A while ago a girl friend and I went out to dinner at a bistro in the pub of my former home town. It was a Tuesday night and I was surprised to see people were lined up out the door. We soon found out why: It was the weekly $10 steak night.
On offer were some very good cuts of aged steak – generous cuts of meat that we simply couldn’t afford as part of our grocery bill – but it placed my friend and I in a conundrum. To enjoy the steak, we would have to make a foray into that most blokey of all places – the pub barbecue grill.
I took one for the team and offered my services, terrified I would make a fool of myself.
I needn’t have worried.
Men – they were all men – all appeared to be massacring the meat a second time. One poured so much oil over his steak, the flames flared up into the extractor fans above. Others endlessly turned their steaks over, and over, and over. Every single person cut into their steaks at the end of the cooking time to check for done-ness.
Until then, steeped in the mystique of Aussie blokedom at barbecues, I had never ventured to cook a steak of my own on a barbecue. First it had been dad who cooked, then my husband, then – well, anyone who was not female. My son started cooking at a barbecue, alongside his grandfather and father and uncles, from a tender age of ten or so. Over the years I would cook steaks for my family using a cast-iron griddle on the stove, but never at a barbecue. Until now.
I selected two eye fillet steaks, well marbled and cooked them in the manner described below. I didn’t trick it up or use pyrotechnics and the resulting steaks were like butter when we finally ate them.
So here, based on a little common sense and a natural inclination to keep it simple, is a fool-proof guide to cooking a great steak. Try it at your Australia Day barbecue later this week.
Choose your steak
Look for a well-aged piece of meat that is marbled with white lines and veins of fat. This may horrify those who are looking after their waistline, but while cooking a steak, fat is your friend. A well-aged steak is steak that has been hung, in one piece, in a cool room for anything from 4 days to two weeks. The drying out matures the flavour and tenderises the cut at the same time. When combined with the striations of white – not yellow – fat, you know that the meat is going to be more tender and juicy than the steak with the fat removed from it lying next to it. Also, I try to limit the size of the steak I eat to one about the size of my fist or about 180 – 200g per steak. Again, this may horrify steak lovers but as with all of life’s enjoyments a little moderation is a wonderful thing.
Bring it to room temperature
So many people take their steaks out of the fridge and place them straight on a hotplate then wonder why the meat – particularly the fat encasing it – shrivels and curls up at the ends. Once it starts curling up, cooks attack it with barbecue tongs, start turning it over in a vain attempt to flatten it out and it’s all down hill from there. Don’t. Do. That. Even on a blazing hot day, try to bring the meat out of the fridge a good 15 to 20 minutes before taking it to the hotplate. Even better, bring it out of the fridge an hour before cooking. Taking the chill out of the meat helps keep the meat more relaxed as it is cooked. In a manner of speaking.
Heat your barbecue or hotplate
Perhaps I am a bit afeared of flames but cooking a steak over the hottest part of the barbecue is not your best approach. What you want is heat that sears the meat initially to lock in juices, but is cool enough that you can actually control the cooking. If your barbecue is too hot – for example all burners blazing – you are likely to get a very well cooked exterior, most likely charred, and an under cooked interior. UNLESS you want a steak cooked to blue, don’t use a searing heat. Have one burner blazing and one turned down so you can place your steaks over a spot that is medium hot.
If you are using a hotplate or a frypan over a stove top, the same principle applies. Heat over a medium to hot heat and then keep an eye on the heat and be prepared to turn it down a little if your steaks cook too quickly.
Season your steak and add your oil now
Just before you place your steak on the hotplate or grill, rub in a teaspoon of vegetable or olive oil, then add a sprinkling of sea salt and black pepper over both sides of the steak. That’s. It.
Your steak will not stick to the barbecue plate with such a small amount of oil, nor will the extra flames around a steak create any more flavour. All it does is waste your cooking oil and char your meat.
