Originally created 06/18/97

The meat experts have their ideas on great steaks



Do you poke or pierce?

Do you flip more than once?

And do you like it bloody red, or with a blush of pink, or bulletproof and brown?

If you don't know what I'm talking about, you're probably not arguing about how to cook a steak properly.

This is serious business. You think you can just throw that T-bone on the grill and cook it till the cows come home? Or do you favor the archetypal Texas mode: "Just cripple it and run it by the fire."

"I hear people say, `You put it on, you turn it over and you eat it,' but that doesn't work for every cut," says William Rice, author of Steak Lovers Cookbook (Workman, $13.95), a guy who admits that he didn't eat a decent steak until he was in college.

It's true - cooking a steak is simple. Cooking it right, so that you don't dry it out or burn it or leave it still mooing in the middle, that takes a little more skill.

But which skills exactly?

Should you turn your steak with tongs, which don't pierce the meat, or does it matter if you use a fork?

Should you salt the meat right before you cook it or after it's done? Or maybe while it's cooking?

And how do you know when the steak is done? Do you stick it with an instant-read thermometer? Or do you poke it with your finger to see how soft or firm it has become?

These are meaty issues for a beef lover to sink his teeth into. Besides, if you've just spent $10 to $15 a pound on a prime tenderloin or New York strip, making sure you don't overcook it becomes a matter of economics as well as taste.

So before you light up that grill, turn on that broiler, or heat that cast-iron skillet (the preferred perfect-steak method for many connoisseurs), consider these four important skills that get to the meat of the matter:

FORK VS. TONGS:

Many experts believe that turning a steak with a fork releases too many juices and that tongs are a much better idea.

Just as many experts say that's a bunch of hooey.

"Those people who say, `Never turn meat with a fork' - it's a myth!" sputters Merle Ellis, known for his syndicated newspaper column "The Butcher" and author of The Great American Meat Book (Knopf, $30).

"Meat is not a balloon that bursts when you poke it. It's multicellular, like a sponge. Think about sticking a fork into a wet sponge. How much water leaks out? Not much. You can turn meat with a fork," Mr. Ellis stresses.

Mr. Rice, though, opts for a nice long pair of tongs. He thinks that jabbing meat with a fork "will do irreparable harm."

"Forks, tongs, it's not that important," argues Bruce Aidells, owner of Aidells Sausage Co. and the author of The Good Meat Cookbook (Scribner, due out in November). "Use what you're most comfortable with - you're not going to lose that much moisture if you turn with a fork."

WHEN DO YOU USE SALT?

Last month, Mr. Aidells wanted to prove to a group of cooking teachers that sprinkling a steak with salt and pepper before cooking will result in a much-better-tasting steak than one that is seasoned afterward.

He cut a steak in half, salted one half and left the other naked, and then cooked both at the International Association of Cooking Professionals' annual convention.

"They all preferred the preseasoned meat," he says triumphantly.

On this point Mr. Aidells is adamant. "People say don't salt a steak beforehand because it will leach out all the juices. That is a crock. It's baloney."

He advises steak-lovers to salt and pepper the meat right before cooking it. "The browning reactions that take place on the surface of the meat that give meat its flavor will only be helped by salt," Mr. Aidells contends.

But Mr. Rice, and some chefs, find a middle ground on this point, choosing to salt the meat while it cooks. "I only add salt to the cooked exterior of the meat," Mr. Rice says.

HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN IT'S DONE?

You have three options here: You can poke it with your finger, you can pierce it with an instant-read thermometer or you can cut into it with a knife.

All three methods work, and all have their die-hard fans who think the other two methods are for wimps and weasels.

Take the knife test. The idea of cutting into a steak to see if it's done causes near apoplexy in some cooks.

"The worst," says Mr. Rice. Cutting into the steak releases too many juices - especially if you have to do it a couple times - and the steak, when it's served, looks unattractive with all those little slits.

Others aren't so picky.

"Cut into the center and look. Only a tiny amount of juices comes out. What's the big deal?" says John Willoughby, co-author with Chris Schlesinger of License to Grill (Morrow, $27.50).

Mr. Rice is a staunch supporter of the touch method, and his book includes a good description of what rare, medium-rare and medium steak should feel like when you touch it. (Rare feels like the soft triangle of flesh between the thumb and forefinger when the hand is hanging limp; medium rare is how that same triangle feels when you spread your fingers and medium is the way it feels when you make a fist.)

Marlys Bielunski, who has run the test kitchens of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association for nearly 20 years, recommends that consumers use a thermometer to test for doneness. She says the best way is to insert it horizontally into the meat and you'll be able to use it even on thin steaks.

For a steak cooked medium rare, the internal temperature should be 145, she says.

But, and this is important, all the beef experts agree that meat continues cooking even after it is removed from the grill or broiler. The internal temperature will increase by about 10 degrees as it sits. If you're aiming for 145, remove the meat from the heat when the thermometer reads 135. If you want it more rare or more well-done, adjust accordingly.

"It's important to let the meat rest so that the juices can settle," adds Mr. Aidells. "Once you're finished cooking your steak, let it sit for five minutes, then serve. Any longer and the meat will begin to cool."