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Background: I am very much an amateur cook; I would consider myself a novice at best, so pardon my ignorance!

I decided to try to cook a nice dinner for my family recently. Part of that dinner included some small (~6-7 oz., 1.5-2" thick) beef tenderloin steaks. After doing some Internet research I decided on a preparation method that included pan-searing them for a few minutes on each side (with the goal of getting the steaks to the approximately "rare" stage), followed by a stint in the oven to finish them off. This seemed straightforward to me, so I decided to give it a try.

As a novice cook, the only skillet that I had on hand that was suitable for use in the oven was an old cast-iron one, so I used that. Following the recipe that I had found, I added 1.5 tablespoons of olive oil and ~1 stick of butter [*] to the pan and put it on high heat. After the foam subsided from the butter, I placed the steaks in the pan. The Internet consensus seemed to indicate 3-4 minutes of searing on each side would get the steaks to rare, so I waited patiently.

Unfortunately, after 3 to 3.5 minutes, it became apparent that something had gone wrong: the kitchen began to fill with smoke, and when I turned the steaks, the side that had been seared was burned horribly. I had to abort cooking them at that point to mitigate the smoke; I later found that the steaks had cooked through much more than I would have expected by that point.

While my result was discouraging, I'm trying to do some post-mortem analysis to try to determine what went wrong so that if I get up the nerve to try this again, I won't ruin another meal of expensive meat! Some possibilities that came to mind:

  • Was cast iron a bad choice as my cookware in this case?

  • Should I have lubricated the pan differently?

  • Is there some other detail that I missed that could have changed the outcome?

[*] "A stick of butter" is a US measurement, it denotes 113.5 g of butter

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related : cooking.stackexchange.com/a/45594/67 –  Joe Jul 17 at 15:02
    
what'd you do with the burnt steaks –  coburne Jul 17 at 20:46
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Nobody else has mentioned it and I don't think it was the cause of your problems but a stick of butter sounds like a huge amount, to me. –  David Richerby Jul 17 at 22:39
    
Related: cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/44194/… -- you never know if the Internet's "a few minutes" is what a timer says or how long it feels to them. –  Ben Jackson Jul 17 at 23:45
    
@starsplusplus I find your point about the possibility of "stick of butter" misunderstanding important. I deleted the flagged comments, but edited the information into the question body. –  rumtscho Jul 20 at 22:47

9 Answers 9

up vote 34 down vote accepted

Butter is a very bad choice for frying at high heat, as it burns extremely easily. Cast iron is the ideal pan material though, so you are halfway there.

  • Take the steaks out of the fridge an hour before cooking so they warm up a little.
  • Take a flavourless oil like sunflower and brush it directly on the steaks - don't put the oil in the pan.
  • Preheat the pan until it is ridiculously hot.
  • Preheat the oven if that's the method you're going to use
  • Season the steaks generously with salt and pepper
  • Sear the steaks and cook in the oven until desired level of doneness is reached.
  • Rest the steak on a wire rack (or failing that, a plate) for 5 minutes so it doesn't leak juice all over the plate.

Personally I would omit the oven stage and just cook the steaks in the pan, turning frequently. Add a knob butter near the end and baste it over the steaks with a spoon.

A probe thermometer is a great investment to make if you plan on cooking meat properly. You cannot rely on rules of thumb like pressing the steak or just timing it. There is a good chart here for the temperatures at each level of 'doneness'.

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OP, this will still smoke quite a bit (especially if the pan is as hot as is ideal) so be prepared for that. But it should make for a very nice steak. –  Jolenealaska Jul 17 at 11:28
    
Smoke like that is what the above-oven fans are for. Or, if you don't have one built in, a regular fan and an open window will do, as my wife and I found out when using our (incredibly low-quality) oven for a year and a half. –  Zibbobz Jul 17 at 13:24
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After waiting an hour, and before brushing with oil, pat the steaks dry with a paper towel. Any moisture on the surface of the steak will cause it to "steam" instead of sear. If you salt them at the beginning of the hour it will draw out even more moisture for you to remove. –  Ben Jackson Jul 17 at 23:43
    
Just out of curiosity - and yes this qualifies as nitpicking I guess - "You cannot rely on rules of thumb like pressing the steak" - do you just mean that it'S hard to do for a beginner or that it's really impossible in some situations? Timing obviously doesn't work (way too many variables), but checking the texture by pressing seems just fine and seems rather far spread at least with TV cooks (ahem). –  Voo Jul 18 at 23:42
    
Given years of experience (and I mean cooking steak day in day out), pressing the steak is arguably a viable method, but it's by no means foolproof - there are still too many variables. For the common or garden home cook, a probe thermometer is far more reliable and just as easy. People seem to have the idea that using a thermometer is far too high tech and fussy - somehow going too far. This is wrong. Meat is expensive. I want it cooked safely but tastily. A thermometer ensures both and takes seconds to use. –  ElendilTheTall Jul 19 at 7:38

"3-4 minutes of searing on each side" sounds very high to me, and likely to result in a burned steak, especially if you don't flip it frequently during the process.

