How to Cook a Steak (and Where to Get a Good One)

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We didn’t grow up eating much steak. My Dad like to make lean flank steak stew – not my favourite at the time – and homemade burgers using extra lean ground beef cut with a hearty dose of oat bran. (Remember the stuff? It was all the rage pre-flaxseed.) As a result, I thought burgers tended toward dry and sawdusty, and my first restaurant burgers were a revelation.

Mike’s Dad, on the other hand, always cooked steak on Sunday nights. (Alternatively, chunks of meat retrieved from the bowels of the deep freeze, doused in a bottle of beer and braised.) The steaks were thin and cheap – minute steaks, like the ones you’d get at Ponderosa for $5.99 – and cooked to death. Like steak jerky. And yet he was shocked and offended when as a teenager, at one such Sunday dinner I asked if they had any ketchup.

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I’ve since come to love steak, and am not as afraid of cooking it as I once was. In my twenties it seemed too risky an investment, even though Mike loved a good steak, to buy one and not cook it properly, or to wind up cutting into it a dozen times to ensure it was done, thus letting all the juices escape before we got a chance to eat it. I was a rookie, and to not cook a perfect steak was tragic. It was far easier to do a stew or beef bourguignon, or my Belgian grandmother’s carbonnade of beef flammande, all braises that required low, slow cooking and couldn’t easily be mussed up.

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But at some point I had to get over myself and just do it. Like anything else, the more steak you cook the better you get a feel for it. I can’t be afraid of steak forever. At some point I had to become the master of my domain.

Cooking a steak isn’t that tough. Start with the right cut (the Canadian Beef website has great info on cuts, cooking times and temperatures, and makes a great reference), make sure it’s not fridge-cold when you cook it, and pat it dry with paper towels to produce a nice crust. A grill is great, but so is a preheated cast iron pan – you want it smoking hot. Drizzle a little canola or olive oil into the pan and slap it in – you’ll get a great sizzle, and if you leave it alone it will create a wonderful crust.

And really, it doesn’t need marinating, or rubbing, or any of that – but if you do want to pat it down with something delicious, try making a rub out of 2 tbsp good-quality chili powder, 1 tbsp cocoa, 1 tbsp finely ground coffee or espresso, 2 tsp flaky salt and 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper. Rub it on liberally and if you like, let it sit in its rub for an hour or so to allow the flavours to really get to know each other.

I asked a few chef friends – including Paul and Jonathan (coughnamedrop) – about their tips for a great steak, and what they think of this rumour that you’re only allowed to flip a steak once as you cook it. They agreed that this was hooey, that so long as you gave it a chance to develop a nice crust and were nice to it, didn’t toss it about on the grill/pan and were just generally nice to it, all would be well. 4-5 minutes per side for an inch thick steak should do it for medium-rare, and let it rest before you cut into it, otherwise all those lovely juices will gush out. 10 minutes is perfect – about enough time to get everything else together and on the table, don’t you think?

And if you’re heading out for a good steak, it’s worthwhile to look beyond the Keg and check out what some Calgary restaurants are doing. Hosted by Tourism Calgary, a few of my food writing friends and I went out last week for a bit of a steak crawl, to investigate the new ways Calgary restaurants are preparing steak, now that we’re not all about old-school steakhouses:

At the Spanish-influenced Ox and Angela, Chef Steve Smee has plenty of tapas on the menu, and served us a char grilled Spring Creek Ranch flat iron steak, served over a piquillo pepper confit with a creamy Spanish style aioli and brilliant mojo verde. Of course steak must come with potatoes, and ours were divine – whatever they were (I was too involved with my spuds to take notes – they may have been the Patatas Bravas with smoked paprika ketchup & aioli) as was the braised kale with sherry vinegar, and grilled sourdough with fresh garlic and tomato rub. (And FYI, they make their own churros, and serve them for dessert with a little pot of chocolate sauce.)

CharCut Roast House was on the list, of course, although they’re known more for alternative cuts of meat (think pigs’ head mortadella and house-cured sausages) than a classic steak. (However, I did eat one of the very best steaks of my life there last year – a grilled flank steak with chimichurri and smashed potatoes. Divine.) John and Connie lived up to their reputation and showed us how to make blood sausage before trimming and steakifying a whole heart. Once marinated (in olive oil, red wine vinegar and rosemary) and grilled (quickly, like any other steak – it is a muscle, after all, like most other cuts) it looked almost like flank steak, with a finer texture. It’ll be on the menu for awhile – they didn’t think Calgarians were ready for it, but it’s a hit.

