Steak in a Dorm

Meat porn

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 works—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 Choice—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.

long life noodles

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 bone­less—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?—I’ll rank your choices:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. In fact, ten­der­loin in gen­er­al should be avoid­ed at the begin­ning of your steak exper­i­ments: it’s just too expen­sive to risk ruining.
  7. 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!—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.

24oz strip steak from Publix—my hand is quite large, so this photo doesn't do it justice

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.

Steak standing on its edge

It looks stu­pid, but remem­ber that fat is an insulator—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.

OK this just looks weird

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.

Steak cooking on one side in butter

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.

Steak flipped over in pan

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.

Fresh butter for more cooking

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.

Resting steak in plate—just trust me on the chopsticks

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!

Meat porn

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.

Steak, Spaten Optimator, and kale salad with turmeric/cumin shrimp

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.

  1. Not that I’m a hip­ster. []
  2. 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. []
  3. Cita­tion need­ed. []
  4. It would look kind of gray and weird at the edges if you had only seared the top and bot­tom sides. []
  5. Nor cas­es of acute car­diac arrest. []
  6. Typ­i­cal­ly speak­ing. []