates to acknowledge it, I inherently knew there could be no universal cheat sheet to creating the perfect steak. There are too many variables to consider for single address-all cheat sheet. In addition to the degree of cooking, how does one account for the type or cut of steak; the amount of marbling; the size and thickness of the steak; the grilling temperature and the cooking apparatus? There are numerous factors that may well affect the taste, texture, cooking treatment of a steak like the cow breed, level of marbling, specific cattle producer and grain versus pasture feeding – but for the sake of trying to fit all the information in one digestible post, let us consider some of the more generic and accessible variables…

The cow:

First things first – the cow and the cuts. Most of us are familiar with common steak cuts like sirloin, t-bone, fillet but how well do you actually know them? I certainly didn’t know sirloin was further split into top and bottom sirloin. And I’ve never even heard of “plate” and was compelled to research it. The plate cut, also known as short plate, is a cheaper tougher cut reserved for pot roasting – but ironically, is also the source of hangar steak, a cut prized for its flavour, exclusivity (there is only one hangar steak produced per cow) and is gracing the menus of many top restaurants.

Common Western cuts of the humble cow

Common Western cuts of the humble cow

The cuts:

Translating the names of those cuts into knowledge on how to treat and cook them is arguably more important. For instance, the shoulder and leg areas of a cow tend to get more use, become more muscular and are presumably more fibrous (full of red or fast twitch fibres) so they can be relied upon when the cow needs to break into a sprint. Considering this, it makes sense then that certain cuts like your chuck, rump and round will benefit from long, slow cooking to break down those fibres than say those underutilised juicy tenderloins.

Different steak cuts and recommended cooking methods

Different steak cuts and recommended cooking methods

The degrees of doneness:

It’s an awkward word that makes my teeth grate, but a pivotal factor in determining how “perfect” we perceive a steak. The Co-pilot’s father sits at one extreme and favours his steak blue (exactly why the term is derived from the French word “bleu” and not “rouge” baffles me); my mother sits at the other and prefers hers very well done. Personally, I prefer my steaks medium rare, though more often than not, I’ll order a medium rare steak and receive the medium instead.

A visual cutaway guide on steak doneness

A visual cutaway guide on steak doneness

Descriptions on the degree of steak cooking

Descriptions on the degree of steak cooking


The final step involves marrying some of those common cuts and recommended doneness for each cut. If you peruse through the list though, you might notice some unfamiliar terms. “Carpet bag” is not just a humourous insult, it is apparently an Australian dish that primarily involves the end of a piece of scotch fillet with oysters sutured to it, all wrapped up in a piece of bacon. Variations include marination with every herb under the sun and flaming it with cognac. This dish was popularised in Sydney in the 1950s – a time, it appears when complexity and convolution was revered.

Pittsburgh” is not as I first thought, the next degree of doneness after well done and merely a more polite term than “charred leather” – it’s type of steak that is blue or rare inside with a charred exterior, lending to its other name “Pittsburgh rare” or the more colourful “black and blue”.

Recommended cooking temperatures for various steak cuts

Recommended cooking temperatures for various steak cuts

But then how does one translate all this information into perfect steak cooking know-how? The manual dictates specific grill surface temperatures for each degree of doneness, which is fantastic for those with an industrial or digital temperature controlled grill handy. Unfortunately I don’t fall in that category and needed still more guidance. A dummy’s guide to perfect steaks if you will.

A perusal of a guide provided by Chophouse via Kingsleys and those circulating about on the net showed a vast variety of instructions, all claiming production of a “perfect steak”, some with no explanantion what degree of doneness would be produced and none seemed to satisfactorily take into account degree of doneness, size and width of the steak simultaneously. So we cobbled together a mish mash guide from a few various guides for our steaks.

My “perfect” medium rare steak – for a 400g, 1 inch thick New York sirloin steak

  1. Warm: Allow the steak to come to room temperature
  2. Preheat oven: Set the oven to 180 degrees Celsius (takes about 15 minutes)
  3. Season: Rub a liberal amount of olive oil, salt and pepper onto the steaks (no need to season the pan)
  4. Sear: Heat a skillet on high heat but not till it’s smoking. Place the seasoned steak into the skillet and leave for 2 minutes to allow a crust to form. After 2 minutes check to see that a brown crust has formed, if not, give it more time. Once done, repeat on the other side.
  5. Oven: Place the steak, pan and all into the oven for 5 minutes.
  6. Rest: Remove the pan from the oven and rest in a warm place for 5 minutes. This will allow the meat to relax and the juices to settle
  7. Serve: Transfer to a clean, warmed plate and serve.
Warming and seasoning the steaks

Allow the steak to come to room temperature, then season. We've used two 400g, 1 inch or 2.5 cm thich New York cut sirloins.

