How to Cook a Steak in an Iron Skillet
Some items of food are easy to cook, and some which appear easy can be deceptively difficult. Cooking a steak falls into an “appears easy” category with a caveat that things can go awry unless attention is paid. To my mind, cooking steaks is all about speed and when a kitchen task involves speed, preparation is key as there is precious little time involved during the cooking process for distractions.
There are only a few decisions to be made before cooking a steak – the type of steak and which seasoning or marinade to use are important – but the choice of cooking vessel is of paramount importance. There are a few options here: grill pan, skillet, or if the weather is amenable, barbecue. A grill pan – the one with ridges – tends to be the heaviest of these. For this article, I’m going to look at using a skillet and my preference is for a robust, durable pan… so this is how to cook a steak in an iron skillet.
There is something primal about cooking a steak in an iron pan. One can imagine the sort of rudimentary cooking vessels used by our ancient ancestors, and making that connection across countless generations adds satisfaction to the process. Iron skillets are created to last, and since it is human nature to become attached to something, which we have used for years and years, a properly crafted and maintained iron skillet will become a staple part of the kitchen.
The other options for the composition of a skillet would typically include stainless steel, aluminum, or ceramic. My preference for cooking steaks using an iron skillet is because they are better at retaining heat once the desired temperature has been reached and are less prone to over-cooking steaks. Stainless steel or aluminum surfaces mean that the meat is closer to the source of heat and can lead to a charred and burnt steak unless very closely monitored.
This is the one downside of choosing an iron skillet over other types – they do require maintenance. Iron, by nature, has a tendency to rust but adherence to some simple maintenance tips will ensure that the iron skillet remains durable without developing rust marks.
Many skillets are pre-seasoned at the point of purchase, but it is advisable to treat them with flax or vegetable oil and to repeat this process regularly. Oil will also give the skillet a coating which means that the steak is less likely to stick to the pan during cooking.
Hand-washing is the optimum way to clean the skillet after use and even if the manufacturers deem the iron to be dishwasher-safe, it is preferable to wash by hand. The skillet should be perfectly dry before being packed away; otherwise, spots of rust can emerge.
Ok, that’s the technical stuff dealt with. Let’s turn our attention to the more interesting bit! People will have their preferred cut of steak – e.g. rib-eye, filet mignon, sirloin, etc. – but this guide will speak in general terms. Let’s assume that the steak is a good thick cut with an abundance of marbling (the white fat which runs through the cut and enhances the juicy texture of the meat). For pan-frying a steak, it should be boneless; the bone-in varieties lend themselves towards cooking in an oven.
Steak selected; you now need to season it before cooking. Pat the steak dry with some kitchen paper (as this allows the steak to brown faster) and then add salt and pepper. Some cooks favor salt alone, but I like the way the two complement each other. Herbs or spices can also be added at this stage although too many contrasting tastes detract from what can only be described as the meatiness of a cooked steak.
Opinions vary on how long the steak should be allowed to stand before cooking. One strand of thought suggests leaving for eight hours or even overnight. I always adhere to somewhere between 30 minutes and an hour, which allows the seasoning to flavor and result in a nice crust on the steak when cooking begins.
Ensure that the kitchen is well ventilated or that an extractor fan is in use as things are about to get heated! Add some oil to the skillet although not too much as the steak will release its juices and act as a lubricant to prevent it from sticking to the pan. Again, some people prefer to add butter to the skillet or even just to insert the steak and allow it to cook without any other agent but I take the view that a little oil works best.
Allowing the skillet to reach a high temperature is a pre-requisite to cooking steak, and I tend to let a couple of minutes elapse before introducing the steak. Since the pan we use is an iron skillet, those two or so minutes are essential as the robust layer of iron needs time to absorb the heat.
Hopefully, your iron skillet is one with a long handle so that you can hold the pan without getting spattered by the oil, which will sizzle and spit as soon as the steak hits the surface. Iron cookware is often one piece, and since the skillet is now hot, an oven glove may be required to avoid getting burnt fingers.
The steak should be turned during cooking – not repeatedly, once a minute or every 90 seconds works well for me – and it is also advisable to press it down to ensure it is evenly cooked. Browning soon begins, and it is a question of your personal preference as to how long the steak should be allowed to cook. In my experience, cooking both sides twice with the second session reduced in time delivers a perfectly cooked steak.
If things start looking a bit dry in the skillet, add a small knob of butter to avoid burning the steak. Using the procedure above will ensure that the steak is nicely browned with an appetizing crust and succulent throughout. By allowing the steak to rest for a minute or so after taking it from the pan, the juices will settle into the steak and further enhance the taste. That said, steak is at its best when eaten hot, so don’t delay starting your meal.
Besides, with those sublime aromas wafting around, you won’t want to delay. Bon Appetit!