College dorm kitchens are filled with third-world problems transcribed into extremely first-world contexts. These are defined by such questions as, “what food can I afford to eat?” or, “how can I cook with what I’ve got?”
Unlike true third-world problems, these are then elaborated on by statements such as, “I’ve spent all my internship money on robots” or “my fully-equipped Olympic Village suite kitchen might get smokey, setting off the fire alarm.”
Regardless of how hurt your sense of entitlement may be by deep introspection into your position on Maslow’s pyramid, the answer is steak.
Steak is the perfect bachelor(ette) food: you take meat and add heat, then eat. It’s then delicious yet somehow classy, despite requiring all the culinary sophistication of a high school dropout caveman. In fact, the rest of this post is just garnish on top of the simple “meat + heat + eat” formula, and is just filler info to impress your friends with. Feel free to just scroll for meat porn.
Step 1: Buy meat
Supermarket meat totally worksâ€”you’re not going to go out of your way to support small business and celebrate local farms by finding a butcher you can talk to, so you’ll be buying pre-cut, prepackaged steaks from the supermarket. Pro tip: Korean supermarkets price their beef according to Korean demand (i.e., kalbi or short rib), so they have great deals on traditional Western steak cuts. Plus, H‑Marts and Assi Plazas are surgically clean. Damn, man.
USDA Choiceâ€”the USDA system rates beef on how much marbling (in-muscle fat) is in the beef, and Prime (the highest level) is too expensive for you unless you’re rolling in dough.
Meat flavor, especially “beefiness,” is conveyed by melted fat, and lean ol’ USDA Select (the lowest level you’ll find at the meat aisle) just won’t deliver it. Choice, which is between Select and Prime, is a fine compromise between cost and deliciousness.
Go bonelessâ€”You’re too lazy to cut out the bones yourself, and you don’t want to pay for bones anyways. Plus, since you’ll be cooking with a pan, you don’t want the bone to prop up the meat away from the pan’s surface.
Cut?â€”I’ll rank your choices:
- Ribeye: one of the most flavorful cuts of beef available. It’s not the most tender (but still very), but you’ll enjoy chewing it enough to not care. Comes from the ribs (duh).
- Strip: slightly more tender but slightly less flavorful than ribeye. Tends to cost the same, but works slightly better with my method. Comes from the short loin, which is between the ribs and butt of a cow.
- Sirloin: closer to the cow butt than the short loin, yet somehow has less fat. More tender than either of the above, but at great cost to flavor. When being snobbish about steak, remember to mix in political commentary about sirloin’s popularity in the US versus the prevalence of more flavorful, less easy-to-eat cuts in other countries. You’ll look so cool and avant-garde putting down Americans when it comes to food.
- Flank, skirt, hanger: traditionally cheap but very flavorful, tougher cuts from the bottom side of the cow. Thanks to Internet popularity, you’re unlikely to find them very cheap in a supermarket, so the best you can do is whine like a hipster about them1. For the most part, they tend to be too thin to cook in a dorm kitchen.
- T‑bone & Porterhouse: basically a strip steak with a bone and a slice of tenderloin. The bone is bad enough for cooking in a pan, but the leaner tenderloin cooks quicker and thus dries out by the time you’re done with the strip part. Also, stupidly expensive.
- In fact, tenderloin in general should be avoided at the beginning of your steak experiments: it’s just too expensive to risk ruining.
- Chuck, brisket, round, blade: cuts which are too lean or have too much connective tissue to eaten as steak, unless you like your steak dry, tough, and gray.
Tri-tip is another option, but I’ve yet to experiment with it.
Thick!â€”seriously, go for at least 1.25 inches of thickness. Steak is meant to be cooked unevenly; you want the inside to be medium rare (reddish-pink and juicy) and the outside charred and crusted. In between will be a region of well-done meat, and with a thicker slab of beef that region will be a smaller proportion of the total thickness.
Step 2: Season meat
Dump salt on it2.
