It is easy to get a very nice crust on a steak by just using a very hot cast iron pan. In fact, my favorite way of cooking steaks these days is to cook the steak sous-vide for 45 minutes to 3 hours at 130 degrees, then to dry it, and to cook it for about 4 minutes with a little oil in a hot cast iron pan, flipping it frequently. The sous-vide cooks it evenly to medium, and then the hot cast iron pan gives it a nice crust.
The three key steps for this are:
- Have the surface of the steak dry. (Maillard reactions cannot take place below the boiling point of water.) Normally I use paper towels to dry the surface. Another technique which can be useful is to use a small fan, which is what I used in the steak in this post.
- Have a hot cast iron pan. Cast iron has the mass to store a lot of heat to be transferred to the steak.
- Flip the steak frequently. The more frequently the steak is flipped, the more evenly the heat is diffused throughout the meat. (This is the reason why rotisseries work so well.)
The NY Times recently had an article in which Julia Moskin wrote about cooking a steak in a hot cast iron pan using only ½ tsp. of coarse salt (I used kosher salt) as a lubricant. I used a 1 inch thick NY strip steak. I was pretty sure that this would work well, and that it would also risk setting off the smoke alarms. I was right on both counts.
I allowed the steak to rest at room temperature for about an hour. While the steak was resting, I dried the surface of the steak with paper towels, and then put it on a rack in front of a fan to continue to dry the surface.
I opened several windows and turned the stove fan on high. I preheated the cast iron frying pan in the oven at 500 degrees for about 20 minutes, and then put it on a burner on the stove on high. I sprinkled ½ tsp. of kosher salt in the pan, and then cooked the steak, flipping after 1 minute on a side for one rotation, and then 30 seconds on a side until it was cooked to about medium on an instant read thermometer, about 10 minutes total. We then let it rest about 3 minutes before cutting and serving. After about 4 minutes, since the crust was well developed and there was a lot of smoke being produced, I reduced the temperature to medium with the goal of ensuring that it would be cooked through the center before the outside was excessively crusty.
My conclusion? Yes, this technique works, and it produced a good piece of steak with a nice crust. At the same time, I made a spattered mess on the stove and generated a lot of smoke, although with the windows and doors open, not enough to set off a fire alarm.