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I had never been to Anju – and I need to make up for lost time. They do Korean-inspired tapas, apparently have the best wings in the city, and as a prelude to our steak sampler chef Roy Oh brought out his famous crispy fried tofu with kimchi and braised oxtail tortellini (divine!) before or soy-marinated grilled steak, washed down with soju.

We also stopped by Rouge – one of my favourite places (and some of my favourite people) – but not somewhere I might consider to go for a good steak. I’ve been wrong before. We had paper thin shabu shabu-inspired paper-thin beef in elk broth and beef tartare, all impeccably executed by chefs Paul Rogalski and Mike Dekker. With fab wine, natch.

And last but not at all least, we popped into Raw Bar at the Hotel Arts, where Chef Duncan Ly and his team specialize in Pacific Rim cuisine, but blew me away with their soya braised short rib crusted beef tenderloin with a coconut-sweet potato puree, wilted and cream snow pea leaves and orange teriyaki jus. Of course they’re also known for their cocktails – we had the Apple Cart Daisy. I didn’t even jot down what was in it, but it was delicious.

So there you go – how to make your own steak, and where to go to get one. (Although I’m quite certain there are plenty more great steaks in YYC – so much meat, so little time! I may need to conduct further research.) I had half written this post when I heard that Canadian Beef is offering up more scholarships to Eat, Write, Retreat – which I would love to attend, not least of all because it’s in Washington, DC (I’ve never been!), and so I offer up this post as my entry. Here’s hoping!

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February 17 2012 11:45 pm | beef

11 Responses to “How to Cook a Steak (and Where to Get a Good One)”

  1. susie on 18 Feb 2012 at 7:43 am #

    Now this is my kind of blogging assignment! They all sound delicious…but chimichurri is my favorite. We had a sirloin every Sunday, and my dad would cut it so all 7 of us got some steak. I learned portion control at an early age!

  2. Joanne on 18 Feb 2012 at 7:23 pm #

    Good luck Julie!

  3. Dan @ Dan's Good Side on 18 Feb 2012 at 7:34 pm #

    Yeah! I hope you win Julie! Then, I will sneak into your suitcase and come along with. :)

  4. Barb on 19 Feb 2012 at 8:39 am #

    We didn’t have steak much either. Once in a rare while we would have Swiss steak and it was really good but I did learn to bbq my own at an early stage of my cooking career. Maybe peer pressure forced that on me. Whatever, it was a good thing! I haven’t done a lot with dry rubs however, so I think I’ll try that for fun. I love your steak eating adventure! I wish I could be your friend once in a while – my friends aren’t that adventurous. :( Eat, Write , Retreat sounds great! Please go and tell us all about it!

  5. Angie on 19 Feb 2012 at 10:44 am #

    Julie, your post made me laugh… as I had a horrible flashback to childhood. It took me a LONG time to realize that steak was not, in fact, meant to be served with a dipper of Thousand Islands dressing – both for flavour and moistness! Thankfully my husband is a champion griller, and my Dad has actually come around and doesn’t cook all meat well done anymore! Hope you get to enjoy D.C.:)

  6. Kathy on 19 Feb 2012 at 7:04 pm #

    Open Range has great steak.

  7. Sandy on 20 Feb 2012 at 12:51 pm #

    Oh I remember those minute steaks……I could never chew them enough to be able to swallow the mouthful.

    Good luck, Julie!

  8. Leslie on 20 Feb 2012 at 8:47 pm #

    This is where I go to get great steaks in Okotoks not far from Calgary

  9. jenny on 21 Feb 2012 at 9:48 am #

    oh yum. we are in northern bc…moose steak land. most of our steaks are summer meals, done on the fire pit but we’ve finally figured out the winter method. hot cast iron pan, sear the steaks just until browned then pop them into a hot oven for a few minutes. way good.

  10. BlimpyB on 23 Feb 2012 at 9:56 pm #

    This article is a travesty. Using chili and cocoa as a rub? Putting olive oil in the pan, which has far too low of a burn temperature? Flipping more than once? And how can you not mention Caesar’s in the restaurant section? Wow.

  11. anon on 24 Feb 2012 at 8:02 am #

    So, Blimpy, as I understand it from your website, you quit your job, sold all your stuff, bought an RV (Bessie) the same age as you (27) and can now go anywhere and do anything, whenever you want. This is how you choose to use that freedom? Wow. You’re an inspiration to us all.

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