Step 3: Heat meat
For the purposes of this post, I’m using a 1.75-inch thick USDA Choice strip steak.
This is thick enough for it to stand on its edge. In fact, this is what exactly we’re going to do. Get your pan sizzling hot then smack the steak down edge-wise, fattest edge first.
It looks stupid, but remember that fat is an insulatorâ€”it’s going to cook way slower than muscle will3. We’re giving it a head start by rendering the beef, letting the molten fat baste flavor into the steak. Meanwhile, the edge gets a nice sear4.
Next we’re going to go low and slow on the sides using butter as a cooking fat. If you’re a steak fanatic or a foodie, you’re probably about to call the cops, but just trust me on this; I’m an engineer.
Frying steak in butter will arouse the attentions of all mid-sized carnivores in a 50-meter radius. I am not responsible for any restraining orders or child support payments5 resulting from your use of this method and your sexy neighbors’ subsequent siege of your kitchen.
We flip the steak as it cooks and spoon the cooking oil all over the crust of the steak.
Remember that the strong emotions caused by basting the beautiful brown crust of your meat are not those of intense rage, as I initially thought, but merely extreme nonsexual6 arousal.
After eight to ten minutes, the beef and dairy solids in the cooking fat begin to darken and burn beyond what will richen the flavor of the steak. At this point, transfer the steak to paper towels and dump the grease. Then (carefully!) wipe the hot pan with more paper towels. We add more butter and return the steak to the pan for an agonizing period of more cooking.
Step 4: Rest meat
We remove the steak from heat and let it sit on a warm plate for half the time it took to cook. This is by far the most difficult part of making a steak, by dint of the despair at not being able to tuck into your perfect creation.
It is also one of those subtle points glossed over by “meat + heat + eat,” as it notably involves neither heat nor eat.
The bulging of the steak should give you some idea of why it needs to rest. Your steak is a butter-covered balloon ready to burst, and will do so with even a simple slice across the grain, spilling precious juices all over.
Step 5: Eat meat
Slice it up across the grain and go at it!
If you’re going to do do dorm steak, you might as well do a fancy dorm salad as well. I used the resting time to broil frozen shrimp in a toaster oven with oil, salt, cumin, and turmeric, then tossed them into a bed of kale drizzled with balsamic and olive oil. Dorm folks take note: shrimp and kale will keep for weeks to months in your freezer or fridge (resp.) without loss of flavor or texture.
Now, because you’re a filthy college student and your disgusting supermarket steak is only medium rare, it’s potentially crawling with bacteria. It’s best to use alcohol to disinfect your food as you eat. Given that you probably don’t like wine (yet), I recommend a Doppelbock or a strong lager.
I cooked dorm steak in a complex process involving ghetto sous vide, a hefty propane torch, and (just that once) a fire alarm. That is, I did until I read Alain Ducasse’s column for the NY Times:
I do not use very high heat, because you get good caramelization in that amount of time. I’m not interested in carbonizing the surface of the meat. To me that ruins the flavor.
His method, involving rendering and a frightening amount of beurre (butter), was mind-blowing to me. My skepticism was soon overcome when I flipped my first buttery slab of beef, and was driven to tears by a crust gorgeous beyond any of my wildest fantasies involving mammal flesh.
Thank you, M. Ducasse. I’m putting away the blowtorch.
- Not that I’m a hipster. [▲]
- Overnight in polyethylene wrap with coarse salt (e.g. Kosher salt) works best, but the difference won’t be huge. Overnight because the salt will break down some connective tissue, and coarse salt because the larger grains can absorb more moisture before getting sucked into the meat. Also, it takes way more salt than you’d expect to season a steak, but it’s up to you. [▲]
- Citation needed. [▲]
- It would look kind of gray and weird at the edges if you had only seared the top and bottom sides. [▲]
- Nor cases of acute cardiac arrest. [▲]
- Typically speaking. [▲]