It's important to realize that there are (at least) two temperatures that matter when cooking meat: the peak surface temperature, which determines how well browned (or blackened) the meat will be, and the peak core temperature (which will, typically, be much lower), which determines how well done the interior of the steak will be. Also, whereas the core temperature obtained by a given cooking process will strongly depend on the thickness of the steak, the surface temperature mostly doesn't.

Thus, while a thick steak like yours does need a longer cooking time to reach a given core temperature, simply leaving it sitting on the hot skillet for a long time is likely to cause the exterior to overheat and burn. There are several ways to address this issue, such as:

  • turning the steaks frequently while searing them, giving the exterior some time to cool down between turns;
  • reducing the heat after initially searing the outside of the steaks, and cooking them under low heat until the inside reaches the desired temperature;
  • transferring the steaks into an oven after searing them, and completing the cooking process there; and/or
  • letting the steaks rest for several minutes after cooking, to let the heat transfer from the exterior to the interior.

It sounds like you did plan to use the oven option, but then seared the steaks for way too long. What you should've done, instead, would've been to sear them at high heat for only a short time (say, less than a minute per side) before moving them into the oven to complete the cooking process.

Alas, it's hard to give a precise cooking time for any desired level of rareness, since it varies so much with things like the type of pan, the level of heat, the frequency of turning and the thickness and the type of meat used. What you really need to do is either practice until you can gauge the appropriate amount of cooking by eye and experience, or cheat a little and get yourself a good meat thermometer.

(I particularly recommend the thermometer if you're cooking meat that's thicker than you're used to. The degree of surface searing is easy enough to observe by eye, but to get the interior temperature right, you need either a thermometer or lots of trial and error.)

In any case, I would say that your real mistake was in trusting an arbitrary time value taken from the Internet more than your own eyes and nose. You could've avoided this disaster if, instead of "waiting patiently", you had checked frequently to see what the steaks looked like underneath, and took them off the heat as soon as it was clear that they didn't need any more searing.

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It's also important to note that the heat level of a stovetop is extremely imprecise. Even among "identical" stoves, the heat level may vary by 50-100 degrees at a particular setting. –  GalacticCowboy Jul 17 at 14:28
    
+1 for checking what's happening on a regular basis. It's the only way to know. –  David Richerby Jul 17 at 22:08
    
+1 Searing (esp. on high heat) does not take very long. –  Brian S Jul 18 at 16:19

I don't recommend frequently flipping a steak when pan-searing or frying. What you're trying to accomplish is a caramelized crust on the meat surfaces. My method is similar to some listed above.

  1. Remove the steak and thaw if necessary (I thaw in the refrigerator due to food-safety concerns), then set the steak out for at least an hour to allow to reach room temperature.
  2. Season the meat with salt and pepper, at least on the first side to sear: you can add seasoning while it's searing if you want... or season ahead of time on both sides.
  3. Heat the pan with an oil that has an extremely high smoke point. Peanut oil, safflower oil, extra light olive oil (but watch it), until a drop of water in the pan appears to "dance".
  4. Place the steak in the cast iron and listen, without disturbing it, until the noise abates, then carefully attempt to raise it using tongs (NOT a fork). If it comes free of the pan easily, turn it over and marvel in the seared color. Repeat for the other side.
  5. By now, your oven should have been heated to 450F, so when it's seared, pop it into the oven uncovered, for 8-10 min. An oven-safe meat thermometer, preferably remote reading, is a good idea while you're getting the hang of things.
  6. Remove from the oven, and using tongs (NOT a fork!) place the steak on a wire rack for 5-10 min. Cover lightly with a foil tent. Do NOT remove the temp probe.
  7. Slice (or not), remove the probe, and serve.
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Strictly speaking it is not carmelization but the Maillard Reaction which gives seared meat its characteristic flavor. I only know this because I was surprised to be corrected by the (perhaps too comprehensive) robertwolke.com/told-his-cook –  msw Jul 19 at 3:03
    
Thanks for the tip on how to determine when the sear is complete. I think I was was mistaken on how long it should take. –  Jason R Jul 20 at 14:36

With all due respect to the kind people writing recipes online for newly hatched cooks everywhere, steaks are not a dish - it's an artform.