A word about marinades
There is a place for marinades and it is very useful if you are cooking a cheaper cut of steak or one that has not been aged, such as a rump or oyster blade steak. However, at the pub bistro grill, adding some marinade moments before whacking the meat on the grill is really not going to help things along. It looks pretty and makes you feel worthy, but it doesn’t really add any flavour at such short notice. If you want additional flavour, add a sauce such as a classic Diane, béarnaise, mushroom or pepper sauce once the steak is cooked.
It’s hard to go past a basic red wine marinade which is as follows: into a large flat glass or ceramic dish place 3 large roughly chopped garlic cloves, ¼ cup olive oil, 1 cup red wine OR ¾ cup red wine and ¼ red wine vinegar, 1 heaped tablespoon of mustard (seeded or Dijon works best) ¼ cup tomato sauce, a good dash of Worcestershire sauce, and some sea salt and black pepper to taste. Mix it up well.
Marinate your steaks throughout the day or for at least 4 to 6 hours. The oil in the marinade helps stop the steaks sticking to the hot plate.
Now for the warning: DO NOT use the marinade you have stored raw meat in to then baste the cooked meat. That way lies food poisoning hell. If you want to baste with the marinade, mix up the marinade and then remove a cup of the stuff and store it in the fridge away from the meat and apply it separately at the hot plate. Once the meat is on the hot plate, throw out the marinade the steaks have soaked in and place the container in the sink or dishwasher. Likewise DO NOT use the same unwashed container you have stored raw meat in to collect the cooked meat off the hot plate. Food poisoning hell, remember?
Turn your steaks over ONCE
So, you’ve done all your preparation, placed the steaks on the hot plate and they are sizzling beautifully and you want to turn them over to see if they’re browning nicely?
Don’t even think about it.
Here’s a bit of science for you. When the steaks hit the hot plate, the blood in the meat rises towards the upper surface of the steak. You will sometimes see it pooling there. This is a good thing.
Meanwhile, the steak is cooking from the hot surface up through towards the centre of the steak. If you look at the sides of your steak you will see it slowly changing colour from red to pink to grey. Wait until the colour changes to the way you want it at the half way point up the sides of your steak then turn your steak over just the once and cook the steak for about the same length of time as the first side.
At this point, the blood that has headed towards the surface now changes direction and moves back into the centre of the steak. This means brilliantly tender and juicy steak, provided you don’t use a knife to cut into your steak to check for done-ness.
Which brings me to …
Use the Rule of Thumb
Cooking the steaks to order – it’s the personal Everest of cooking your steak at barbecues everywhere. In desperation people attack their carefully cooked steaks with sharp knives to check for done-ness and ruin everything the moment they do. Instead, use some tongs and The Rule of Thumb.
RARE – press the tip of your index finger onto the tip of the thumb next to it to make an ‘OK’ sign, then press the meatiest part of the pad of your thumb next to the palm of your hand. The pressure you feel there will replicate a steak cooked to rare. Use the back of your tongs to press down in the centre of the steak to gauge the ‘feel’ of the steak.
MEDIUM – press the tip of your middle finger to the tip of the thumb and press the pad of your thumb to replicate the feeling of a steak when it is cooked to medium. Use the back of the tongs on your steak as described above.
WELL DONE – Press the tip of your ring finger to the tip of your thumb and press the pad of your thumb to replicate the feeling of a steak when it is cooked to well done. Use your tongs, as described.
Rest your cooked steak
When you have finished cooking your steaks according to the ‘feel’ of them under the Rule of Thumb, fear not – they will continue cooking for a few more minutes. Place your steaks in a warmed clean dish and then cover them loosely with foil and leave them the hell alone for five to ten minutes. The juices that you have managed to avoid releasing by not cutting into your steaks will settle back into the meat, ensuring that every mouthful you take is exquisite, tender and pleasurable rather than jaw-achingly tedious and tough.
If you are cooking your own steaks in the pub, use this time to have an entrée or to finish your drink. Then and only then, bring the steaks to the table, serve with sauces or some mustard and add some salads or vegies of your choice. I guarantee that the time you have taken to rest your steak will actually help the meat relax and tenderise to utter perfection. The night of our girls-own BBQ adventure, we could have cut our steaks with a butter knife and yes, the meat was still perfectly warm.