Monday, May 10, 2010

Steak, the Ducasse way

I've been eating a lot of steak lately.

Mind you, this isn't a backlash to my Lent days. You see, I'm on a mission to understand steak. I mean, I think most guys get the whole primal 'piece of meat, insert on grill here' thing. And yeah, that does produce a tasty steak when you're not using a crappy cut, cooked to medium or worse, and drowned in "steak sauce" (blech). But isn't there something else out there, man?

If you've been paying attention, you've seen the signs. I fiddled around with cast iron searing for those nice ribbon-thin italian steak salads (arugula mandatory, y'all). I've scourged my soul against the bottom of the barrel of French depravity with steak au poivre, and still I want more.

Enter Alain Ducasse, some French guy who cooks and apparently also likes steaks. Being French, he overcame his first instinct to surrender to the daunting challenge, and instead opted for the second instinct, which is to drown the hell out of a random thing with butter. Ahhh....buerre! Look, nobody said steak was a staple. If it's a staple for you, you're probably gonna die. Enjoy it as a treat, because it is a treat. And when you do, be EVIL. Seriously.

What Monsieur Ducasse does is two-fold. First off, hot fat (butter, also rendered beef fat) is a transport mechanism for flavor. You ever see those premium-priced flavor-infused olive oils? Well you're paying a premium for non extra-virgin oil that's basically heated with whatever it wants to taste like chucked into it. In that same respect, by adding aromatics and herbs into a pan with hot fat and cooking on a medium-low clip, you can pull the flavors out of those things into your delicious fat, which is...

...then basted over a steak in cast iron, cooking over a fairly low temperature. Why low? Doesn't this go against everything good and sacred in the Tome of Steak? Well...not really. For a thin steak (like, say, hanger steak), yes you want very very hot temperature on your grill, pan or whatever. That's because you want to spend as little time inducing the Maillard Reaction as possible.

Pause for a moment. Go up, click that link. The ideal crust for a steak is BROWN. Black is burnt. Black is carbon. Black is coal. You have gone too far. Unless you're a bad kid around Christmas, I don't imagine you have plans on eating coal, so STOP doing this to steak you spend your hard-earned money on, capice? There are grill-stripe fetishists out there and I guess y'all can toe the line if you must, but please don't overdo that stuff. Dry your steak off as completely as you can, season with salt and pepper, and you'll find that crust is easy to get, and you'll never look back.

Anyways, sorry for the segue. The gist is that brown is good, and makes us all happy campers. If you're keen on living on the wide open ranges of Flavor Country, you'll also want a little moo in your steak. I fully admit I used to be a medium to medium-well guy. I also fully admit I used to un-ironically listen to Chumbawamba. Bad choices only become mistakes if you don't learn from them, so I fully own up to being human. If you're an overdone steak afficionado and you're reading this, I've probably offended you. I'm not going to apologize for that, but I'm not going to prosthelytize either. You'll either try a little strange or you won't. I will tell you that if you're one of those weirdos, I've got to absolutely adore you as a friend or you've got to be a blood relative for me to overcook a steak for you. And even then, it kills me to do it these days.

So, let's assume here that we're all fans of that range between rare to medium-rare. To get that, and to get the Maillard crust, a thin steak has to be seared off fast, and is essentially over and done in maybe three or four minutes. I recommend even using it straight from the fridge so you've still got a bit of pent up chill for a cool center. For example, here's how my hanger steak turns out using that method:

Note both crust and center. That's about as money as it gets.

Now for a steak in the Ducasse style, we're basting the steak in that tasty flavored butter, right? Well to get the most flavor into that steak, we cook slow. We also do that so that we can cook a very thick steak and not have the outside a blackened mess and the inside still cold and raw (not to be confused with rare, y'all). I found most of my success to be with New York Strips. Here's the kicker, I would shoot for a cut that's two inches thick AT MINIMUM. This seems like madness, doesn't it? Well, at that thickness, I consider a cut of strip can be split to feed two people. Instead of imagining steak as some plate-covering thing, think of it instead as a fist of meat. Equal x, y, and z dimensions give or take. I highly recommend you get chatty with your local butcher if you can. Don't trust any place that just has meat out in shrink-wrapped packages and nobody to talk to. Talk to a butcher. Tell them you want some cow cut up the way you like it. That's why they're there.

With the steak being thick like that, you'll also want to bring it closer to room temp. How close is up to you. I've brought a steak all the way up to room temp and it was a bit too done through for my liking. I usually let it out of the fridge for an hour as a guess. The great thing about NY strips is that they also have this substantial strap of fat running along the back. After you rub both sides with salt and pepper, you can heat a dry cast iron pan and rest the steak on its side. This renders the fat off that strap and into your pan, so it contributes to your baste.

Once you slap a side down, DO NOT move it. Moving a steak, lifting it up to see "is it done yet?" is a great way to make sure you never get a crust at all. Busy your idle hands by putting herbs and aromatics into your skillet, then tabs of butter until you've got a liquid you can collect with a tilt of the pan, and can spoon over the top. Keep the steak where it is. If you must check on it, give the steak a prod on top. As a steak cooks, it will "tense up" a bit. Raw steak does not recover from a prod. As it cooks, it gradually gets more resilient. I'm loathe to throw out a real number of minutes to expect, but at a low gas setting on my burner, I usually keep a steak on each side for about ten minutes. Don't let this numerical estimate betray your instincts. Imagine I'm Ben Kenobi and you're Luke Skywalker, and there is a Steak Force. Use it.

Once you flip and repeat, all the while basting, you'll eventually be done with the task. I rest my steak on a cooling rack over a plate. Don't tuck into it immediately. I recommend resting it for about ten minutes after cooking to redistribute the juices inside. If you are a greedy pig and eat it piping hot, you'll leak all of the flavorful juice all over your plate and the rest will be a bit dry. The time it takes to rest will make for a better steak, trust me.

Something else to consider is that if you're like me and add shallots to your pan to flavor your butter (for mine, I ideally use rosemary, thyme, garlic, and shallots), you might be able to reserve a few of the now french-fried shallot rings as a tasty topper for your steak. I highly recommend it.

Here's a good idea of the finished product.

I made this one for my mom yesterday for Mother's Day, and it's a pretty solid medium rare. I'm happiest at the threshold between med-rare and rare, but it takes a bit of nuance to get consistency. If you've got a digital thermometer, you may want to consider catching a reading to see what is ideal, and then get used to the tell-tale signs of when you get there.

At any rate, I would highly recommend trying this method. It makes for one of the best steaks I've ever eaten.


Laura Bee said...

Good Fucking God. I just made this steak for my partner and I for dinner. You sir, are a genius. I am in awe.

kevjohn Photography said...

Well I didn't want a steak when I woke up today, but I sure as hell do now!