Please take this as constructive advice and let me elaborate:

Cooking steaks just right demands taking into account so many factors that following a recipe is not reliable. Instead, my advice is to simply experiment and expect to spoil at least a few brave chunks of good steak.

Even if you are a seasoned steak chef, sometimes it's worth cooking a steak for the dog just before you cook the steaks you intend to serve to the guests, if it's a very special occasion.

Factors you will want to adjust while experimenting incl:

  1. Thickness of steaks
  2. Steak starting temperature
  3. Thickness of skillet
  4. Skillet temperature / flame size / skillet preheating
  5. Grease type (I recommend vegetable oil only - for beginners)
  6. Grease amount
  7. Time

Advanced Steak Cooking Techniques:

Dont forget to pat the steaks dry with some paper towels. This avoids excess moisture from preventing the surface of the steak from reaching high enough temperature to produce that crispy brown steak goodness - technically referred to as the Maillard Reaction

In the future, when you have become a beefy steak chef, this technique can be reapplied immediately before flipping the steak - which has the potential of producing a mind-boggling DOUBLE PERFECTION STEAK.

Good luck.

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I appreciate the general idea here, and certainly agree that it'll take some trial and error to get some details right (e.g. your stove isn't the same temperature as everyone else's) but I think it's kind of silly to ask everyone to try varying all of these factors themselves. You shouldn't have to try all of your skillets and several different cuts of steak and different amounts of oil and so on to get a steak you're happy with. –  Jefromi Jul 19 at 16:59
    
I agree with your assessment, that it's silly for everyone to learn by personal trial and error. However, may I ask if you have a better idea? –  Min Wang Jul 20 at 2:34

Did you dry the meat? Moisture on the exterior of the meat will impede browning. Also in a well seasoned cast iron pan, I won't use any oil at all. Salt, pepper, straight into a hot pan. Cast iron is great for searing, however it can also take a long time to get hot enough. I'll also mention that tenderloin can be unforgiving. They tend to have less fat, which makes them easier to dry out. If you are new to cooking steaks (or aren't afraid of some delicious fat) then look for a more marbled steak.

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I'm an ex-professional chef,recently retired,(jan,2014),and feel that I could offer you some advice on where I think you went wrong. There are indeed many variables to consider,and ,as such,congratulations on 'having a go'.Please don't let this 'failure' put you off trying again.You learn more from your failures than you do from not making mistakes at all. As in life,experience,and practice,are everything. Since I am not familiar with your 'set-up',what I shall do is run you through what we did "in the trade".First things first,you don't really need an oven to cook your fillet steaks,all you need is oil,salt/pepper,cast iron pan (preferably flat,not ridged),a ferocious flame,an open window,or door,tin foil and 10 minutes of your time. Remove the meat from the fridge about an hour before you intend to cook it.This allows it to come up to room temp,and decreases the amount of shrinkage.It also allows it to become a little 'looser',allowing easier heat penetration.Put your pan on the flame,and whack it up to full heat.Do not be afraid,the pan can take it.Open the window/door.Dry the fillets with a disposable cloth/towel.Put a small amount of oil onto your hands,and rub the fillets,just enough to coat them,they don't want to be dripping.DO NOT SEASON YET !!.The pan wants to be smoking.Yes,smoking,then carefully place the steaks into the pan,and resist any temptation to move,or lift them for the next two minutes.After the time has passed,turn the steaks over,with your fingers,or a pair of tongs.DO NOT PIERCE THE MEAT.Season the meat NOW.Cover the pan loosely with tin foil,allowing the steam to escape,and place by the side of the stove top for 5-6 minutes,to allow the juices to spread throughout the meat.Don't forget to turn your gas down.At no point should you pierce the meat,as this allows those lovely juices to run out.After the 'resting period,you will have a small amount of cooking liquor in the pan,this is called 'jus'.You can thicken this jus with a little butter,cut up into tiny squares,added one square at a time,until the jus begins to thicken.This technique is known as 'to monte au beurre' .Serve your meal,enjoy the praise,and become a legend. BYE !!

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why high heat. I cook for medium rare about 3 minutes per 1/2 inch per side on medium heat. Usually dry pat on a seasoning before searing. I use a cooking oil in pan. you put butter on steak when you put them in oven.

