Food and Drink

How To Cook a Restaurant-Quality Pan-Seared Steak at Home

Because making it for someone you care for is undoubtedly an act of love itself, and it's easier than ordering take-out.

Maple & Ash
Maple & Ash
Maple & Ash

Cooking a steak for someone you care for is undoubtedly a showcase of love. Cooking a steak for yourself is a moment of pure self-actualization. Searing a steak requires confidence, heart, and a no-fuss attitude. With this mentality and preferably a one and one-fourth inch thick cut ribeye, you are ready to play with the big kids. I checked in with Ryan DeNicola, Executive Chef of Nancy Silverton’s renowned Los Angeles steakhouse Chi SPACCA, for some hot takes on how to achieve professional meat tenderness with a perfect sear.

Steak should ideally be cooked in a cast iron pan. This type of pan retains and distributes heat more evenly, but if you are without a cast iron, you can still self actualize with a non-stick or whatever else you cook meat in. According to DeNicola, “pan searing is a method that involves cooking proteins on high heat, with plenty of fat. In doing so, we are able to obtain the advantages of the Maillard reaction, which is defined as the caramelization of sugars in proteins, named after Louis-Camille Maillard, a French chemist who theorized that this reaction of amino acids with sugars at high temperatures is the most common chemical reaction on Earth.” Yummy, science! To summarize: fire hot, meat good. 

Okay, has your steak come up to room temperature? Yes? Wonderful. You are ready.

Step one: dry your meat, friends. Removing excess moisture from your steak slab will expedite the evaporation of water in the protein. You want this. If your steak is too damp after sitting in its packaging, you won’t achieve a crisp sear, which is the entire point of this article, so pat it dry, okay? Next, coat the steak in olive oil. Don’t drown it. This isn’t a marinade, just a quick rub down to make it shine. This is the fat in the chemical reaction Chef DeNicola mentioned, along with the natural fats in the meat itself. Marbled meats and cuts that have a bit of a “fat cap” are my personal choice because of the way their fat interacts with the protein. I’m here for those rendered, natural juices, sweetie.

Photo Courtesy of Yummly
Photo Courtesy of Yummly
Photo Courtesy of Yummly

Pulling off a holiday meal shouldn’t be intimidating — not if you have the right help, anyway. The Yummly Smart Thermometer sets you up for cooking success, thanks to app-based cooking assistance, handy timers, and alerts that make it easier to multitask, without overcooking the main course. With it, even newbie hosts can feel confident about what they put on the table this year. Next, we season. DeNicola suggests about one teaspoon per pound of meat. We both agree a fairly generous amount of salt, evenly spread across the meat is the best way.  Next, a heavy handed amount of coarsely ground black pepper. If it’s ground any finer, it won’t do the meat justice, so don’t be afraid of a peppery crunch. This means each peppercorn should be cracked into three to four small pieces. DeNicola says, “don’t even bother” if it’s a smaller grind than this, ya hear?

Wait until the pan is ripping hot, then add the meat. DeNicola notes that if you have several steaks, make sure there is at least a half an inch of space in all directions between them, because “overcrowding the pan will screw up the work you did to dry the steak in step one.” The remaining moisture will start to steam the meat if they are in too close proximity, and we are searing, not steaming. (If you are cooking a singular steak, this note does not apply).

Please, do not touch your steak for at least two minutes. This is that no-fuss attitude I mentioned. Refrain from moving or lifting to peek under the steak during these first few minutes to check if it’s working. It is. “Let it burn. Don’t be afraid of color. We have a saying in restaurants, ‘color is flavor.’ Color on a sear shows that you know what you’re doing, and that you respect Louise-Camille Maillard, always respect Louise!” DeNicola declares with panache. 
 
Once your steak has caramelized enough to form a crust, flip that goodness over and cook another two to three minutes on the remaining side. Depending on the thickness of your steak, you might want to sear the ends as well if they look like they need a little more of this color. This is not always necessary, but when it is, use tongs to hold the steak in place while it gets hit with the heat. The thicker your steak, the longer it will take to cook, but not much longer. Remove from the pan and let rest. A steak should be cooked medium rare. You can disagree and have other preferences but, you will be wrong. I say this with compassion.Using a meat thermometer will help determine doneness if you don’t trust the touch method yet. (It should feel tender, but have a bit of a spring back when you press your finger to it.) I suggest removing the steak at 130 degrees as it will come up about five degrees from residual heat while it rests, and 135 is a perfect medium rare. “The fibers will calm and distribute their juices evenly throughout the steak,” says DeNicola. Let it hang out for about five to eight minutes before you slice, and always cut against the grain-this helps to disrupt the integrity of the fibers, which makes each bite easier to chew, giving the meat a better mouthfeel. DeNicola’s favorite way to serve steak is doused in excellent olive oil, a few flakes of sea salt, and BOOM! *Chef’s kiss*

