To flip, or not to flip, that is the real question. When you're nervously standing over the stove or grill, what do you do with that steak before you?
I always believed that to have a perfect medium or medium-rare steak, I needed to let a thick cut of meat sear on one side for several minutes before flipping it just once. Turns out I was wrong.
You're actually better off flipping your steak multiple times to get a flavorful crust and a juicy, tender interior that's evenly cooked.
When your steak hits a hot surface, that incredible smell and the color change from pink to brown is part of the Maillard reaction, named for scientist Louis Camille-Maillard, who discovered the principle.
Amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, and simple sugars rearrange themselves and produce thousands of molecules that result in smell and color changes, as well as flavor variation and intensifications. This happens in all kinds of food, from baking bread to grilled shrimp and caramelizing onions. It's what causes toast to smell so good and what turns beer brown.
The Maillard reaction happens at high temperatures unless there are lots of amino acids and sugars present, in which case, the temps can be lower.
Having a dry surface encourages the Maillard reaction, which is why so many articles and recipes for steak tell you to let the meat air dry or to pat it with paper towels before cooking it. Drier food plus hot temperatures equals more reactive compounds in your steak. More Maillard reaction equals more flavor, which is definitely a good thing.
Detractors of constant steak flipping say that the process results in underdone meat. That's probably true, especially if you're not using high enough temperatures or your steak is too wet.
However, Serious Eats points out that flipping your steak several times during the cooking process lets the heat from one side disperse back into the meat, which rescues the outer edges from becoming tough and overcooked.
Let's let Harold McGee, food scientist and all-around badass, add his two cents:
"… frequent flipping cooks the meat more evenly, and also significantly faster: flip every minute instead of once or twice and the meat will be done in a third less time. This works because neither side has time to absorb a lot of heat when facing the fire or to lose heat when facing away. You don't get neat grill marks or the best char this way, but with high enough heat the surface develops plenty of flavor."
Resident scientist Dr. Greg Blonder over at Amazing Ribs agrees. He advises that you flip the steak every minute or so to encourage a flavorful crust to develop even as it cooks the steak to tender perfection. In fact, Amazing Ribs makes a pretty strong argument against needing grill marks on steaks entirely.
As mentioned above, drying off the steak is key, although you can skip rinsing it entirely. Simply pat it dry with an absorbent kitchen towel or paper towels before you put it in your pan or on the grill.
You can even go the extra mile and salt steaks ahead of time and let them sit. The salt will add flavor and draw out surface moisture, all while slightly breaking down the proteins and improving the texture of the steak. This guide will show you how.
If you're health conscious and worried about the carcinogenic quality of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in your steaks, a few brewskis can help save the day. Just marinate your steaks in beer (black ales are best for reducing the PAH levels) for four or more hours, then pat dry before cooking.
And for the ultimate in tender, juicy beef, don't forget to always, always sclice it against the grain. If you have any leftover uncooked steaks, make sure to freeze them properly for maximum flavor next time 'round.
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