Big steak masterpiece: some notes on thermal inertia and reverse-searing (and a recipe for the steak of your dreams)

The reverse-sear is certainly one of the most reliable, controllable and hassle-free ways to cook bigger steaks. It comes with other benefits, too. The meat cooks much more evenly right through from the crust to the centre, and the crust is significantly more developed (and so, very tasty) than it would be by searing, then roasting. The fats are meltier, the meat is somewhat more tender and the meaty taste more concentrated. You don’t really need much resting time when you’re done, and the smoke won’t choke your dinner guests, because there is simply far less of it.

It is perfect for indoor cooking, now that the weather has turned cooler for many of us, and the technique works for any thick cut. I’ve done it with whole picanha (or culotte), thick whole sirloin slices, and even larger whole pieces of bavette to great effect over the years. For the steak of your dreams, though, it’s hard not to opt for a big rib steak (at least two inches thick, raw), bone and all. Outside of grilling over live wood fire, reverse searing is the surest way to create a big steak masterpiece that will leave your dinner guests stricken with awe, and far more likely to bring better wine the next time they come.

The concept is simple and as I mentioned, accomplishes many wonderful things at the same time. As you bring your cut of steak to temperature slowly in ambient heat, tissue remains relaxed, saving moisture from being squeezed out of the meat, which sometimes happens with regular searing before roasting (which can also create a bit of a poached layer under the crust – wooly and no fun). It also lets enzymatic action continue to flavor the meat and even tenderize collagen, since the slow-heating takes place over more than an hour.

Reverse-searing dries out the surface of the steak so that when it comes time for the sear, a terrific crust forms readily, quickly, and without the clouds of smoke that billow from searing raw steaks. It also lends a remarkable degree of control. Hot-roasting, grilling and frying big steaks creates a lot of thermal inertia, which can be hard to manage. As you wait for the centre of the steak to break out of rare, hot-cooked meat surrounding it acts like a radiator, giving up its energy to the middle even after the meat is removed from the heat. This, along with the redistribution of moisture, is the simple physics behind allowing for resting time for hot-cooked steaks. When the cooking environment is really hot, so are the outer levels of the meat, and that can land you an overdone steak. It also tends to cook your meat unevenly, giving you a “bullseye” pattern of overdone meat closer to the surface, then medium-well, and then jelly in the middle. The reverse-sear avoids this and its accompanying sense of disappointment and painful loss of respect altogether, as it is brought to temperature slowly, then to optimal serving temperature in just a minute or two with a stovetop sear.

The only drawback is that reverse-searing takes a lot more time―about 30-35 minutes per solid pound of meat in low oven heat, and it generally means you can’t cook other things in the oven at the same time. But I find this allows more time to get other things done: mash those parsnips and potatoes, finish your glass and tell a proper joke, and get the veg and other parts of the meal exactly right before your final meaty critical path.

Rib-steak of your dreams with brown-butter parsnip-potato mash and roasty leeks

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Along with a wire cooling-rack, a large, heavy frypan (cast iron, heavy stainless steel, or something with a heavy cookie-bottom), a lid for that pan, foil for drippings, 1 saucepan and another small pot or pan to melt butter, a sharp chef’s knife, a rasp/zester, a veg peeler, sturdy kitchen tongs, a carving board, a potato ricer or food mill, an oven and stovetop, you will need the following ingredients on hand:

  • Butter
  • One giant rib steak, roughly two inches thick (about 2.5 pounds/1 kg), bone-in
  • Salt and pepper
  • Two whole leeks
  • Two medium parsnips
  • Four medium Yukon Gold potatoes
  • Heavy cream (at room temperature or somewhat warmer)
  • One lemon
  • Olive oil

First the rib steak:

