Even though our grills might be covered for the season, we can still make mouth-watering, perfectly cooked and seasoned steaks indoors.
I first learned to properly cook a steak when cooking at The Peninsula Hotel in Chicago under the tutelage of chef Graham Elliot. We were a small team of four cooks working five nights a week in the hotel’s fine dining restaurant inside the workings of a large hotel kitchen. Our open kitchen was small, with a dining bar allowing guests a front-row seat to watch us cook. We each worked a station on our own (garde-manger, hot apps, butcher and saucier) for three months, after which time we would rotate around to another station.
When working as the butcher, not only was it our responsibility to break down fish and other cuts of meat on the menu, during service we cooked every piece of meat that left the kitchen, from three-course to 21-course tasting menus per guest. To get the job done, we had a four-burner gas range and a small convection oven, which we kept at 500 degrees the entire night. There was no grill or wood-burning oven, but I soon learned that all I needed was right in front of me: a large soup spoon (never tongs), a few well-seasoned cast-iron pans, salt, my trusty pepper grinder, a high smoke point oil, butter and aromatics.
In this recipe, you’ll notice the aromatics I use are lemon, cilantro stems, jalapeño and garlic. This is just one out of an almost infinite number of variations you could try. Use the herbs and flavors that work for you. If you have sage or lavender in the garden, try it! Normally, I tend to use thyme, rosemary, garlic and lemon. But on this night, I used what I had (leftover cilantro and jalapeños from taco night earlier in the week), and it ended up being one of the best pan-seared steaks I have ever made. The important thing to remember when choosing aromatics is that they need to be carefully dried after being washed. Natural juice from a lemon, lime or piece of ginger isn’t a big deal, but you never want to add water to a pan with hot oil, as it will result in dangerous splattering and possible burns.
At first glance, this method might appear too easy for a whole recipe’s worth of attention, but let me assure you: It’s the best way of cooking a steak I’ve ever come across (aside from maybe the Japanese three-crust method, which I’ll save for grilling season since it requires an open flame). Because this recipe is mostly about a method or technique, I would recommend reading the entire method before starting.
And this technique isn’t only for steak. Over the years, I have found myself using this method for fish, chicken, all kinds of red meats, even cauliflower steak. When it comes to beef, though, choosing a good quality porterhouse, beef tenderloin, filet mignon, T-bone, strip or rump steak are good choices.
Makes: 2 servings; total time: 30 minutes
1 large steak, 1- to 1½-inch thick
Salt and pepper
½ teaspoon neutral oil with a high smoke point (grapeseed, avocado, vegetable, sunflower)
2 tablespoons butter
½ lemon, sliced
Small handful of cilantro stems
2 jalapeños, sliced
3 garlic cloves, sliced
Preparation: First, dry the steak with a paper towel and let it come to room temperature so it can cook evenly and retain its juices. This will take anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes depending on the temperature of your kitchen as well as the size of the steak.
Now, season the steak generously on both sides with salt and pepper. Place a cast-iron or other heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat and add the oil. When you can see the oil ripple as you gently tip the pan to one side, you know the pan is hot enough (do not put the steak into a cold pan). Gently place the steak in the pan and let it sear where it is (resisting the temptation to move it around) for around 3 minutes. If you want to help it along, carefully press down on the steak with the back of a spoon to create more pressure as it’s searing, which will create even more caramelization in the flavor-filled crust. Turn the steak over and repeat this process so both sides get a good sear.
At this point, turn the heat to medium and add the butter, lemon, cilantro stems, jalapeño and garlic. With your spoon, move the steak toward the top of the pan and move the aromatics to the side or on top of the steak. Carefully tip the pan toward you while it’s still over the heat, being careful no butter spills out, and spoon the sizzling butter over the steak repeatedly to finish cooking the steak. This will probably take anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes, depending on the thickness of the steak and how well-done you prefer it to be cooked.
You can certainly take the temperature of the steak with a thermometer to find your perfect cook (rare: 125 degrees; medium-rare: 130-135 degrees; medium: 135-140 degrees; medium-well: 140-150 degrees; well: 155 degrees) by inserting the thermometer into the thickest part of the steak. But I prefer and recommend the poke-with-your-finger method. Not only does it teach you to just know when a steak is done, but I find it to be more accurate during the fast pace of cooking. You feel it with your finger, take it off at the perfect time and boom — it’s done and ready for resting.
The best way I have found to learn the poke method is to use your hand as a guide. The first step is to touch your ring-finger to your thumb and turn your hand so the palm is facing you. If you press on your hand just below your thumb, this will mimic what it feels like when you poke a well-done steak. Move your finger slightly to the left around your thumb and you will feel what a medium-well steak feels like. Keep working your way around your thumb and you will eventually reach what a rare steak feels like. Use this method as long as you need to learn, and the day will come when you’ll know everything with one poke of your finger.
Once the steak is cooked to your preferred temperature, transfer the steak and all the aromatics to a shallow bowl (so as not to lose any of the juices) and loosely cover it with foil for 5 to 10 minutes before serving so the inside juices can redistribute and don’t just spill out when the steak is cut.
Marianne Sundquist is a chef and writer who in 2020 co-founded Stokli, an online general store. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.