I also love a steak covered in compound butter, which is just butter mixed with other ingredients, typically garlic and herbs. This is a charming little topper and never fails to disappoint. If this is your desired effect, get a tablespoon or two of softened butter and mix with finely minced garlic, rosemary, thyme, tarragon, or whatever herbs suit your fancy (dry herbs work too if you’re just rummaging through the spice rack.) The butter works best pressed, and rechilled so you can slice it and let the steak’s heat warm it back up, in real time.

While on the subject…

If your preference is to baste with butter during the cooking process, I relate. This is an attractive technique, especially when cooking in front of others: it’s vibey. A basting spoon filled with hot, foaming butter, paired with the aromatics of a sprig of rosemary, thyme, and a clove or two of garlic certainly isn’t going to suck.  If this is the method you’re looking for, add in a knob of butter, and aforementioned garlic and herbs during the second side of your searing process. You don’t want to add the herbs too soon because they’ll burn, and the initial side of the meat needs that hard sear. Listen for the sizzle, then add your other tidbits and baste after you’ve flipped the steak. The point of this approach is to coat the crust with butter (the raw side need not be basted).

Steak, in its simplicity, is a perfect food. When seasoned with intention and cooked mindfully, it is indulgent as much as it is honest. Also, it’s been maybe 15 minutes since the start of this project, and you have already achieved meat bliss. Incredible journey!Basic ingredients:

  • Ribeye steak, 1 – 1 ¼ inch thick (or bone-in New York)
  • salt and coarsely ground black pepper
  • olive oil

​​Optional:

  • 1-2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • rosemary sprig
  • thyme sprig

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Greer Glassman is a Thrillist contributor.

Food and Drink

What We Learned About Fish From Spending An Afternoon With Josh Niland

It’s time to stop putting your fish in water, you’re killing the flavour

fish in coolroom
Photo By Natasha Bazika

“How do you want your fish,” says a fishmonger dressed head to toe in black, to a customer ordering a kilo of Greenback Flounder from Coorong, SA. The customer is unsure of how he wants the fish but asks the fishmonger for advice after telling him what he plans to do with the fish. Immediately the fishmonger knows how to cut the flounder, wraps it in paper, and hands it off to the customer—but not before giving a tip or two on how to cook it. 

“This is how we sell trust and instil confidence,” says Josh Niland who appeared from around the counter, donning his chef whites and a crisp white apron. We’re in Fish Butchery, Niland’s fish shop in Paddington, 20-metres down the road from his two-hatted seafood restaurant, Saint Peter. It’s a humble fish shop that feels luxurious when you walk in. Perhaps, it’s the cased sausages hanging in the front window, or the glass cabinet with one of everything they’re selling that day on display. You won’t find piles of fish or large blue trays of ice with fish lying on top. Everything is in controlled cabinets, including the oysters.

The shop is long and narrow with exposed brick walls, which Niland explains had a previous life as a hair salon. “I never wanted the shop to be uptight, but I did want it to be beautiful, a place you could walk in, order fish and chips, or a piece of fish to cook at home,” says Niland. In the middle of the room, there is a slab of white-marble serving as the backbone. This is where the fish is descaled with what Niland likes to call a ‘beartrap on a stick’. Although some fishmongers wield the beartrap, flinging scales up their arms, others use a knife, slicing the scales in one long strip, resembling snakeskin. 

“The fish here will be used for sushi and sashimi,” Niland explains pointing at the fish being scaled by a knife. “What we’re trying to do here is to get between the scale and the fish, so we can control the texture of the fish and remove moisture from the fish.” 

Removing moisture from the fish is something we don’t see often, but as Niland explains, it is the most important step in preparing the fish. “You know that fishy fish smell you get a waft of walking into a fish market or other fish shop,” Niland asks. I briefly pause to remember smelling nothing when I walked into Fish Butchery, except the faint smell of fries sizzling in the fryer. “Well that’s because moisture gets into the skin, and when that happens water rapidly breaks down into ammonia, resulting in a fishy smell.” It’s another reason Niland often gets lost when a customer asks for a fish that’s not too fishy.

