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How to choose and cook a steak

Award-winning food writer Felicity Cloake shares her knowledge of French Cuisine

The last time I went to a restaurant, a week or so before lockdown, we ordered steak. Things suddenly looked unsettling enough to suggest we should make the most of the evening, and good steak, like fruits de mer or Champagne, is special occasion fare – in fact, for a long time, I never cooked it at home, assuming it would be impossible to conjure the same magic in an ordinary frying pan. Yet, though it may be difficult to recreate the happy buzz of a busy dining room when there’s just two of you, with the right raw materials, it’s surprisingly simple to enjoy the same food.   

The most important thing to get right, of course, is the steak itself; though you might want to gild the lily with garlic butter or peppercorn sauce, in essence this is a dish that stands or falls on the quality of the meat. Which cut you go for is, as ever, entirely a matter of taste. Fillet is the muscle that does the least work, which makes it the leanest, tenderest choice; Chateaubriand, named for a 19th-century French aristocrat, is a large piece from the thickest part of the fillet, soft as butter and perfect for sharing. 

Many, however, prefer the more robust beefiness of meat that’s worked a bit harder (though good steak should never be tough). Sirloin is a prime cut from just above the fillet, tender yet rich, while rib-eye, from the centre of the rib muscle, has the perfect combination of muscle and fat to baste it from within during cooking, keeping the meat deliciously juicy. Côte de boeuf is what the French call forerib, left on the bone to give it even more flavour. 

There may be many types of steak but they’re all cooked the same way. Start by bringing them up to room temperature; taking them out of the fridge an hour before you want to eat should do the trick. Pat them completely dry with a paper towel and heat a heavy-based griddle or frying pan until it’s really hot – there’s no need to add any fat – or a barbecue until the coals are white hot. Either way, the cooking surface should be too hot to hold your hand over for long (though if you’re inside, you might want to use said hand to open a window or put the extractor fan on; cooking steak is smoky work). 

Just before cooking, season the steaks generously with salt and black pepper, then space out well in the hot pan; if you’re cooking a few steaks, do them in batches to prevent overcrowding. Leave undisturbed for 2 minutes before carefully turning them over. Repeat this until they’re done to your liking; how long depends both on the cut and the heat of your pan, so it’s easier to go by feel than time; a rare steak will feel like the fleshy base of your thumb when the tip is pressed against the tip of your index finger. Medium rare is more like this fleshy part feels when your thumb is pressed against your middle finger, medium your ring finger and well done your little finger. Bear in mind the meat won’t stop cooking the second you take it off the heat, so err on the side of caution; you can always put it back on for a minute, but you can’t uncook it!  

If your steaks have a layer of fat on one side, hold this against the pan to brown slightly before removing them to a plate or board and leaving them to rest for five minutes – this bit is really important as it gives the meat time to reabsorb its juices. If you’re serving a flavoured butter on top, add this now so it begins to melt into the hot, salty crust. Finally, for that real restaurant experience, cut larger steaks into thick slices before serving. Who knows, you might even earn yourself a tip!

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