At some point in our long-distant past, an ancestor of the cow fell or strayed into a fire. A nearby caveman, drawn by the delectable odor, sampled a taste and decided it was very, very good. And then he invented ketchup.
Ever since then, steak has been at the top of the list of what Americans eat when they go out to celebrate. Some people may like a lobster, go for a glazed ham or fancy a fillet of salmon. But for a large number of us, the go-to dish for fine eating is steak.
"I think it's the Maillard reaction," said Tim Childers, executive chef at Rockwell's, in Toledo, Ohio. "When you sear a steak and it gets that savory brownness, and it hits your tongue and you taste it, that's what makes your mouth water. I'd say it's all about the caramelization of the sugars of the steak."
The searing is important — that's the Maillard reaction, which refers to the browning and caramelizing of everything from bread crusts to steak. But so, too, is the way the seared exterior leads as a gateway on your palate to the juicy, beefy interior. Each rich mouthful is hearty and decadently satisfying.
The professionals have ways to get that crucial sear that are not available to the rest of us. For example, Mancy's Steak House in Toledo, Ohio, uses a double-sided broiler that heats the meat on the top and bottom at the same time, according to executive chef Sean Moran. Once it has been seared, it is moved around to cooler parts of the broiler to continue cooking the inside without burning the outside.
At Rockwell's, they blast it in a 1,600-degree broiler to get a quick sear on the surface and then bring it out to the table on a 500-degree plate, which finishes cooking the steak to the proper temperature.
But what is a home cook to do? The experts agree that the best way to cook a steak, if possible, is on a grill.
"Put a nice sear on the outside to seal in the juices," Moran said. "Let it sit for about three minutes, turn it on a bias so it gets those nice cross marks from the grill." After another three minutes, "flip it and do the same thing."
That's for an average-sized steak, cooked medium. The times will vary depending on the thickness of the meat and how done you want it.
If you don't have an outdoor grill, you can use a stove top and an oven to get much the same effect, Childers said. The secret is to preheat your oven to 400 degrees and to start with a very hot pan. A cast-iron skillet is best, because you can heat it over high temperature for a half-hour or more before placing the steak on it. The skillet will become ferociously hot, but it won't hurt the pan; the melting point of iron is about 2,800 degrees and you are never going to approach that on a stove. Be very careful when you are done using it, though; remember that cast iron retains its heat and takes a long time to cool.
If you don't have a cast-iron skillet, heat a pan as hot as you are comfortable doing. Add a little oil (it won't be needed for a well-seasoned cast-iron pan), and put in the steak.
With either pan, just sear the meat on both sides. Then put it in a different pan and finish cooking it in the oven.
"And make sure you've got your kitchen fan on, or it will stink up your house for a week," Childers said.
I tried the cast-iron pan method, and the pan got so hot that what I can only describe as a layer of seasoning started to flake off. The steak took about a minute to sear on both sides, and it did not stick to the pan at all.
What type of steak you choose to cook depends both on your taste buds and your wallet.
Sirloin is one of the less expensive cuts of steak, and "is the most prevalent in supermarkets and a lot of restaurant chains. It has such a great steak flavor, it is classically what you think of when you think of a steak. It has a firmer texture than the filets and strips, but it makes up for it in flavor," Childers said.
On the opposite side of the scale is the filet, which is the most tender steak, though it has less of a meat flavor than a sirloin or a strip. It is the most popular choice by far at most steak houses, and can also be the most expensive cut of meat.
A lot of people prefer a strip steak, which is kind of in between the two, Childers said. Strip steak comes from the strip loin, which is well-marbled with fat and has a lot of steak flavor. A New York strip is the same cut of meat as a Kansas City strip, but the Kansas City strip sometimes still has the bone attached.
That bone is the central feature of the porterhouse. On one side of the bone is the strip, on the other is the filet. A T-bone steak is the same cut of beef but from farther up the cow, so that the filet part, the tenderloin, is smaller.
"Porterhouse is good, but it can kind of be difficult to cook because (the two sides) cook in different ways because of the different musculature. Sometimes I'll cook it for a minute so it gets a good surface sear, then I'll cover the tenderloin part with tin foil so I don't overcook it while I'm cooking the strip," Childers said.
The Rockwell's chef added that "rib-eye is my favorite. It has the most fat, it has that giant beautiful fat in the middle, in the eye. I think it's the most flavorful and textured meat. It has the cartilage. I love it."
Once you have chosen your cut, how much do you cook it? According to the Culinary Institute of America, the final temperature of a rare steak (it will have a cool red center) is 135 degrees. Medium-rare (a warm red center) is 145 degrees. Medium (all pink center) is 160 degrees. Medium-well (light pink in the center) is 165 degrees. And well-done (gray all the way through) is 170 degrees.
Because meat continues to cook after it is removed from the heat, be sure to take off your steak a few degrees below these target temperatures.
Once it is cooked, do you eat the meal plain or with a sauce? The choice is yours, of course, but steak houses always offer an assortment of sauces that have proved to be winners, often including bordelaise (dry red wine, shallots, butter, demi-glace and sometimes bone marrow), bernaise (white-wine vinegar, white wine, shallots, tarragon, butter and egg yolks), and hollandaise (egg yolk, butter and lemon juice).
At home, Moran makes a very simple sauce of balsamic vinegar that has been reduced a bit. "It gives a little flavor, a little sweetness to it," he said.
But steak houses are finding that a lot of people merely want to dot their steaks with compound butter, which is softened butter that has herbs or other ingredients worked into it, and then chilled again.
Moran suggests a compound butter with a profusion of common herbs: equal parts of fresh rosemary, thyme, basil, parsley and cilantro chopped together. A tablespoon or a tablespoon and a half would flavor a pound of butter, he said.
For a more exotic choice, Childers suggests a cabernet and roasted shallot butter.
You begin by reducing cabernet wine and then swirling in a little butter. While that mixture cools, roast a couple of shallots in the oven, cut them up, add them to the wine, and season with salt and pepper. Work that mixture into softened butter, re-refrigerate the butter, and carve off thin slices to place atop a hot steak.
"That's my favorite," he said.