New York Steak with Stilton and Balsamic Vinegar Reduction:
May 19, 2006

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Rawnewyorksteak This month, we have a combined WBW and IMBB entry, whose theme is (naturally) pairing food with wine.  I took the easy way out this time, motivated largely by the fact that I had to prepare this meal on a weeknight and  so didn't have the time to do anything more elaborate.  Even so,  I've been meaning to write this entry for a long time, in part due to the urgings of a friend of mine who has always wanted to know how I prepare steaks.

Cooking a good steak is easy.  But the difference between a good steak and a great steak is not quite as easily to pin down.  I try to make incremental improvements to my procedure when I can, and welcome any suggestions for further improvement.

Personally, I feel that the grill is the best place to cook a steak.  Unfortunately, in my current apartment situation, I don't usually have access to one.  And I know that in many parts of the world, cooking with a grill is impractical part of the year.  Hence, I'll discuss the sear-roast method here. 

The General Procedure

Turn on your oven to 450 degrees F.  Salt and pepper both sides of your steaks thoroughly.  Put the burner on medium-high and let your pan heat up.  When it's hot (a few droplets of water sprinkled from your hand should sizzle away rapidly)  pour a tablespoon or so of olive oil into the pan and swirl it around.  Put the pan back on the burner and wait until the oil starts to smoke.

Put the steaks in the pan. Let them develop a nice sear on the one side, which will probably happen in 2-3 minutes, but be mindful and check regularly until you know your stove and your pan fairly well.  The surface of the meat should be a deep brown color, but no charring or burning should have taken place.  When you see this, flip the steaks.  Put a pat of butter on top of each, and slip them in the oven.

I've heard this called the sear-roast method.  If you use just the pan, typically, you flip the steaks and turn the heat down to medium.  What this often yeilds is a steak with a strong gradient.  Cut down the middle, you'd find gray/brown at the surface gradually turning pink, and then turning dark pink in the center (assuming you've cooked it to medium-rare).  The texture is highly varied.  A steak cooked properly using the sear-roast method, however, will give you a very thin layer of gray/brown where the sear is, and an even dark pink throughout.  I think this is much more professional and much tastier, as you get the entire steak at whatever temperature that you prefer, rather than just the center.

An Entirely Rational Discussion Of Steak Temperature

As far as steak temperature goes:  flavor, texture, and tenderness are highly compromised if you cook a steak at anything above medium. Medium rare is, of course, generally considered optimal.  Exactly what temperature is that, you may ask?  Well, I thought we all agreed on what those terms meant.  Then I found a couple of sites like this one who were spreading an entirely different gospel.  Apostasy!  All I have to say is this: if I'm in a restaurant and I'm paying you $35 for a steak, and I ask for it medium-rare, and you bring me something cooked to 150 degrees Farenheit, I'm sending it back to the kitchen, and spanking your ass on the way out.  And not in a fun way.

So who is responsible for this heresy?  I hope this doesn't make me sound like a wearer of tinfoil hats, but I think it's the government.  No, seriously!  A normal list starts with "Rare" and begins Medium-Rare squarely at 130 degrees F.  But you'll notice that all these lists omit "Rare" entirely, and start Medium-Rare at 145 degrees, which is quite close to the temperatures at the core of the sun and may reduce your expensive two-inch thick grass-fed dry-aged USDA prime black Angus Porterhouse to a trapezoid of steaming charcoal.  Medium Rare indeed!  What is this, some sort of culinary newspeak?  Clearly these government types are only interested in protecting your body.  They care nothing for the safety of your soul, which is obviously in jeopardy if you're eating 150 degree steaks on a regular basis.

(Editors note:  it turns out that up until the 1990's, the FDA had the same idea as everyone else regarding what was rare and what was medium.  Then they decided to issue new guidelines in an effort to combat food-borne illnesses.  Instead of just encouraging everyone to get their meat medium instead of medium-rare, however, they decided to change the scale, confusing everyone for no good reason. Your tax dollars at work!)

How to tell when your steak is done

There are four widely-recommended methods to tell when your steak is done.

  • The color test:  Cut into one of the steaks and judge by color.  Plenty of sites will guide you in this method.  The problem with it is that you must cut rather dramatically into the steak, which lets the juices escape. Don't let the juices escape.
  • The finger test:  This method has you poke the steak with your finger or with some other instrument.  With some practice, you can tell whether or not it's done from the springiness of the meat.  To give you some assistance, some proponents compare the feel of the steak to the springiness of certain parts of your body, e.g., parts of your arm or your hand.  The disadvantage of this method is that it is somewhat inexact.  Besides, it takes practice to get the hang of it, and in the meantime you'll be ruining a bunch of steaks.
  • The meat thermometer: Clearly the easiest and most exact.  The only disadvantage is that you do pierce the meat, so there is some juice loss.
  • The USDA method:  Use a portable mass spectrometer to confirm that the combustion process has removed all hydrogen and oxygen atoms from the meat, leaving only carbon atoms that can be safely consumed.

Personally, I use the finger method to get a rough idea of how a steak is doing, but a meat thermometer in the final minutes on one of the steaks to get a more exact reading.  I'd recommend picking up a simple, instant-read, digital thermometer like this one or this one.

Remember that a piece of meat will continue to cook after it's pulled away from its heat source.  Its temperature will continue to rise from 5 to 10 degrees afterward.  So the tricky bit is to take it out just before it's done.  This is easy enough if you're using the thermometer method, but a bit trickier otherwise.

