During the Great War no man’s land was a place where nobody wanted to be.
If you found yourself there, chances are you would not escape uninjured. Worse yet, you might well end up dead.
Contemplating my sirloin steak on Friday night, as I fried it in my 35-year-old ribbed cast iron skillet, I was fraught as ever.
The things is, I’m a medium guy when it comes to steak, whereas the rest of the family – read dear sweet Elspeth and beloved daughter Alexandra – are little other than medium-rare martinets.
Steak doneness is hotly contested terrain, but here’s one set of definitions that make sense:
Rare – very red, cool centre
Medium rare – warm, red centre
Medium – pink centre
Medium well – slightly pink centre
Well done – cooked through, no pink
Whereas the first two and the last two all have a degree of leeway, medium falls into a very narrow band of doneness, which makes it in some senses, the no man’s land of steak.
On the menu of any reputable steak joint you will see a disclaimer of sorts warning you that steak done beyond medium-well is at the diner’s risk.
The best I ever saw read something like this: “Well done – not recommended. If you insist on asking us to murder a perfectly good piece of steak, we take no responsibility for the outcome.
“It is entirely at your own risk, and you may not return it to the kitchen if you find it tough, dry and inedible. Which, inevitably, you will.”
Ergo, murdering a good piece of steak by grilling it well done amounts to little more than sacrilege.
So how do you tell the difference, and more importantly, how do you get it just right? After all, you can hardly slice the steak open while it is grilling to check the level of doneness.
You could use a meat thermometer and follow temperature guidelines, but with thin cuts of meat, like the run-of-the-mill steak, it is less easy than you might think.
Pushing the thermometer probe just the right distance into the meat is tricky, and besides, poking holes in your meat allows juices to escape, and that’s a bad idea.
The finger test is the best quick-* -dirty method, which relies on you pressing your finger tip into the fleshy area between your thumb and the base of your palm, and then doing the same to your steak.
Starting with your hand completely open, palm up and relaxed, press on the fleshy area. This is how raw meat feels, and to verify this, press on a piece of raw steak.
For rare, gently press the tip of your index finger to the tip of your thumb. Press the fleshy area, and you’ll notice that it has less give then with an open relaxed hand.
For medium rare, gently press the tip of your middle finger to the tip of your thumb. Press the fleshy area, you’ll feel that it is firmer, offering less resistance.
For medium – the no man’s land of steak – gently press the tip of your ring finger to the tip of your thumb. It is firmer and offers more resistance.
We’re getting into doubtful territory here, but for medium well, press the tip of your thumb to the second joint of your ring finger, then press that fleshy area. It will be very firm, offering little resistance.
If you really want to know how a murdered steak feels, press the tip of your pinky finger to the tip of your thumb. The fleshy area will now be almost unyielding.
There is no need to cook a steak thus to verify my assertion. You may take me at my word.
As much as perceptions vary about doneness, so to do perceptions about how best to cook a steak.
In a braai-mad country like South Africa, that’s easy: your steak will end up on the grid, probably over a medium-hot fire, but I find that I have more control in a cast-iron skillet over consistent heat.
Opinions vary about how often you should turn your steak, from only once to every 15 seconds, the latter according to celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, he of The Fat Duck fame. Quite frankly, I do not have the patience, and besides, you’ll get no tasty browning at that rate.
It also depends on the thickness of the cut, but suffice to say turning every minute makes sense to me.
If the steak has a fat strip, I like to stand it on the fat end and grill it for up to five minutes, which renders a good deal of the fat, and makes what is left crispy and delicious.
It makes sense to pour off the fat before laying the steak down for the grilling part.
Check your steaks regularly as they are grilling using the finger test and you’ll find you can get steaks of varying thickness done to perfection with a bit of practice.
Of course, the best way to do a steak in my humble opinion – is to pan roast it, which entails searing the steak for one to two minutes a side, then putting it in a 200ºC oven in the skillet for between two and six minutes, depending upon the thickness.
I find this does the steak through far more evenly than either braaing, or grilling it only in a skillet.
You can still use the finger test to assess doneness using this method.
But like I said, this is hotly contested territory, so I’d be interested to hear what our readers say about cooking the perfect steak.