Sprinkle salt on all sides of the steak and gently (and briefly) rub it into the meat to distribute it evenly. About 1 teaspoon for the whole piece of meat. Place the salted steak on a cooling rack, and place the racked steak on the middle grate of your 225(F)-degree oven. Place a sheet of foil on the lower grate of the oven to catch drippings. The steak can now drip at will (there won’t be much, but not none) and still be flying free in the hot winds of your oven, both surfaces slowly drying to an optimal tawny shade for the sear to come, which will be in about an hour and a half, give or take. If you have a decent digital oven thermometer like this, that’s brilliant. You can also use an instant read thermometer, and just start checking when you think you’re close. You will be removing the steak from the oven when it reaches an average temperature of 118(F) degrees, with multiple measurements, or (quite reliably) 115(F) degrees in the meaty middle of the leanest part of the ribeye. In general: roughly 30 minutes per pound for steaks 1.5 pounds or more, at 225(F) degrees.

Then some brown butter:

Place one-half cup (one stick) of butter in a saucepan and cook on medium-low heat until all the bubbles have finished erupting, and brown bits of solids begin to form in the pan. Remove from heat quickly at that point and reserve in a coffee cup or other tempered vessel. The butter should taste rich and nutty.

Then the parsnips and potatoes:

When you are 30 minutes away from searing your steak, peel parsnips and potatoes and save the skins if you like in a freezer bag and freeze to save for making stock, one weekend. Chop the veg into one-inch pieces and boil until fork tender, about 20 minutes.

While the potatoes and parsnips are on the boil, prepare your leeks:

Cut the leeks close to the roots to slice the roots away, then cut leeks into four-inch lengths. Cut slits all the way through each length (lengthwise), saving one inch intact at one end, to keep the length from falling apart. Hold the intact end and rinse the exposed (cut) leeks carefully free of their sand, making extra sure to get the grit from between the first and second layers, which is grittier as you move to the greener ends. Coat a frypan with olive oil and place the prepared leeks in the pan, slit side up, and dab a few knife-points of butter into the slits, then season liberally.

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Cook covered on medium high heat until they start crackling, then carefully turn them. Squeeze a quarter of a lemon into the pan, turn down the heat to medium-low, and cover them again to cook for about 7 minutes more, poaching them to a creamy soft texture, while they also fry to give them a sticky, brown coating. If you don’t see this nice coating when you turn them the first time, cook them until you do. Remove them to a serving dish when they’re done, then turn up the heat under that pan to medium high again, because you’re going to sear the steak on it in about four minutes.

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Then back to the parsnips and potatoes, to finish them:

When they’re fork tender, drain and let them dry in the saucepan, then pass them through a ricer or food mill (or just mash them, but the ricer or food mill will give you fluffier, less gluey results). Pour about one cup of the warm heavy cream and the brown butter gradually into the riced potatoes, mixing the cream and butter in and fluffing them with a wooden (or plastic) spoon or spatula. Put the leeks and the mash in their respective serving dishes and store in the 225(F)-degree oven, which you can now turn off, while removing the now at-temperature steak (measuring an average of 118(F) degrees, or 115(F) in the meaty middle of the ribeye.

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Now sear the big steak:

In the now quite hot pan that until very recently held nicely cooked leeks, sear the steak to desired colour and doneness. Things can move pretty quickly at this point but there is really only one thing you’re doing, so that’s ok. Keep that thermometer close at hand and keep checking as you turn the steak to develop its crust in the already buttery, slightly oniony heavy frypan. This shouldn’t take more than four minutes, and your thermometer should be approaching 125(F) degrees in the meaty middle of the ribeye when you are ready to move it to a carving board. Let it rest a minute, then cut off the bone, keeping it just a bit meaty, and serve as a lucky prize with the big steak, slicing the steak crossways in tidy, quarter-inch slices. You can serve it right on the board, if your board has a runnel and well (which it ought) or on a warmed platter. Season and finely grate a little lemon zest over the sliced meat as you serve it up with the mash and roasty leeks.


4 thoughts on “Big steak masterpiece: some notes on thermal inertia and reverse-searing (and a recipe for the steak of your dreams)

  1. This is beautiful, Rob. I’m determined to do it, though maybe not with parsnips, which I do not love. Love the leeks, though. I believe Marion Kane blogged about this after talking to you, no?

    Like

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