How to Cook a Tender Steak on the Stove

Asking a meat lover, "What's the best cut of steak?" is a little like asking a parent, "Who's your favorite child?" All steaks are wonderful, but the secret to a perfect steak lies in choosing a cut of meat and then pairing it with the proper cooking method.

Most steaks fare pretty well in a frying pan. (Image: Prerovsky, Jan/Foodcollection/GettyImages)

Know the Basics

Most steaks fare pretty well in a frying pan, though they cannot all be cooked over the same level of heat for the same amount of time. Certain cuts can be cooked in a thin slick of oil, while others need to be braised in liquid.

Knowing which cuts require which cooking methods is the best way to ensure that you get a tender, juicy steak out of your favorite skillet every single time. You also need to consider the protein content of each cut.

Protein contains amino acids, which are the building blocks of life. They are like little LEGOs that can be arranged and rearranged to suit whatever your body needs.

Beef not only contains a full set of the nine amino acids that your body cannot create itself, but according to the experts at North Dakota State University, one serving of beef also provides 15 percent of your daily recommended amount of iron. A 3-ounce serving of lean beef also contains only 180 calories and 10 grams of fat.

When choosing your meat, advises North Dakota State, purchase steaks from a reputable butcher shop or supermarket. In addition, the meat should be bright red with no gray or brown patches, while the packaging should be tightly sealed with no leaks and feel cold to the touch. Before placing your meat in the cart, place it in a plastic bag to keep any drippings from cross-contaminating your other groceries.

Pay attention to safe cooking guidelines as well, advises the University of Utah. Most meats from a reputable butcher or supermarket are safe to eat when they are cooked rare, or even raw — as with carpaccio or steak tartare but it is still best to cook your steaks.

Searing the outside over high heat will kill any stray microorganisms on the surface, the University of Utah says, while the meat on the inside remains untouched and therefore safe. Cook steaks to at least 145 F, and ground beef patties to at least 165 F.

Choose Your Cut

There are several different ways to choose your cut of meat. The healthiest, points out the Mayo Clinic, is to go for lean cuts of beef, such as eye of round, sirloin tip, top round, bottom round and top sirloin.

Lean beef can be defined as any 3.5-ounce serving that contains fewer than 10 grams of total fat, 4.5 grams of saturated fats and 95 milligrams of cholesterol. Extra-lean beef contains 5 grams of total fat, 5 grams of saturated fat and 95 milligrams of cholesterol per 3.5-ounce serving.

If you are looking for lean beef, the Mayo Clinic concludes, choose cuts marked "Select" or "Choice" because these tend to be leaner than those marked "Prime." You can also look at the steak to see how much visible fat it contains. Trimming off visible fat before cooking also gives you a leaner cut of steak.

If fat content is not a concern, you can choose steaks that work well either grilled or cooked in a skillet. These, according to the Ohio State University Chow Line, include back ribs, Porterhouse, ribeye, strip steak, T-bone and tenderloin. Skirt steak is excellent when prepared in a skillet as well — and is the perfect choice for burritos, fajitas, nachos and tacos.

Make a Steak Marinade

One way to ensure a tender steak, especially if you have a lean or extra-lean cut, is to marinate it before putting it in the pan. A marinade, explains the University of Illinois Extension, is a mixture of one part oil, three parts acid and seasonings.

The oil can be canola, vegetable, olive, sesame or a mixture of any cooking oils. The acid can be vinegar, citrus juice or wine, among others. Seasonings can be fresh or dried herbs, aromatics, liquid smoke or other flavorings.

The point of a marinade is to break down the muscle fibers and collagen in the meat, making it more tender and adding flavor. Beef can be marinated from one hour to overnight as long as it is in a sealed container, such as a zipper bag or a plastic or glass container with an airtight lid. Turning the meat several times during a long marinating process helps the flavor and tenderizing ingredients to sink in more evenly.

Pick a Method

There are several different ways to cook steak on a stove, including:

  • Pan searing
  • Using a grill pan
  • Braising
  • Pan frying

Pan searing simply means heating a pan, adding a slight film of oil and cooking the steak until it is a deep brown on both sides. The Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts recommends a cast-iron skillet heated to 500 F, but you can use almost any type of pan at a slightly lower temperature, as long as you get that dark sear.

A grill pan works much the same way, except that the meat is raised on grill ridges, providing lovely, dark grill marks. You may have to turn the steak more than once using this method.

Braising, according to the University of Minnesota Extension, is an excellent way to tenderize tough, drier meats such as venison, but it also works well with thicker steaks such as London broil.

Sear the meat on both sides until it is a deep, golden brown and then lower the heat. Add just enough liquid, which can be water, broth, beer, wine or any combination, to come about one-third of the way up the steak. Cover it, and cook it for about 10 minutes per inch on each side.

The simplest pan fried steak recipe is no different from making fried chicken. Pound skirt steaks until it they're tender, and pat them dry. Then coat the steaks in egg wash and roll them in seasoned flour. Fry them in about 1/4 inch of hot oil, turning them once, until the breading on the outside is a crisp, golden brown. Drain them on paper towels, and serve with gravy.

Let It Rest

When you cook a steak over direct heat, the outside forms a caramelized crust, explain the culinary experts at the Arts Institutes. This crust is a result of the Maillard reaction, and it provides both flavor and texture to your steak.

This crust does not actually "seal in" any of the meat's juices, as some people seem to believe, but it gives the outside of your steak a delicate crispness that contrasts nicely with the tender meat on the inside. Searing also brings out the natural sugars in meat, increasing the flavor.

One of the best ways to ensure a tender steak is to let it rest for as long as 10 minutes, according to the cooking experts at Washington State University. When you sear a steak, especially if it is salted, the heat draws the juices to the surface being heated. Letting the steak rest allows the juices to sink back through the meat, both keeping it moist and increasing the flavor.

The meat scientists at Purdue University advise that you purchase a good quality analog or digital meat thermometer rather than trying to guess whether the meat is done to a safe temperature. This is especially true of pork steaks, in which the color of the meat is not a good indicator of doneness. Beef and pork steaks both need to be done to a minimum temperature of 145 F, as advised by North Dakota State University.

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