There’s no fine dining experience quite like the one you’ll have in a great steakhouse. In a world where most high-end restaurants tend to skew toward the precious and intricate, having a big slab of perfectly cooked beef placed before you can make for a much-appreciated change of pace. But how exactly do steakhouse chefs consistently turn out steaks that are so inexplicably tender and delicious? And why does it seem to be nearly impossible to replicate a steakhouse steak at home?
There are a handful of reasons why it’s not easy to make a steak at home that bears even a passing resemblance to the one you’ll be served at your local Ruth’s Chris. Just about every step of the process is different, from the meat quality to seasoning, cooking technique, heat level, and even the addition of a secret ingredient or two. There are also a few things that go on behind the scenes at great steakhouses that you might not have realized. For one, some steakhouses par-cook their steaks before service, then finish them over high heat when they’re ordered. There’s not much of a reason to do that at home.
Surprisingly, there’s one tool that’s essential to cooking a great steak at home that you won’t find in most steakhouse kitchens: a digital meat thermometer. If you find out exactly what temperature is perfect for you, you’ll never screw up a home-cooked steak again. However, great steakhouses still have a few tricks up their sleeves that make them, well, great steakhouses.
That deep, dark, caramelized crust on steaks from great steakhouses? You can thank an infrared broiler for that. While some steakhouses still grill or griddle their steaks, many use infrared broilers, which superheat large surfaces to an even temperature. Many steakhouses, like Ruth’s Chris, depend entirely on these broilers to cook their steaks (some finish their steaks in the oven if they’re being cooked past medium), and while they can be difficult to master, the end result is a steak with a better crust than just about anything you can accomplish at home.
Yelp/ Kathy H.
It’s no secret that the best steakhouses use the best beef, but did you know that great steakhouses use meat that’s of a higher quality than 98 percent of the rest of the beef out there? It’s called USDA Prime, and to achieve that ranking it needs to have the highest level of marbling, or intramuscular fat, and also be from the youngest cows. You’re not likely to find USDA Prime beef at your local supermarket, unfortunately, though some high-end butcher shops do carry it.
Some steakhouses serve “wet-aged” beef, which is essentially steak that’s been stored in an airtight vacuum-sealed plastic bag for a few days or weeks. The majority of casual chain restaurant steaks are wet-aged, and while wet-aged beef is marginally more tender than beef that hasn’t been aged at all, it’s a lot less robustly flavored than its more upscale counterpart, dry-aged beef. When a steakhouse says its steaks are simply “aged,” they’re usually wet-aging their steaks; if a restaurant is dry-aging, they makes sure you know.
InterContinental Hong Kong
Most great steakhouses dry-age their beef for anywhere from two to three weeks, and some even go longer than that. In order to dry-age beef, whole primal cuts (large pieces of meat carved out at butchering) are stored in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room and carefully monitored. When ready to serve, the layer of mold that has formed on the meat's surface is removed before it’s cut into steaks, and the end result has a more robust, earthy, funky, mineral-y flavor that steakhouse fans know and love. But don’t automatically assume that it’s better when a steakhouse dry-ages their beef on-premises as opposed to outsourcing it; it’s very difficult to control perfect aging conditions, so there’s nothing wrong with restaurants hiring a third party to dry-age beef for them.
If you were to attempt to cook a steak at home with the same amount of heat that steakhouses use, you’d end up with a very smoky kitchen and maybe even a fire on your hands. Those infrared broilers can reach temperatures of over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and can cook a two-inch-thick steak in a matter of minutes. Even the ovens that the steaks are finished in often reach temperatures of more than 500 degrees.
You know that sizzling effect that Ruth’s Chris is famous for? That’s the result of adding a big dollop of butter to the pan right before the steak is served. Steakhouses use all sorts of techniques to make sure their steaks are juicy and flavorful (sometimes even basting them with suet, or beef kidney fat), but many steakhouses aren’t afraid to use a whole lot of butter to kick their steaks into overdrive. And if you’re prioritizing flavor over calorie content in your home cooking, you shouldn’t be, either.
The reason why steakhouse chefs don’t use instant-read thermometers in the kitchen? They don’t need to. By keeping track of how long the steak has been in the broiler (or maybe by giving it a poke or two with their finger), the grill-masters at steakhouses know exactly how cooked a particular steak is. It’s a skill that can take years of practice to perfect.
Steakhouses go through a lot of steaks, but there are always some that sit around for a longer period of time than others. Instead of being thrown out, however, these older steaks (which are still completely edible, just lacking some flavor) tend to be reserved for those who order their steaks well-done, because the diner really won’t be able to tell the difference in a piece of meat so thoroughly cooked.
Well-marbled steaks contain a whole lot of fat, and with the addition of butter and other cooking oils the calorie count of a steakhouse dinner could be off the charts. For example, a 14-ounce ribeye from Outback Steakhouse will set you back 762 calories and 49 grams of fat, and that’s before the mashed potatoes and mac and cheese. A home-cooked steak from a lean cut of beef can actually be quite healthy, but a Prime porterhouse at a fancy steakhouse? not so much.
Without salt, steaks just don’t taste like steaks. Steakhouse cooks liberally apply salt to every square millimeter of a steak before it goes into the broiler, usually kosher salt. When it arrives at your table it doesn’t taste salty; it just tastes like a great steak.
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