Memorial Day Meals

A Top Chef’s Secret to Cooking the Perfect Steak

Acclaimed chef and author John Tesar shares his tips and tricks for cooking steak.

Kevin Marple

For many Americans, Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial start of backyard grilling season. But before you pull out your grill and get it ready for your first big cookout, chef John Tesar has some advice that may make you rethink everything you thought you knew about cooking a steak.

Tesar’s techniques, which he developed by running acclaimed Dallas restaurant Knife, are so interesting and unorthodox that with the help of James Beard Award-winning writer Jordan Mackay, he recently wrote them down to share with professional and amateur chefs alike. The resulting book, Knife: Texas Steakhouse Meals at Home, was just released a few weeks ago and has the potential of giving pit masters across the country bad dreams until Labor Day.

For one, steady yourself: He says forget using your grill, no matter if it’s a gas or a charcoal model. He only uses direct fire for cooking large cuts of meat, but for a steak he prefers a much simpler method: a cast iron or a carbon steel pan.

“The pan works for everything,” he swears. “It works for hamburgers. It works for filet mignon. It works for every cut of meat.”

And no matter what cut you choose, “the pan automatically sears the piece of meat immediately,” he says, which makes it extra juicy. On the other hand, “if you [use] anything else, you’re basically just putting burn marks on it and all of the juice is going into the fire.”

He does suggest buying a so-called portable gas cassette burner that allows you to cook outside. “The average person who cooks a steak in a pan will smoke out their house,” he says. “That’s why you don’t have a barbecue grill in your house.”

Tesar suggest you start by dry aging your meat yourself. It sounds complicated, but it just means keeping the meat unwrapped, lying on a bed of paper towels on a plate in your fridge for three or four days. Keep replacing the towels as they get wet and pouring off any liquids. Once you’re ready to cook, pat the steak dry and allow it warm up. “You can’t put a wet steak in a pan because then you have water in the pan and it wreaks havoc,” he cautions.

The cooking process is also fairly simple. Heat up the pan until it’s “ripping hot,” he says, and then add some canola or grapeseed oil as well as salt and pepper. Tesar doesn’t like using olive oil or even a pat of butter but prefers a neutral oil. A steak “has enough protein and enough fat and you don’t need butter. I want to taste beef,” he says. “I don’t want to taste butter.”

Right after the steak has been added to the pan, Tesar quickly lifts it up to allow the oil and rendered fat to coat the bottom of the meat. He then flips the steak just once or twice and lets it cook the same amount of time on both sides, which “ensures evenness of cooking.” (Don’t keep moving it around the pan or flipping it over and over again.) After you get a nice crust, turn the “flame down to a medium to a medium high. You don’t want to char it,” he warns. “You really want to crust it. Brown is the color, not black.”

Once the steak is done, pull it out of the pan and generally let it rest as long as you’ve cooked it.

Do people ever miss the grill marks? Tesar claims that nobody at his successful Dallas restaurant sends their steak back because it’s been cooked in a pan. If anything, they want to know why it tastes so delicious.