June 09, 2016

Q: Do I really need to bring steak to room temp before cooking it?

A: The world of steak cookery is rife with absolutisms, and the funny thing is, most of them are either overly exaggerated or downright false. You must only flip your steak once (actually, flipping multiple times results in more evenly cooked meat with a better crust). You must only season it with salt after it comes off the grill (actually, seasoning with salt even up to a day in advance can help the steak retain more moisture as it cooks). You must let your steak come to room temperature before searing it.

It’s this last one that intrigues me because it seems so logically obvious: in order to achieve a deep brown crust without overcooking that medium-rare center, I want to be able to trigger the Maillard reaction—the series of chemical reactions that cause meat to brown—as fast as possible. The faster the surface of a steak browns, the less time the interior has to overcook. Since the Maillard reaction is triggered by high temperatures, letting the chill come off the steak before it hits the pan should really help speed things along, right?

Not so fast. There are two issues. First, how much does a steak actually rise in temperature when you let it rest on the counter? Second, is temperature really the most important factor in determining how well it will brown or how moist and tender it will be?

The first question is easy to answer. I stuck a temperature probe into the center of a thick-cut strip steak that I pulled out from the fridge then monitored it as the steak warmed up. After 20 minutes (the amount of time many folks recommend), the steak rose less than 2°F. In fact, even after two full hours, the temperature had barely risen by 10 degrees—a little over 10% of the way towards the final serving temperature of 130°F I was aiming for.

This next bit helps if you think of the energy that is coming out of the burner and the energy stored in your pre-heated skillet or grill as a large reservoir of water. There are three different buckets that you are pouring that water into as you cook the steak. The first bucket is the temperature bucket: the heat energy required to raise the temperature of the meat. The second is the evaporation bucket: the energy required to evaporate surface moisture from the steak. The third bucket is the browning bucket: the energy that goes into triggering the Maillard browning reactions.

On the surface of the steak, those buckets are filled sequentially. Until the temperature rises to 212°F, no evaporation occurs, and until most of the surface moisture has evaporated, very little browning occurs.

Now here’s the thing: of those first two buckets—temperature and evaporation—evaporation is by far the larger of the two. It requires vastly more energy to evaporate water than it does to heat it up. In fact, even if your refrigerator is set at a temperature just above freezing, it still requires 50 times more energy to evaporate the moisture on the surface of the steak than it does to raise its temperature all the way from freezing to boiling.

All of this is to say that the starting temperature of your steak has a negligible impact on how it cooks. What really matters is how dry the steak is. Simply blotting your steak with paper towels before searing it will improve it far better than any amount of room temperature resting will. Similarly, salting the steak about 40 minutes in advance--long enough to let salt draw out liquid and then for that liquid to be re-absorbed leaving a dryer surface—will also improve it.

You want the steak with the brownest surface and juiciest interior ever? Place the raw steak on a rack set in a baking sheet and place it uncovered in the fridge for a couple nights. The surface will form a very dry skin that subsequently browns in record time. Ironically, the dryer your meat is to start, the moister it will be at the end. After browning, all you’ve got to do is finish it off in a moderate oven.

Oh, and one more thing: do use a thermometer to check when your steak is done. Leave the poking and prodding method to the professionals.

Kenji López-Alt is the chief creative officer of Serious Eats, where he write The Food Lab, unraveling the science of home cooking.

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