Restaurant steaks tend to have that "extra something" home chefs struggle to replicate when cooking their favorite cuts of meat in their own kitchens. That special ingredient is usually not an ingredient at all, but rather technique — something that doesn't cost any extra money. Once you've mastered it, you can save big by skipping the pricey steak house and hosting your own five-star dinner.
Professional kitchens have to send out steaks quickly and consistently to meet goal ticket times — the amount of time between cooks receiving an order to it hitting your table. Casual restaurants typically shoot for 20-minute ticket times on every dish across the board, whereas fine-dining establishments may have ticket times that run as long as 45 minutes, as more technique typically goes into each dish.
Fine dining or casual, pro kitchens use every tool in the books to balance quality and speed. Oven-finishing helps achieve this. Chefs commonly use the oven-finishing technique for filets and thick-cut steaks (3/4-inch to 2-inch thick) that, when sautéed, would dry out on the exterior before they finish on the inside. It's also a technique you can use at home to make steakhouse-quality steaks.
- Heat the oven to 450º F. Remove the steak from the refrigerator while the oven heats to allow it to approach room temperature.
- Heat 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil in an oven-safe sauté pan over medium-high heat for a few minutes. Season the steak to taste with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.
- Lay the steak in the pan. Sear the steak on both sides until a rich, golden-brown color develops, about 2 to 3 minutes per side. Use tongs to turn the meat.
- Transfer the pan to the oven. One-inch steaks typically take about 6 to 7 minutes to reach medium rare and 1- to 1 and 1/2-inch-steaks take about 10 minutes. Use an instant-read thermometer to measure the steak's doneness.
Pan-basting, also known as butter-basting, requires a little more finesse than oven-finishing but cooks steaks gently and allows for the infusion of herbs and aromatics.
You'll find pan-basting used mostly in fine-dining restaurants that serve high-quality cuts, such as prime bone-in rib-eyes and porterhouses.
Pan-basting requires near-constant attention to the steak — you'll be spooning butter over the meat throughout virtually the entire cooking process. To get the most out of high-quality steak, you'll want to salt and age it for at least 24 hours, uncovered and on a rack in the refrigerator. This "cures" the steak, giving it a little extra tenderness and a more deeply seasoned flavor. If you don't have time for salting 24 hours early, season the steak just before cooking.
Consider using hearty herbs to incorporate subtle flavors into the steak. For example, you can "infuse" a rib-eye with the essence of rosemary or thyme by dropping a sprig or two in the butter after you start cooking. A 12-inch cast-iron or heavy-bottomed stainless-steel pan works best for this technique.
- Take the steak out of the refrigerator and pat it dry using a paper towel. Allow the steak to sit out for about 30 minutes; steaks close to room temperature sear and cook more evenly than cold steaks.
- Heat 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil in a frying pan over high heat until you see wisps of smoke. Lay the steak in the pan.
- Sear the steak on both sides until a pale, golden-brown color develops. Lower the heat to medium.
- Add 3 to 4 tablespoons of butter to the pan along with any desired herbs. Baste the steak with pan drippings and butter using a spoon, and turn the steak over frequently. You might have to tilt the pan toward you to collect the butter in the spoon.
- For a medium rare steak, cook for 8 to 10 minutes, basting and turning frequently, or until the internal temperature measures about 125º F. Take the steak from the pan and let it rest for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.
The searing and broiling method improves economy of space and time, two of most important intangible qualities of a well-run professional kitchen. It's not uncommon for the rôtisseur, or the line chef in charge of roasting, to stand in the same spot all shift, moving steaks from range to broiler, then turning 180º F to place them in the service window.
Restaurant broilers, also called salamanders or melts, are usually located above the range for this purpose — no danger of burning someone with a hot skillet by having to transfer it to a broiler on the other end of the line. And, through both constant use and preheating, the pans themselves stay hot throughout dinner service, making this technique a real time-saver.
You need a 12-inch cast-iron skillet or stainless-steel pan for this technique, as well as a potholder or thick kitchen towel. Filets, rib-eyes, porterhouses and strip steaks that are one or more inches thick respond well to this method.
- Take the steak from the fridge and let it sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes. Set the oven rack 4 to 6 inches below the oven's broiler.