Sear the steaks in a hot pan

Heat a pan till hot then sear the seasoned steaks

Sear both sides to create a brown crust

Check that a nice brown crust has formed before repeating the procedure on the other side

Allow the steak to rest

Finish the steaks in the oven then rest in a warm place

Medium rare steak

The moment of truth: the cutaway to reveal a medium rare steak

Medium rare steak with a side of chimichurri

Serve immediately, shown here with a dollop of chimichurri

I can assure you, it was delicious and our rapturous, bordering on indecent noises were testament to that. As far as I’m concerned, it was perfect and I was amazed that we’d created this at home on our humble electric stovetop. Just as a disclaimer – this steak is my definition of “perfect“, if your perfect steak is more or less well done than medium rare, adjust the searing time. As for exact times, I’m afraid it’s a matter of trial and error.

I should disclose that I am by no means the head steak chef at home. The Co-pilot firmly holds that title, I am merely the sous chef, preparing the ingredients and accompaniments and taking directions. Who am I kidding – I’m just the glutton that bounces around happily in the background in anticipation of being fed. As my mother was such a negative inspiration on the fine arts of steak cooking, I’ve never developed much skill in the area. Invariably, any steak effort I’ve produced in the past is only cooked to order by accident. There was much incessant fussing, prodding and more than the occasional cut to peer into the steak’s heart. I’m aware this was no way to cook a steak and watching me cook one would have made most chefs cry. So, credit where credit is due – this is the Co-pilot’s perfect medium rare steak. I contributed by eating it – what I traditionally do best. But this is a situation I’ll now rectify as I now have my own cheats guide to creating my perfect medium rare steak.


Edit: Just a note that quality will of course affect the outcome of your perfect steak. No amount of crafty cooking can disguise or transform a poor cut into anything but that, however as there is no easy way of rigorously addressing quality as a variable without writing a thesis on the subject, I have omitted it from this post.

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Simon @ the heart of food January 26, 2011 at 11:39 pm

Nice work with the post!

Had the thought of consistently achieving the “perfect” steak around in my head for some time. This goes some way to answer some question but also raising a few as well.

2 Peter G @ Souvlaki For The Soul January 27, 2011 at 8:34 am

Great post Trina! I too have been searching for that elusive “perfect steak”. And I totally agree with you regarding that definition…everyone will be different. As a frequent visitor to Buenos Aires-I notice that they can go a little overboard with the cooking. I’ll have mine medium thanks!
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3 mademoiselle délicieuse January 27, 2011 at 2:18 pm

My mother doesn’t enjoy any suggestion of blood about her steak but she is open to the odd piece of sashimi. She will drink Australian tap water, but possibly not anywhere else where the water sanitation is questionable. My mother-in-law, who’s older, will not ingest meat which is raw and chides me for drinking water cooled in the fridge because “it will cause asthma”. Oh, how I sympathise with you!

That aside, I still haven’t mastered the art of the perfect steak and will take tips from your guide with pleasure!
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4 penny aka jeroxie January 27, 2011 at 4:28 pm

I shall be picking up tips the next time I cook steak… Love my steak rare though….

5 Thanh January 27, 2011 at 10:27 pm

Great post. It seems such a basic things for restaurants to get right but so many of them get it wrong. Cooking the perfect steak comes down to experience and just knowing when it’s ready I guess. I’ve perfected a medium rare steak at home, which is the way I love it, but must learn to cook other types.

6 Trissa January 27, 2011 at 11:27 pm

Please Trina – this article NEEDS to be shared with many restaurants I’ve been to. So many times I’ve ordered medium rare, only to get well done! What a comprehensive article. Your steak is just perfect!
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7 Reemski January 28, 2011 at 12:49 pm

So funny. My mother and partner refuse to eat any type of meat that has even a hint of pink. However my partner has recently ceded the steak cooking to me, as I don’t turn his steak, even when well done, into a chew toy.
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8 Corinne @ Degustinations January 28, 2011 at 1:00 pm

Wow… this post should be called ‘Ode to a Steak’. Very comprehensive. I’m not a big meat eater and steaks are delegated to my better half who is far better with cooking times than I am!
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9 Richard Elliot January 28, 2011 at 3:27 pm

I love your dedication and approach to this post. It’s almost scientific in analysing the different cuts of meat and how to cook them.

For me the perfect steak is at the Hawksmoor in London. A lovely, under stated steak restaurant in London.

