How the pros guarantee a perfect steak every time.

Natalie B. Compton
April 16, 2019
Photo: Caitlin Bensel; Food Styling: Victoria Cox and Elise Mayfield; Prop Styling: Claire Spollen

You don’t need many tools or fancy skills to make decent steak. But you do have to follow some rules to yield the best results. “When cooking something as simple as a steak, all the little details count,” says chef Brian Dunsmoor from Los Angeles’ Hatchet Hall. I talked to chefs like Dunsmoor to find out best (and worst) steak-cooking practices, so you can avoid things that often go wrong when cooking it. 

To prevent any primal meltdowns, try not to freak out when cooking steak for the first time. “The most important thing is to enjoy, be confident, and have a blast. You are about to eat some delicious meat real soon!” says David Shim, executive chef of the Michelin-starred Cote in New York. “It really does take some trials or practices to get it perfect, so don’t be discouraged if it happens to not work the first time around.” Here are other pieces of advice to follow.

Watch: How to Make the Best Steak Fajitas

1. Start with the right meat

“The most common mistake people make when cooking steak takes place before the steak actually cooks,” says chef Adam Perry Lang of the APL Restaurant in Hollywood. “Picking out the right steak based on its quality is far more important than applying the more advanced techniques.” Lang recommends choosing a cut with well dispersed and abundant intramuscular fat, like ribeye, for those who aren’t concerned about fat intake.

2. Choose underrated cuts

“Some of my favorite cuts of steak are some of the most underrated cuts. We call them ‘butchers cuts’ in the restaurant world,” says Dunsmoor. “They pack the most flavor and are less expensive than the premium cuts.” Dunsmoor suggests trying deckle (ribeye cap), hanger, inside skirt, Korean cut short rib, and top sirloin (when marinated).

Get the recipes: Sizzling Steaks for the Grill

3. Keep your tools simple

“The beautiful thing about cooking steak is that you need so little to do it,” says Dunsmoor. “All you need is a grill (preferably wood or charcoal burning) or cast iron skillet, tongs, spoon (if cooking in a skillet) and and sharp knife.” A thick pan like a cast-iron skillet will ensure even heat distribution while you cook. You’ll also need a thermometer nearby throughout the process. “Keep a thermometer on hand,” says Shim. “It is a great practice to use them to check for temperature of the steak.”

4. Watch temperature—even before you cook

“Understanding that the temperature of the steak at the onset has an impact on the cooking,” says Lang. “If you’re taking the steak right out of the fridge, it’s stone cold in the center and will need to be handled appropriately. For thick cold cuts of steak, I use the temper method, constantly flipping until the end to allow for the heat to evenly penetrate toward the center.”

5. Cook your steak’s sides differently

“Whether on the grill or in the skillet, always cook the steak on the fist side for two thirds of the time and then flip it and cook it for the last third of the time,” Dunsmoor says. “You really want to get a nice crust on initial contact without over cooking the steak.”

6. Steak size matters

“The important thing to take into consideration is to understand that thickness has an impact: the thinner the cut, the more aggressive the carryover, so leaning when to pull off is important,” says Lang.

Related: Our Complete Guide to Marinating: What Works, What Doesn't, and Why

7. Avoid high heat

“Many people think or believe that searing the meat super high and cooking it at high temperature throughout is the way to cook,” Shim says. “It does create a great maillard reaction, but I believe that it is not all about the maillard reaction. It is about evenly cooking the steak with the least amount of gray ring and nice red or pink color in the middle of the meat depending on the temperature you are looking for (and with the technology, the reverse sear method started to be popular).”

8. Watch the post-fire cooking

“Always remember that the steak will continue cooking a little bit after you pull it off the fire,” Dunsmoor says. “If you want a nice medium rare, pull the steak at around 110 degrees to 115 so it carries over to a nice 125-135 while resting.” Get the meat off of your pan or grill before it hits your preferred temperature. 

9. Not all meat will cook the same

"I really believe that to cook a great steak you need to understand the ‘heat’ element and how it impacts the meat and the type of meat you are cooking, as dry aged beef will cook and react differently to a very well marbled wagyu beef,” Shim says.

10. Baste steak the French way

"While cooking in a skillet I like to baste the meat with fat in the pan like the French do,” Dunsmoor says. “Cook the steak in oil for the first 2/3 of cooking time, flip it, add some butter (herbs and garlic too if you want...) and baste the meat for the remaining 1/3 of the cooking time.” Lang agrees that basting helps develop the meat’s intense flavor by building layers by constantly lacquering and reducing flavors on the crust. "An intense crust really makes an impact,” he says.

11. Note your grill’s hot spots, and adjust for a stovetop

“Know your hot spots and warm spots, if grilling. You want to keep in mind of the different temperature to sear, to cook, and to hold the meat,” Shim says. “If not using a grill, use a thick pan to cook and do control the heat from high to medium as you cook.”

12. Rest your steak before serving

“Once pulled off the heat you will need to rest the meat to insure that it is juicy and delicious when you slice it,” Dunsmoor says. “I like to rest a small- to medium-sized steak (6-15 oz) for 10 to 15 minutes and large steaks (16-32 oz) for 15- 25 minutes. This lets the juices that are bubbling around inside the meat to settle down and not run out all over the cutting board after you slice it.”

13. Don’t go with the grain

“Slice against the grain,” Dunsmoor says. "If you cut the meat with the grain it will eat tough!.If you slice it with the grain, it will be much more tender and giving while you chew it.”

Related: How to Cut Flank Steak

14. Season post-slice

“Season the meat after you slice it with nice flaky sea salt,” Dunsmoor says. “Even better—put a bowl of sea salt on the table so everyone can season each bite as the like it. Everyone has different palates and need different amount of salt to properly enjoy their food. Salt is a personal preference. Don’t ever let a chef tell you otherwise! You do you.”