How to cook a perfect steak

Our experts explain how to buy the best cuts of beef, and offer tips on seasoning, marinating and grilling to suit every taste.

When it comes to beef, steaks are a big-ticket item. To get the most for your money, get to know your butcher – ask questions about where the beef comes from, how it was raised and how long it was aged. Getting friendly with your butcher will pay off deliciously at dinner.

Know your steaks
Two types of steaks are perfect for summer barbecues: Grilling steaks and marinating steaks. While marinating steaks are cut from flank and short plate sections, prime grilling steaks are cut from rib, sirloin and loin sections. The loin section can be cut two ways: removing the tenderloin and strip loin separately; or cutting steaks that contain portions of both the tenderloin and strip loin (T-bone and porterhouse). Tender grilling steaks can be cooked with minimal preparation. Less tender marinating steaks benefit from standing in an acidic-based mixture for four to 24 hours to tenderize them. Marinating steaks should be grilled only to medium-rare or medium: anything beyond medium tends to produce toughness.

Grilling steaks
Tenderloin: Medallions or filets are cut from the loin section and are the leanest, most tender steaks. Sometimes they are wrapped in bacon to add flavour and keep them juicy while grilling. Be careful not to overcook them: they will become dry and tasteless.

Strip loin
: Strip loin grilling steaks and medallions are cut from the loin section. Though not as tender as tenderloin, they are much more flavourful (in fact, many gourmands consider them the tastiest cut). These often appear on restaurants menus as New York strip steak or entrecote.

T-bone: This easily identifiable steak with the T-shaped bone is cut from the centre of the short loin (tender section of muscle between rib and sirloin). It has tenderloin on one side of the bone and strip loin on the other. Because the meat is cooked on the bone, both sides are very flavourful.

Porterhouse: Though similar looking to T-bones, porterhouse steaks are cut from the large end of the short loin to yield a larger piece of tenderloin. So if priced the same, you get more tenderloin for your money with a porterhouse steak than a T-bone. Porterhouse steak takes careful cooking because the two sides cook slightly differently. Sear it over high heat then finish it at moderate heat.

Top sirloin
: Top sirloin is a large steak (usually 2 to 3 inches/5 to 8 cm thick) and makes an attractive presentation when grilled whole and sliced to serve four or more. Because it is cut from a muscle close to the hindquarters, it is a little tougher than rib and loin cuts, but it is very flavourful.

Rib eye
: Cut from the short loin, next to the rib end, this tender steak has a fine-textured centre portion known as a "rib eye," which should be delicately marbled. (The whole steak without the bone is sometimes called a Delmonico steak.) This cut is many butchers' favourite because they know that this fatty steak cut close to the bone will be the most flavourful.

Marinating steaks
: Steaks cut from the underside flank section are relatively coarse but contain enough fat to maintain a little tenderness. These lean, somewhat tough but flavourful cuts benefit from the tenderizing effects of a marinade. They are best when grilled to medium-rare and thinly sliced across the grain.

Cooking steak: Season steaks right before or after cooking. Don't season them too far ahead because salt leaches out the juice. To season steaks, you need nothing more than salt and pepper. However, flavourful spice rubs, pan sauces or compound butters can enhance steaks, and are great when entertaining.

For perfect grill marks, cook steaks for half the recommended time, rotating once at 45-degree angle, then flip and finish cooking. To test for doneness, do not cut into steaks, because juices will escape. Instead, press steak: the tighter it feels the more well done it is. (see "How to grill steak like a pro," below.) A more accurate approach is to use an instant-read meat thermometer. Cook to 145°F (63°C) for medium-rare and 160°F (71°C) for medium, or about 5 minutes per side per inch (2.5 cm) of thickness. When done, let steak rest before cutting so juices retract and stay in the steak. Tent it lightly with foil to retain heat. Do not cover tightly because the meat will continue cooking.

Three indicators of quality steaks
• Aging - Aging beef significantly increases tenderness by allowing naturally occurring enzymes in the meat to slowly break down some of the connective tissues that contribute to toughness.

The term "aging" simply means the length of time the beef cut is stored under controlled conditions of temperature and humidity before being packaged for the meat counter. Beef aging varies considerably from three to 21 days, but two weeks is the minimum for the most tender quality steaks. However, note that beef cannot be safely aged in a home refrigerator.

• Marbling - For the most flavourful steaks, look for meat that is well marbled. Marbling refers to the fine white streaks of fat running through lean beef (not just along edges). Marbling increases the tenderness, juiciness and flavour of steak.

Grading - According to Canada's Beef Information Centre, grading refers to eating-quality and, unlike inspection, is a completely voluntary system in Canada. Once beef has been inspected and meets the Canadian food safety standards, it can be graded for its eating quality.

Canada's top grades are Canada Prime, Canada AAA, Canada AA and Canada A. The three "A" grades account for more than 75 per cent of the beef produced in Canada. Only a very small amount of beef is graded into the fourth category – Prime – and is sold mostly to restaurants and for export.

How to cook steak like a pro
No thermometer? Professional chefs generally use touch to tell when steaks are done.
Here's how: Press centre of steak with your finger.

• Rare steak feels quite soft to the touch.
• Medium-rare steak has some resistance but yields to the touch.
• Medium steak starts to feel firm but still has some give in centre.
• Well-done steak feels very firm.

Thickness Medium -rare (145ºF/63ºC) Medium  (160ºF/71ºC) Medium-well (165ºF/74ºC)
1/2 to 3/4 inch (1 to 2 cm) 3 to 4 minutes 4 to 5 minutes 5 to 6 minutes
1 inch (2.5 cm) 5 to 6 minutes 5 to 7 minutes 7 to 8 minutes
1-1/2 inches (4 cm) 9 to 10 minutes 10 to 14 minutes 14 to 16 minutes
2 inches (5 cm) 11 to 14 minutes 14 to 18 minutes 18 to 20 minutes

Pictured above: Spicy Garlic Cumin Flank Steak

This story was originally titled "Great Steaks" in the July 2008 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!

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