Three Foolproof Methods For Cooking Steaks And Chops This Winter

Food Republic's column Ask Your Butcher seeks to answer FAQs in the world of butchery. Ethically minded butcher Bryan Mayer has opened butcher shops and restaurants and has trained butchers in the U.S. and abroad. He helped develop the renowned butcher-training program at Fleisher's. Today, he consults with farmers, butchers, chefs and anyone else who will listen. In each column, Mayer tackles a pressing issue facing both meat buyers and home cooks. This week, Mayer has some thoughts on cooking great meats during the winter months.

There are two post-Thanksgiving camps. There are those who embrace the season and all its turkey-ness, creating every possible turkey permutation imaginable: turkey pot pie, turkey soup, turkey casserole, turkey sandwiches...lots and lots of turkey sandwiches. Then, there are those who return to normalcy, having pawned off the last bits of turkey to friends and family and kept just a bit of sausage and stuffing to cook up with morning eggs while hanging on to the bones for all that rich stock.

I fall in with the latter group. I'm happy to say goodbye to turkey for another year (longer if I can help it) and refocus my attention on our four-footed friends — specifically, a good steak or chop. It's not something you often hear me talk about, especially since those highly sought-after, middle-meat cuts account for an extremely small percentage of the carcass. However, they are there, and someone must eat them. Besides, with Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Festivus or any winter holiday you choose to celebrate, there's plenty of time for all those roasts.

The process of cooking a great steak indoors is just as easy as it is on your grill. You'll need little more than an oven-safe pan (a good, heavy cast-iron one should do the trick), a cut of grass-fed beef or pastured pork and no more than half an hour to 40 minutes. Bone in or bone out — it doesn't really mater. It doesn't contribute to taste, but it does help to insulate the meat, preventing it from overcooking, and it's awesome to gnaw on. Below, I've highlighted three methods that I think work exceptionally well. Keep in mind that beef and pork needn't get all the attention — sheep and goat do just fine on your stovetop. Pick a cut that's thick and you're almost there.

Stovetop Butter-Basted Steak

Butter-basting a steak is the culinary equivalent of playing in a room full of puppies. Make that a butter-basted rib eye, and it's now a room full of puppies and kittens. Rib eyes were made for this method. With their mix of fat and a few different muscles, you get a deep, rich flavor and multiple textures — this is not a tenderloin! I prefer my rib eyes to be cut from the section closest to the shoulder (away from the loin end) so as to maximize this distribution of fat and muscles. You'll want to make sure your rib eye is from an animal that was properly raised on pasture, eating plenty of grass, getting lots of exercise and aged properly. Whether that's dry-aged or dry-hung is completely up to you (more on that at another time). The weight of the cut is not as important as the thickness, as that can vary due to several factors — breed, time of year, et cetera: One and a half inches works perfectly here.

Everything else you need should be in your pantry: salt, butter, herbs and olive oil. There's a lot of confusion and misinformation regarding the use of olive oil at high heat or even frying in it, and I'm here to tell you that it's totally fine. Moreover, any flavor that it may impart, compared to more neutral oils, will only add to the richness of the end product. A quick pat dry and a liberal salting for 30 to 40 minutes is the only prep you'll need. Place the steak in your fridge and you'll have plenty of time to prep any sides.

Next, you'll want to heat about four tablespoons (1/4 cup) of olive oil over high heat in your cast-iron skillet — it's ready for that steak when it starts to shimmer. Gently place the steak into the pan and turn frequently to get an even, allover sear. Remember, the more you flip, the more even the cooking and the less likely you are to overcook the steak. In about five minutes, there should be a deep golden brown color on each side.

Now for the technique. Simply add in your butter (two to three tablespoons) and allow it to melt. Once the butter starts to foam, tilt the pan toward you and spoon over the entire cut. Don't forget the bone! You'll want to continue to baste and flip your steak for roughly ten more minutes or until an instant-read thermometer reads 120-130°F for medium-rare. Don't forget that you can add herbs like sage or thyme to enhance the flavor. Once it's done, allow a few minutes' rest before carving and you're ready for a steak that rivals Peter Luger!

Dry-Brined Stovetop-to-Oven Pork Chop

In the sea of red that is your butcher's case, a pork chop can easily get overlooked. Even when compared to those hulking shoulders and racks of ribs for smoking and braising, chops are often a runner-up. Thanks, in part, to the demand for pastured and woodlot-raised heritage pigs, the pork chop has been vindicated. Marbled, fatty and often much darker in color, there's an abundance of flavor that you might be missing if you opt for something different. As with the rib eye above, a pork chop closer to the shoulder allows for more intermuscular fat and a variance in different muscle textures. And, again, we'll want a thick, 1½-inch cut. All that fat as a dry brine and a proper cooking temp will definitely help. A minimum of four hours for your brine, but if you can squeeze it in for 24, they'll be perfect.

If you can't brine, no sweat. I guarantee that with the quality of pork you've purchased, it'll taste just fine. I like to start off with an already hot cast-iron skillet. I'll preheat my oven to 400°F with the skillet inside, roughly ten minutes. At this point I'll remove my chops from the fridge, brush both sides with olive oil and prepare to sear. Carefully, using an oven mitt, remove the skillet from the oven and place over medium-high heat. Using kitchen tongs, I like to sear the fat side first for two minutes, which adds a great texture to it. Once you've browned the fat, place one side of the chop down in the skillet and let sear for about three minutes. Once it's golden brown on one side, flip it over and, again using your oven mitt, place back in your 400°F oven for roughly six to ten minutes. This will allow for the other side to sear while the chop cooks to temp.

What temp is that? Well, gone are the days where the USDA mandated that you cook pork to 165°F. Now it's 145°F, which is still in the realm of expelled moisture and tense muscle fibers. Do yourself a favor and don't look to the USDA for cooking recommendations. When your instant-read thermometer reads between 125° and 130°F, you're done.

Reverse-Seared Top Sirloin

If this is not yet abundantly obvious, I like cuts of meat that contain a few different muscles. Not only does this add intermuscular fat (most of the time), but it also adds different textures, which can change from bite to bite. And if you're not eating just to feed the machine, why not try to enjoy it as much as possible? While cuts tend to vary from butcher to butcher, a top sirloin steak can be comprised of roughly nine different muscles. Take that again, tenderloin! With all those different muscles and fibers, a little more care needs to be taken to cook this guy. And while the above two methods would work, the reverse-seared method seems specifically designed for a cut like this. Heck, it's pretty much the best way to get a perfectly cooked steak of any kind.

It's a great technique that slowly brings the cut up to temp in the oven and finishes with a hard sear afterward. You may remember that we employed this same method when cooking chickens, spatchcocked, on the grill. This lower, slower cooking method lends itself to a much more evenly cooked steak, and because the moisture evaporates in the oven, not in the pan, you get a much harder and crustier sear. A thick cut, 1½ to 2 inches, is again what you're looking for, as well as a liberal salt rub for at least 30 minutes in the fridge. I'll cook the steak at 250° to 275°F until a probe thermometer reads roughly 115°F. On the stovetop, I've got a cast-iron with two tablespoons of olive oil ready to sear at high heat. At no more than one minute per side, you'll have a perfectly seared, evenly cooked steak that would rival any sous vide technique, and you didn't cook it in plastic.

While there are many ways to cook a great steak, if you follow these three methods, with at least a 1½-inch-thick cut, along with salting and dry-brining, your return to a turkey-free world will be much more pleasant. That is, until someone from that former group invites you over for turkey meatballs, turkey enchiladas and turkey hash.