As he explains, fishy fish are only “fishy” because of the way it’s stored and handled. Which explains why the fish scaled with the bear claw are immediately hung, away from moisture. 

descaling fish
Photo By Natasha Bazika

“When the scaler rips up the scale, it leaves an open pocket where the scale used to be. This pocket is quite deep and what usually happens is the fish is washed down then dipped in water. The water sits in that pocket, and after some time creates a fishy smell,” explains Niland. 

This is the core of Niland’s philosophy. Removing moisture from the fish opens up a realm of opportunities that exists beyond the conventional method, according to Niland.

Our next step takes us to the cool room, where rows of gutted fish are hung up on silver hooks as butchers do to meat. They’re not swimming in buckets of ice or water, instead, they are dangling a safe distance from each other, careful not to touch one another. The coolroom is set to an optimal temperature, there is no fan blowing in the room, and only when the fish is ready to be served, then it will be unhooked and dealt with accordingly. 

“Every step from the catching, killing, and preparing is important in achieving flavour,” says Niland who points out a row of garfish in a dry tray. “If you kill a fish properly, there shouldn’t be any lactic acid, which you can tell by the flesh—it looks cooked.” 

So what’s the best way to humanely and effectively kill a fish? According to Niland, brain spike or bleeding the fish keeps the fish from flopping around, building up chemicals that can affect the flavour later on. 

Bringing the attention back to the garfish, Niland explains there are moments when fish tastes better. This tray of Garfish is ready to go, but then Niland points to a hanging coral trout which has until Friday before it’s served on someone’s plate. 

chef showing fish in coolroom
Photo By Natasha Bazika

“This fish arrived today, it’s been scaled and gutted, but it won’t be ready until the end of the week. That’s not the case for all fish though, this tuna I would serve on day 8 or 9,” says Niland. “There’s a point where a fish’s fat is more prominent, which again comes back to removing as much moisture as we can and controlling the handling and environment from day one.”

Niland sources produce from fisherman around Australia and he takes only whatever he can get. 

“I go to the airport to pick up fish once or twice a week from my sources, and I’ll visit the Sydney Fish Market daily to see what they have, but at my shop, I serve whatever I can get my hands on,” explains Niland. “Our customers ask for recommendations so we tell them, King George Whiting is excellent today, and we might offer tips on storing it at home, how to cook it, and if I have a recipe card, I’m more than happy to share.”

As Niland explains it, not everyone knows how to cook a certain fish, and he wants more people to choose an unfamiliar fish, something they haven’t had before or cooked before. The best way to do so is by helping his customers understand the product. “The bottom line is we want people to have a better experience with fish,” says Niland. 

This stays true to his sustainable approach to fishing and his pioneering nose-to-tail eating method for fish. “The global standard is that half goes in the bin, which breaks down to about a 45% fillet yield,” says Niland who remains unaffected after 10-minutes of chatting in the cool room. “For every two fish, we only need one. I use about 95% of the fish.”

We finally leave the coolroom, to approach a small fridge, where fish are being dry-aged, but in a different control to the dry ageing fish in the coolroom. “It’s just another way to experiment with the flavour and natural method of prolonging shelf life,” says Niland. 

“I’m always thinking, how can I articulate the flavour of fish differences between coral trout and snapper.”

cuts of fish
Photo By Natasha Bazika

Niland’s experimentation finds him continually exploring low-temperature storage, probing which fish works best for it, and noting when a fish reaches its sweet spot. More like a mad scientist, Niland is far from a conventional fishmonger, as he dives deep to push boundaries on how seafood is caught, shopped, and cooked whether at home or at Saint Peter. 

One look at his book, The Whole Fish Cookbook, is enough to convince you of his outrageous, funny, and loopy suggestions on what to cook, including coaxing delicious dishes from fish eyeballs. liver and even fish blood. 

If there is anything we can take away from spending an afternoon with Josh Niland, it would be his pioneering penchant for demystifying fish, his care and attention to preparing fish, and his sustainable seafood philosophy, that we hope catches on around the world. 

Niland enjoys the complexity of fish, yet breaks it down for us so that we can enjoy and achieve a perfectly cooked piece of fish at home. His humble approach to seafood is nothing short of inspiring. He wants to change the world, but it’s not going to be easy and you get the sense he knows that, but he continues, one fish at a time, to change how we cook, eat, and look at fish.

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