Weird Science

While I’m away on my imaginary vacation, I’m leaving the pantry stocked with posts from Exit 51 that would have been part of the Flashback Friday series. The following originally appeared on 7/13/09 at Exit 51.  Clearly, this was back when CI and I were on friendlier terms.

Weird Science

Remember how you were always told in school that math and science were important in life?  Me, I didn’t believe it for one second.  I think my response was something along the lines of “yeah, whatever”.  But if I could, I would go back and tell my adolescent self to sit up and pay attention because, I swear, it’s true.

I use math in the kitchen constantly.  Want to scale a recipe up or down?  You’ll need to know your fractions.  Planning on putting a turkey on the table for Thanksgiving?  You’ll need to tap those times tables to figure out how much oven time Tom’s going to need.  That’s the easy side of things.  The science of cooking, I leave to the experts to figure out for me.

Like the folks at Cook’s Illustrated.  Thanks to them, I finally understand why I’ve never cooked a steak at home that is as good as ones I get at restaurants.  The answer is because I don’t understand how to make food science work for me.  As someone who loves a tender, medium-rare, slab of beef on my plate I figured it should be easy.  I was so wrong.

It’s not enough to just put it in a hot pan.  All that gets me is a charred exterior with an undercooked, bloody interior.  Or worse, with thinner cuts, a charred exterior with an overcooked, dry interior.  Neither of these are a good use of my food dollar.  So what’s the solution?  According to Cook’s Illustrated, I should be starting my steak in a low oven and finishing it on the stove.

The science of tender steaks as explained by Cook’s Illustrated:

“Our steaks spend a long time in a warm oven, yet taste more tender than traditionally prepared steaks, which can be tough and chewy.  The explanation?  Meat contains active enzymes called cathepsins, which break down connective tissues over time, increasing tenderness (a fact that is demonstrated to great effect in dry aged meat).  As the temperature of the meat rises, these enzymes work faster and faster until they reach 122 degrees, where all action stops.  While our steaks are slowly heating up, the cathepsins are working overtime, in effect “aging” and tenderizing our steaks within half an hour.  When steaks are cooked by conventional methods, their final temperature is reached much more rapidly, denying the cathepsins the time they need to properly do their jobs.”

Yeah, what they said.  Because it totally works.  Not that you have to remember all the sciency stuff.  Just remember to start low and finish hot.  See, science IS fun, and tasty too!

Pan Seared Thick Cut Steaks

Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated

  • 2 boneless strip steaks, 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 inches thick (about 1 pound each)
  • Kosher salt
  • Pepper
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

Place an oven rack in the middle position and heat oven to 275 degrees.  Pat steaks dry and cut in half vertically to create four portions.  Season steaks with salt and pepper, set on a wire rack set in a foil lined sheet pan, and transfer to oven.

Cook until an instant read thermometer inserted horizontally into center of the steaks registers 90 to 95 degrees for rare to medium-rare, approximately 20 to 25 minutes, or 100 to 105 degrees for medium, about 25 to 30 minutes.

Heat vegetable oil in 12 inch skillet over high heat until smoking.  Place steaks in skillet and sear until well browned and crusty, about 1 1/2 to 2 minutes.  If the fond begins to burn, reduce heat.  Turn the steaks and cook until well browned on the second side, about 2 to 2 1/2 minutes.  Transfer all the steaks to a clean rack and reduce the heat to medium.  Use tongs to stand 2 steaks on their sides.  Holding steaks together, return them to the skillet and sear on all edges until browned, about 1 1/2 minutes.  Repeat with remaining 2 steaks.

Return steaks to the wire rack and rest, loosely tented with foil, for 10 minutes.

{printable recipe}

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6 Responses to Weird Science

  1. Ohhh, I share the maths & science attitude through school… I hear you with that one. All I wanted to do was be a chef when I left school so imagine my absolute horror when I started my apprenticeship to find out what that really meant & now with a little head bowed and toe kicking up the dirt embarrassed to admit…… it’s kinda cool stuff though isn’t it to know all that weird enzymes & cathepsins which when treated nicely turn out to make even the toughest piece of steak taste great.
    Cheers Anna

    • Wendi says:

      Anna, I was a total math/science slacker in school and I’m paying dearly for that now. But my inner food science geek loves understanding the why even if I don’t totally get the how.

  2. omawarisan says:

    oh this is happening at my house, soon. The science behind it makes the recipe make complete sense and sound delicious.

    Have you figured out what we’re supposed to be doing with the Pythagorean Theorem? I was told I’d be using that in my adult life. I’ll be 49 this year, it hasn’t happened yet.

    • Wendi says:

      I think the whole Pythagorean Theorem belongs in one of Dante’s levels of Hell. It has no place in my world. Now these thick cut steaks? The recipe totally works but I should warn you that the side searing at the end is a royal pain.

  3. Anne says:

    did you have mr nadrowski for physics? he made me like science, and math.

    • Wendi says:

      Anne, I don’t remember who I had for Physics. Oddly enough, even though I tres suck at math/science and did in high school, I got into Honors Physics. And I did well. Or at least well enough. Siri and Kulli were in the class with me. That’s about as much as I remember.

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