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Cooking is easy; baking is too. The first thing you need to do is ignore all the BS about how hard it is, or how you have to do weird things.

As others have pointed out, you use a pan to brown the steak, creating the Maillard reaction. "Searing" (as in "to seal in the juices") is one of those BS things to ignore. You don't need an extreme heat to brown meat - basically you want to avoid wet-cooking it. So enough heat to get a fry going, no need to smoke your oil. Using a cast-iron pan is fine, since it'll hold the heat when you add the meat. As others have stated, butter is not a good idea - enough oil to lubricate the pan is all you need (and it doesn't matter that much which kind, though it's kind of a waste to use flax, walnut, etc. I do use olive sometimes if it's handy, not that you can appreciate its flavor.)

I think you should take the steak out of the pan as soon as you've browned it. Yes, use tongs, and I like to brown the sides too. Finish it in the oven - eventually you'll be comfortable using the how-it-feels method, but a thermometer will help at first. In theory, it shouldn't be necessary to let it "rest" when you oven-finish the steak, since it'll be in the oven long enough for enough heat to reach the center. (Then again, I think rare steaks are crap - I want mine medium+.)

In short, cast-iron is a good choice. You shouldn't have used butter, and it sounds like you used way too much. IMO you should have started with something like a rib-eye, and not a very thick steak.

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Sorry about your steaks.

I am a middle aged woman who has been cooking meat for a , long long time.

I have never successfully mastered pan frying a chop or steak. They always turn out overcooked.

If you have an oven, most likley there is a broiler which allows the meat direct exposure to the heat source.

Try broiling your steaks. Experiment with how close to the flame/electric coil it should be.

I agree that the meat should be brought to room temperature and the surface dried. That said, the aunt who taught me to cook had done so for the USO during WWII and gave me the instructions on how to a frozen steak. (This was long before microwave defrosting). Room temp is optimal though. Drying the surface is very important

I have a gas stove. I place the meat about 2" from the flame . I raise the meat slightly off the bottom of the pan and add enough water to cover the bottom of the pan. This keeps down smoke and avoids grease fires and flares. When I don't have a rack to raise the meat, I have used stainless steel forks, tines down as an improvised rack under the meat.. The curve at the base of the tines is sufficient to raise the meat off the bottom heated surface, avoid contact cooking on the bottom side and allow the water underneath for grease control

Don't salt the meat until after cooking. Salt draws out the water and decreases juiciness. ( Brining is a completely different process, by the way. That gets salt into the meat to make it juicy)

Pre-heat your broiler for a few minutes..

I cook 1 1/2- 2" boneless rib eye steaks and occasionally sirloins for 6 minutes on the first side and 5 on the flip side. This is long enough to get a Maillard reaction brown on the fat without the bitterness of a char . http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maillard_reaction .

You can slice to check for doneness or use the thumb test. Use your finger to poke the uncooked meat so you have a sense of how it feels.

Holding your hand open press the fleshy part at the base of the thumb. That is how a raw steak feels when pressed.

Touch the tip of your thumb to the tip of your index finger. ( don't press them, just touch.) Now press the fleshy part of the base of that thumb. That is how rare feels.

Touching thumb to middle finger gets you a medium rare touch, thumb to ring finger gets a medium feel and thumb to pinky gets well done feel . Here is a link with pictures. http://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/the_finger_test_to_check_the_doneness_of_meat/

You can always put the meat back under the broiler for 1-2 minutes if it is not done the way you want it.

Sometimes I want the bitterness of a char. At those times I put the meat back in the freezer for about half an hour, dry the surface and broil for roughly eh same time.

This technique can ( and has ) been done with most any type of pan or aluminum foil. I don't use iron because 1) I don't have to and 2) it is too heavy to pull out of the broiler quickly and easily.

My husband is from Nebraska. He likes butter on his steak. I add a pat after the steak is cooked to melt on top. That gives him teh flavor and avoids the problems you encountered.

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I take exception to two points here: first, salting before cooking helps distribute the salt more evenly throughout the meat, and moisture loss is fairly minimal. Second, this literal "rule of thumb" for doneness isn't nearly as reliable as using a thermometer and measuring temperature. –  logophobe Jul 17 at 17:54
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This doesn't answer the question. The question is why the asker's attempt to pan-sear steaks failed. Pan-searing steaks is perfectly possible so "Because you tried to pan-sear them; you should have broiled them instead" is not any more of an answer than "Because you were trying to cook steak; you should have eaten fish instead." –  David Richerby Jul 17 at 22:39

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