Balsamic Vinegar Sauce:

1 cup balsamic vinegar
1 frond rosemary, intact
2 tbsp brown sugar
1/3 cup beef or veal stock
1 tbsp butter
1 tsp salt
Freshly ground pepper

Put the vinegar, stock, and the rosemary in a small pot over medium heat until it begins to steam.  Adjust the temperature so that it continues to steam, but not boil excessively.  Let it reduce by half.  Add the brown sugar and the salt and stir until they dissolve completely.  Let the mix continue to reduce slowly until it begins to thicken; there should be less than 1/4 c of liquid left; perhaps as little as 1/8 c.  Remove the rosemary frond and pepper to taste.  Remove from the heat.

When you're ready to serve, bring the sauce back up to temperature.  Break the butter up into 4-6 pieces and whisk them into the sauce.  Serve immediately.

The reduction takes some time, so don't leave this until the very end.  I usually try to have the reduction complete before I put the steaks on.  Then, while the steaks are resting, I whisk in the butter.

Though extremely simple to make, this sauce is, I think, very delicious and quite professional in appearance.  When done right, it's full-bodied and velvety, but neither vinegary nor overly sweet. It pairs well with intensely flavored meats such as lamb and venison, but I've had similar sauces at restaurants on more delicately flavored meats such as rabbit and chicken (links?), so don't be afraid to try that as well.  I even use a variation of this sauce as a dressing for certain kinds of salads (e.g. here, under "Baked Goat Cheese Salad").


Other tips:

  • Don't smother the steak in this (or any) sauce.  A good steak is its own reward, and if it isn't, buy a different cut or from a different store.  This sauce is intended to be dripped in small portions alongside the steak, and it should be thick enough that it doesn't just spread over the whole plate.
  • After removing the steaks from the pan to let them rest,  pour out any fat that remains in the pan.  Put the pan back on the heat on top of the stove, and use a bit of white wine, red wine, or balsamic vinegar to degrease the pan, scraping up any bits left on the pan.  After this reduces to a teaspoon or so of liquid, pour it into the sauce.
  • After letting the steaks rest, whisk any juices that have escaped the steak into the sauce just before you whisk the butter in.
  • Several useful variations:  instead of stock, use pureed fruit or unsweetened fruit juice.  I've used blueberries, blackberries, and even fresh strawberries in this role.  If you use pureed fruit (as opposed to juice), the sauce won't appear quite as professional, but it will be fruitier.  If you use juice, consider putting in a handful of the corresponding fresh fruit towards the end of the reduction phase.

And the wine is...

The featured wine for the evening is the 1999 Louis-Laval Cabernet Sauvignon.  We have a special relationship to this wine, as Louis-Laval was the winery that Rebecca and I worked at for a few weeks while we were in Australia, before going to graduate school. 

The pairing, of course, is a no-brainer to some degree (Cabernet with steak!  Who'd have thought!), but there's more here than meets the eye.  There's something about the dusty backpalate on our favorite Hunter Valley reds that marries particularly well with the sear on a good steak.  In addition, the prominent acids we expected from this wine would mean, we hoped, that it would fare well against the sauce.

1999 Louis-Laval Cabernet Sauvignon          ($??)

Just smelling this wine takes me back to Australia.  Although we only had one bottle of it while we were there, to some degree it's reminiscent of our favorite Hunter Valley reds.  It smells like tart fruit with a hint of anise, like a cherry-tarragon sauce I used to make.  The acids give it a nice round swell at the beginning, and balances the cherry reduction flavor that makes up much of the wine's fruit.  Towards the end we find the anise, leather, and finally, that dusty finish that reminds me of the dirt road that winds down alongside the vineyard from the top of the hill, past the winery buildings, and to Roy's house.  Cheers!


May 19, 2006 in blog_events, main_dishes, recipes, sauces, wine | Permalink


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Great post about steaks, the only things i know how to do with steaks is to just salt and pepper them and then fry. So thanks I will definitely try this balsamic sauce, sounds delicious! great blog btw.

Posted by: jenjen at Jun 27, 2006 8:15:45 AM

Felt I just had to comment on the steaks with balsamic sauce = tried them for a recent dinner party and were truly wonderful! You probably didnt realise you were suggesting cooking methods and recipes for someone in Washington - North East of England! Horay the internet!

Thank you once again



Posted by: Elizabeth Phillips at Jul 2, 2006 2:00:58 PM

I think my produce guide could improve the quality of your ingredients.

Posted by: fruit season at Oct 19, 2006 4:20:59 PM

Well I'm glad to see that all that fog in San Francisco hasn't clouded Orion's wit. I loved the part about the mass spectrometer. Oh dear, the pain. Good stuff. Keep em coming.

Posted by: Michael Schaefer at Jan 24, 2007 1:14:22 PM

I put the cast iron skillet in the oven as it is heating and then it's ready to go when oven is. Also, I think 500 degrees sears a little better

Posted by: Lance W. at Dec 15, 2007 12:08:02 PM

Here's an improved method for achieving a much more even color gradient throughout the steak, compliments of Cooks Illustrated. Heat oven to 225 degrees, salt and pepper steak, place on a rack over a baking sheet and heat in oven until the interior temperature is about 90 degrees for rare, 95 for medium rare, approximately 15 - 20 minutes. Then sear both sides in a very hot skillet, but pay attention because it will cook much faster than normal.

The oven-heating brings the interior temperature up pretty evenly, and it dries the surface so you get a nice sear in very little time, reducing the depth of the too-well done band of meat. This also works well when grilling.

Posted by: Nick P. at Sep 1, 2008 3:54:19 PM

What interest me most of all is how much that fancy bottle of wine cost.....

Anyone can guess?

Posted by: Pavel K. at Mar 1, 2009 12:48:34 PM

The wine would cost $120.00 or more in the U.S.

Posted by: Pete at Mar 7, 2009 8:45:55 AM