Cooking a nice tender steak without ruining it takes knowledge and skill. Some steaks are doomed to be tough before they ever hit the heat; others start out tender and toughen because of mistakes by inexperienced cooks. By carefully choosing your steak and controlling the cooking environment, you can have tender steak every time.
Tender Grades of Meat
Much of the tenderness of the steak is already determined when you purchase a steak. Steaks are graded for tenderness and fat content. The best steaks are USDA Prime grade and USDA Choice grade. Most Prime grade steaks are sold to restaurants, so look for Choice steaks for best quality and tenderness. A Choice steak has meat that is marbled throughout with thin veins of fat. This fat helps keep it juicy.
Cuts of Steak
The origin of the steak is also important. Meat from muscles that get a workout is more tough than steaks from the tenderloin, top loin, short loin and the rib. Porterhouse steaks, rib steaks, T-bones, Delmonicos and filet mignons are more tender than sirloin, round steaks and flank steaks.
Tenderize or Marinate Tough Cuts
Marinating or tenderizing steaks helps avoid a tough steak, but you must be careful with these techniques. Overtenderizing or overmarinating can result in a steak that is mushy in texture. A tough cut benefits from up to 4 hours in a marinade of equal parts wine and olive oil, with a little added lemon juice and seasonings such as garlic, ground pepper and herbs. Use meat tenderizer sparingly just before cooking. Tough steaks also respond to pounding with a meat mallet before cooking. Pounding breaks the connective tissues that make the meat chewy.
Control the Cooking
If you've chosen a tender steak, cook it quickly over a hot grill or pan-fry it in a hot, heavy skillet. Tender cuts are less tough when cooked quickly over high heat. Sear the meat until browned on one side before turning and turn the meat only once. Tougher cuts respond best to pan-frying or slow cooking over low heat. Allow the meat to rest for at least 3 minutes before slicing.
Overcooking Leads to Tough Meat
Another secret to tender meat is to cook it only until it is done to your liking, and no longer. Rare meat cooked to 125 degrees Fahrenheit will be the most tender. Medium-rare is 130 F, medium is 140 F and medium-well is 155 F. Meat that is cooked to medium-well or well-done will be tougher than rare or medium-rare steaks. It is necessary to consider that meat will continue to cook during the resting stage, with the temperature rising another 5 to 10 degrees. For food safety reasons, the USDA recommends cooking beef steaks to at least 145 F.
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