In its simplest form, a steak is just a big old hunk of beef, but there's so much more to it than that. And cooking the perfect steak is one of those things that's simple when you know how.
Of course, not all steaks are created equal. There's an entire world of variables to account for – like the different breeds of beef cattle and various steak cuts to choose from, then knowing how to cook steak just right. This makes all the difference between that chewy piece of leather you ate at a pub and the juicy, melt-in-your-mouth meat you drool over at a top-tier steakhouse like Hy's or STK.
Here, we talk to Damien Cochez, the main butcher at Ossington's butcher shop and bistro Côte de Boeuf, to find out what makes one steak a cut above the rest.
How to cook the perfect steak, according to an expert
What are the breeds of beef cattle?
Wagyu seems to be on everyone's tongues lately, though it's a little trickier to get the pricey meat into your mouth. The word translates to "Japanese beef" so it can be used to refer to any of the four Japanese cattle breeds. The high-end, sought-after Wagyu is known for its superior marbling and for being incredibly tender. Kobe is a designation only given to Wagyu from one region and that's raised in a particular way, to produce what is widely considered the best beef in the world.
If you're after a steak that didn't cross an ocean before it landed on your plate, the common breeds found in Ontario are Highland, Hereford, Angus and Charolais.
How to choose a cut of steak?
Steak comes in all different shapes and sizes, depending on which part of the animal it's cut from. Finding the one that's right for you is more of a choose-your-own-adventure than something you can do right or wrong.
A tenderloin filet mignon might be the most tender steak you'll find (it's right in the name), but as a leaner piece of meat, it won't have as much flavour. Meanwhile a bone-in steak may have more flavour but it's more tedious to carve and enjoy. If you're having trouble deciding, just ask your server or your butcher.
At Côte de Boeuf, they'll guide you through the different cuts of steak and help you choose the right one for your budget, and the way you want to prepare and serve it.
What is marbling and what does it mean for the steak?
"This is just layers of fat in between the meat. The more marbling, the more kind of buttery, foie gras taste you're going to find. The striploin and the ribeye, they're the ones with the most marbling," says Cochez.
Why are some steaks dry aged?
"By aging, you're going to tenderize the meat and it's going to concentrate in flavour. You don't need to age more than 25 days, this is good enough. The meat is going to be tender already and all the flavour is going to be there.
If you have really lean meat, I wouldn't consider aging every time. The fat helps the meat to get better because the meat is going to be fed out of it. What happens is that all that flavour in the fat is going to go into the meat while it's dry aging."
How to cook steak: pan vs barbecue
"Cast-iron pans have the beautiful property of heating evenly. If it's pretty hot in the middle, it's going to be really hot on the side too. But make sure you don't burn yourself because the handle always gets pretty hot.
I wouldn't recommend cooking really lean meat on the barbecue. You want that fat to drip into the barbecue and make some really nice flames. It's going to give that smoky flavour to whatever you're cooking. If going for the grill, make sure that the grill is really hot. You always want to go for really hot at first to lock everything in, and then you can let it rest or cook it slowly."
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How to season a steak
"Always use a really nice salt and freshly cracked pepper. This is the most important thing. I like to make a crust for the steak with salt and pepper so when I cut into my meat, it's going be really nice and juicy and I won't need any more seasoning."
Tips and tricks for cooking the perfect steak
"People shouldn't rush into it. Buy a nice steak, take it out from the fridge and don't rush it into the pan. Let it rest for at least 30 minutes in a nice medium-cold area in your kitchen. Make sure it gets to room temperature – otherwise the meat is going to freak out.
Then make sure the pan is really hot, add some olive oil, always season it nicely. Don't be scared to over-season if it's a thicker steak, because most of the seasoning is going to go into the pan. If you cook on cast-iron, finish with a really nice nub of butter. Bring some garlic, thyme, rosemary, anything you want into the pan and baste it.
Then you take the meat out and put all the juice onto the steak and you leave it rest. If I cook my steak for eight minutes, I'm going to let it rest for 12. It's a lot of love cooking steak."