It looks like you chose a good piece of meat.
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10 Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella January 28, 2011 at 7:44 pm

hehe well the test is cutting inside it and also the moans of rapture! 😛

11 Simon Food Favourites January 29, 2011 at 10:19 am

i’ve been using the chophouse guide to cooking a steak as well with some luck. all depends on the cut i think too and your oven. the first couple of times it turned out quite rare so i had to keep it in the oven a bit longer. all ovens a different and mine is quite old. also heaps to have a good quality cut of meat as well i think :-)

12 thatssoron February 4, 2011 at 9:31 am

wow… nothing like a good steak!

13 Forager February 4, 2011 at 4:32 pm

Hey Simon – Yes, it’s not a definitive guide by any means. I imagine one could write a guide the size of a phone book if one wanted. For instance, the great American barbequers might raise an eyebrow or two over claims of a perfect steak, not to mention organic vs inorganic; budget vs qualtiy; particular cuts; particular breeds; aging processes; and cooking methods etc. A Pandora’s box lies waiting – good luck to you!

Hey Peter – Thank you – and we discovered that \jugoso\ is what you need to ask for in Buenos Aires if you want a medium rare steak as, like you said, they overcook their steaks by our standards!

Hey Mademoiselle Delicieuse – Ah, then you really know my struggles with my folks well – they told me off for giving The Co-pilot tap water!

Hey Penny – I am partial to the odd rare steak too. I’d suggest starting with searing only a minute one each side then, cooking in the oven for perhaps 2 minutes as a start and resting for 5 minutes. Give it a shot!

Hey Thanh – Ah, if you can cook a perfect medium rare steak at home, then you’ve clearly already mastered that elusive \feel\ technique then!

Hey Trissa – I know the pain all too well! Overdone seems to be the norm these days, sadly.

Hey Reemski – They’re not alone, the Co-pilot’s mum sits in that corner too and she can’t even claim it’s about ethnicity! It’s just the way some of the older folks were brought up. Good work on getting that steak cooked but not like a chew toy. Say, I should get you in contact with my mum…

Hey Corinne – Thanks and isn’t it funny that our partners are better with the steaks? Did they hear about the stereotype and see a need to fulfil it? Or is it genetically programmed? Odd!

Hey Richard – It’s not nice to talk about the Co-pilot like that ;P

Hey Lorraine – indeed! Always a good sign of success in the house. I’m sure that’s what I’m hearing from my neighbours! Good steak. Ha!

Hey Simon Food Favourites – Absolutely it does – the cut, the coooking method etc. Hence why I set the instructions for a specific cut of steak with a specific weight and thickness – trying to eliminate what variables I can there. As for the quality – well a no-brainer, but not something I decided to address in this post. I think the definition of quality is an esoteric and elusive topic that would be too difficult to thoroughly address in this format and see no point in putting in a half hearted attempt that can’t address it, so omitted it.

Hey thatssoron – Ain’t that right!

14 Tina@foodboozeshoes February 9, 2011 at 12:23 pm

I think we could share steak-cooking mums 😉 But each to their own…

Resting a steak helps so much – I’ve recently started doing it and find such a difference in the end result.

15 Gareth March 16, 2011 at 9:53 pm

Hi Trina,
I have just discovered your blog, it’s great and I can easily see how its so popular. I really enjoyed this post, comprehensive and informative. So the quetion that I have is: Kobe or Wagyu which do you prefer? I know that Christoper Whitehead of Mad Cow is a fan of the Wagyu Flank steak interested in your thoughts.

16 Forager March 21, 2011 at 11:55 am

Hi Tina – What? There are more dry steak leather travesties out there?! I agree with the resting – that seems to make a massive difference!

Hey Gareth – Thank you for your kind comments and for reading my blog! As for your question – I can’t say I’ve done a rigorous test of Kobe vs Wagyu side by side (though I’d love to), but to my understanding they shouldn’t be remarkably different in flavour as Wagyu is the SAME as Kobe beef. Wagyu is just produced outside of Kobe so doesn’t use the Kobe name (perhaps a similar situation to the use of the terms Champagne or Parmegiano-Reggiano). Then beyond that asuming the same cut is examined between the two types; the difference in Kobe vs Wagyu would be rated on a number of factors including producer/quality, specific diet, aging, and marble score. Could do with a steak right now actually..

17 chopinandmysaucepan April 14, 2011 at 2:44 pm

I love my steaks and this post is fantastic and you have gone through so much effort. Definitely bookmarking this one! Thanks!!
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18 Forager April 21, 2011 at 5:37 pm

Hey chopinandmysaucepan – Ha – what a long name! Glad you enjoyed it – we’ve tried different variations of time for different thicknesses and the basic method just works. And thanks for dropping by!

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