- Start the broiler and heat the pan under it for about 20 minutes. Coat the steak on both sides with vegetable oil and season it to taste with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.
- Take the pan from the oven and set it on the stove over high heat. Using tongs, transfer the steak to the pan. Sear the steak for 30 seconds on each side.Transfer the pan to the oven.
- For a medium rare steak, broil for 2 minutes on each side and remove from the oven. For medium doneness, broil the steak an additional 2 minutes on each side. Rest the steak for 5 minutes before serving.
High-end restaurants typically have one or more immersion circulators for cooking sous vide, which means to cook vacuum-sealed foods in a hot-water bath that maintains a constant temperature. By far the gentlest cooking method, sous vide prevents overcooking and, through vacuum sealing, allows for an advanced form of flavor infusion.
Commercial immersion circulators and cryovacs — the industrial-grade vacuum sealers used in restaurants — each cost around $2,000, which partly explains the significant markup at luxury restaurants. With no risk of overcooking or bacterial growth, restaurants can cook a cut of meat at 125º F for two hours or more to achieve maximum tenderness.
After the sous vide bath, steaks get a brief but hard sear, about 20 seconds on each side, for the prized caramelization every well-prepared steak has. Consumer-based immersion circulators are around $200, but you can cook a restaurant-style sous-vide steak at home with equipment you likely already have — a heavy-bottomed pot and skillet.
- Place a large, heavy-bottomed skillet on the stove. Next, fill a large stock pot about three-fourths full of hot water and set in the skillet.
- Attach an instant read thermometer to the side of the pot with the probe submerged in the water. Add more water if needed. Set the temperature on the stove to medium.
- Adjust the heat on the stove until the water reaches the desired temperature. For medium-rare, aim for a temperature range of 120º F to 128º F — the post-cooking sear will bring the doneness up to a perfect medium-rare. For a medium steak, aim for a water temperature of 129º F to 134º F.
- Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of butter or olive oil along with any herbs or marinades to a heavy-duty freezer bag. Next add the steak.
- Seal the bag except for a small portion of the corner so air can escape. Lower the bag slowly into the water until the steak is fully submerged but the zipper portion is still exposed. Wait for the air to escape and seal the bag fully before dropping it into the water.
- Cook the steak for at least one hour but as long as four hours, depending on your desired doneness. Monitor the water temperature to keep it in the desired range. Take the bag from the water and remove the steak.
- Heat about 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil in a sauté pan over high heat until it starts to smoke. Lay the steak in the pan using tongs.
- Sear the steak on both sides for 20 to 30 seconds. Rest the steak for 5 minutes before serving.
Olive Oil Poaching
Second only to sous vide in finesse, olive oil poaching gives steaks an ultra-tender, velvety mouthfeel and infused olive oil flavor you can't get from sautéing or roasting. Another technique used in high-end restaurants, olive-oil poached steaks come at a higher price and enjoy a substantial markup thanks in part to the perception of luxury. "Olive-oil poached tenderloin" sounds fancy, but it differs from deep-frying only in temperature — instead of heating the oil to 375º F, you heat it to 140º F.
Olive oil makes a great vessel for flavor infusion — simply add a few choice herbs, aromatics and whole spices to the oil during cooking. You don't have to use a high-quality extra-virgin olive oil for poaching, but you should use a fresh virgin oil, as it enhances the steak's flavor profile and packs more health benefits.
This technique will work for any cut of beef of any size. You can even save and reuse the oil. After poaching, allow the oil to cool and strain it through a fine-mesh sieve lined with cheesecloth. Store the oil in an airtight container in a cool area for up to one week.
- Pour just enough olive oil to cover the steak in a heavy-bottomed pot. Add your desired herbs and spices and heat the oil to 140º F.
- Add the steak to the oil. Poach the steak for 30 minutes or until it reaches desired doneness — around 125 degrees Fahrenheit internal temperature for medium-rare and 130º F for medium.
- Take the steak from the oil and lay it on a plate lined with paper towels. Heat about one tablespoon of vegetable oil in a sauté pan over high heat.
- Add the steak to the pan when you see wisps of smoke rising from the oil. Sear the steak for about 20 seconds on each side. Rest the steak for 5 minutes before serving.