A Proper Way to Tend to Your Meat
Everything You Think You Know About Cooking the Perfect Steak Is Wrong
Breaking misconceptions can be tough on the psyche. No one enjoys learning they’ve been wrong the whole time. Debunking the culinary myth that says steaks should be flipped only once ranks right up there with learning that the Brontosaurus never even f*$%ing existed. We’ve lived the lie for so long that the truth is hard to stomach.
But, there it is: multiple culinary experts in the field agree that fast flipping is the superior way to cook a steak, for several reasons. It’s actually a faster method than the single flip and produces steaks that are more evenly cooked. Understanding why this is true involves some basic culinary science.
The Science Behind Fast-Flipping
While there’s plenty of information on the topic published today, we called author and food scientist Harold McGee to learn about fast flipping’s origins. As he explained, the advantages of the method first came to his attention in the middle of researching an article published in the journal Physics Today. Working with a pair of computer scientists, the goal of the paper was to examine the physics of heat transfer in cooking through the lens of computer modeling. The eventual fast flip discovery came partially by accident McGee explained.
“The nice thing about using a computer to model cooking is that you could get the computer to do experiments that you would never think of doing in real life — like flipping a piece of meat on a grill every 5 seconds.” So after running a series of tests on common cooking scenarios, they decided to turn their attention to more extreme hypotheticals. “What we found really surprised us,” he said. “The more you flip, the more evenly the heat is transferred into the meat, and it’s transferred much faster — so the cooking time is much shorter.”
Skeptical of the pure data, they put a thermocouple into a steak of measured thickness and tested the method in the real world. According to McGee, the practical experiments proved “the computer model was right on.”
In his New York Times Diner’s Journal Q&A, McGee explains the thermodynamics at play in layman’s terms. Fast-flipped steaks cook faster “because neither side has time to absorb a lot of heat when facing the fire or to lose heat when facing away.”
The same forces are responsible for fast flipping’s superior evenness, according to J. Kenji López-Alt, managing culinary director of Serious Eats. As he explains from his thorough test of the practice, “by allowing each side to cool for a few moments after being heated for a few moments, the intense temperature gradient that can build up near the surface of the steak has time to dissipate. Some of that heat energy is released back into the air, while some of it dissipates into the steak. In either case, it rescues the outer layers from cooking more than they absolutely need to.”
Critics of the technique frequently cite a lack of grill marks — the hallmark of a perfectly cooked steak in our collective visual consciousness — as pitfall to the method. But the pattern of deep charred lines isn’t really ideal for maximizing a piece of meat’s full flavor potential. What you want is browning.
The Maillard Reaction is the technical term for browning, named after the French scientist who discovered its power. It’s the chemistry responsible for the rich-tasting crusts of baked bread and the delicious sear in meat. Nathan Myhrvold, founder of The Cooking Lab, coauthor of Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking and author of The Photography of Modernist Cuisine, describes the process in his blog post as a series of reactions by amino acids and certain simple sugars to heat, which creates a chain reaction of new molecule production. These new compounds create the rich tastes and smells that “[distinguish] the flavors of boiled, poached, or steamed foods from the flavors of the same foods that have been grilled, roasted, or otherwise cooked [at high temperatures].”
Fast flipping can brown meat just as well as traditional searing methods, granted the cooking temperatures are high and the meat is properly dried beforehand.
The Proper Technique
Step 1: Make sure your steak is dry.
Moisture inhibits the Maillard Reaction by keeping surface temperatures of the meat below the boiling point of water, according to Nathan Myhrvold. Drying the surfaces of your steaks with paper towels before cooking is one easy step to take. J. Kenji López-Alt at Serious Eats recommends salting your meat at least 40 minutes before cooking or even letting it air dry overnight for the best possible browning results.
Step 2: Crank up the heat.
Don’t be timid with the temperature gauge. A high surface temperature is critical for the Maillard Reaction because it “both increases the rate of chemical reactions and accelerates the evaporation of water,” Myhrvold says. Unless you’re specifically after the smoky flavor of the grill, Meathead Goldwyn of amazingribs.com recommends cooking in a cast iron skillet with a small coating of oil. And if you are cooking on the grill, he suggests swapping the heavy aluminum grates with cheaper wire versions to minimize the potential for charring.
Step 3: Flip often.
What’s meant, exactly, by “fast”? The consensus from most experts is a flipping frequency of between 15 and 60 seconds, with most advocating for a minute even. In other words, maintain focus and keep your beer breaks short.
Adam Perry Lang recommends frequently basting the steak after flips with melted butter and using an herb wand for flavor, if you’re really trying to knock it out of the park — or die faster from heart disease.
Step 4: Know when to stop.
McGee says using a small digital thermometer pushed to center of a steak from the side is the most reliable way to know when to stop. Medium rare is between 130 °F to 135 °F.
Harold McGee is the first to say that fast flipping has its downsides. In fact, when we asked him how he normally cooks a steak at home, he was quick to point out that it depends on the circumstances.
“I’m not dogmatic. I’ll do whatever feels right in the moment,” he said. “If you’re at a barbecue and having a beer with friends, then I think it makes more sense socially to flip it when you think of it and not worry about it too much. Because it’s still going to be tasty meat, even if it’s not done quite as quickly or evenly as it might be otherwise. Those are small differences compared to enjoying the experience as a whole.”
The quick searing method on high heat before cooking meat through on lower heat in the oven is another great approach that prioritizes “a freedom not to pay attention to what’s going on,” he added. “That’s a restaurant technique that’s used all the time for exactly that reason.”
Whether fast-flipping is the best way to cook a steak ultimately depends on what you value according to McGee. “If people have different ways of cooking the same food, then that’s a pretty good argument all by itself that they’re all pretty good ways of cooking food, otherwise people wouldn’t do them,” he said.
What’s more important in his eyes is knowing what’s happening with a particular process before you begin. “Heat transfer can be a tricky thing in the kitchen,” McGee added. “Unless you understand what’s going on, it can play tricks on you and you can wind up grossly over or under cooking things.”