Flipping or not?
Regular readers of these pages, and indeed people that I know in reality, may be under the impression that my dining life is an endless parade of parmesan ice cream and crocodile meat, or whatever this is. But my food tastes are actually often quite simple and in that interest there is very little that I can imagine that is better than a really well cooked steak (and not even having to have chocolate sauce with it!).
Steak is much enjoyed as a special occasion food, and pretty expensive to get a good one, meaning that inevitably there is a great deal of discussion, debate and interest in how best to prepare one. Just type in “how to cook…” or “how to cook the perfect…” into google and wait for it to autofill the rest of the sentence and you’ll see what I mean (and that there’s a remarkable amount of unsureness about how to cook asparagus as well. Asparagus? Really? Who knew?).
Naturally, it’s an area that various top chefs have their own advice to give to ensure you can get the best cooked steak you can. But, when Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal don’t quite see eye to eye, in particular with regard to the issue of flipping the steak and when and how often in should be done, how can we know which way is best? I decided to test it.
Something that requires a level of care and a set of appropriate processes passed down from one cook to another will always attract the interest of molecular gastronomy enthusiasts and their investigations. The main observations of Hervé This, the inventor of molecular gastronomy (remember him?), in this area concern the searing of meat and the myth that searing meat cauterises it and seals in its internal juices. In his book Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor, This cites 1880 French classic La Cuisinière Modèle, which advised: “Put the roast on the spit before a very hot fire, in order to sear and tighten the pores of the meat, which thus conserves the juices.”
“Not only does the notion of ‘pores’ have no anatomical basis,” This writes, “But measurement shows that the loss of juices actually increases with cooking. Empirical analysis also establishes that juices do not flow back to the center of the roast; the density of the cooked center does not differ significantly from that of raw meat. This means that the center has undergone little or no modification during cooking (which is not surprising in the case of French-style roasts, which remain almost raw in the center) and also that the center is full of juices compressed by the shrinking of the collagen.” In fact, he goes so far as to suggest: “Why not use a syringe to reinject the juices that have drained out during cooking?”, something I was probably not going to do.
The discrediting of the “seal in the juices” myth came as something of a surprise to Heston Blumenthal, who, in his book Heston Blumenthal at Home, says: “you hear this said all the time, even by reputably chefs…up to that point I’d unquestioningly accepted the orthodoxy, just like most other people.” It was the exhaustive encyclopaedia McGee on Food and Cooking that showed Blumenthal why he, and all those other reputable chefs, was wrong: “with the kind of irrefutable logic that makes you wonder why you hadn’t worked it out for yourself. As he points out, that hiss and sizzle you hear when a steak hits the pan is the juices vigorously boiling away.”
When discussing what he calls “the searing question”, Harold McGee points to the Victorian German chemist Justus von Liebig as the originator: “Before Liebig, most cooks in Europe cooked roasts through at some distance from the fire, or protected by a layer of greased paper, and then browned them quickly at the end. Juice retention was not a concern. But Liebig thought that the water-soluble components of meat were nutritionally important, so it was worth minimizing their loss…’When it [the meat, according to Liebig] is introduced into the boiling water, the albumen immediately coagulates from the surface inwards, and in this state forms a crust or shell, which no longer permits the external water to penetrate into the interior mass of flesh.'” According to McGee, the science behind this idea was disproved by experiments made in the 1930s, but nevertheless remains popular for one good reason: searing the meat does make it taste better. Why is this?
What actually occurs in the searing of a steak is a Maillard reaction (named for French physician Louis Camille Maillard, who discovered this process in 1910). These are the reactions responsible for the colour and flavour after cooking of everything from coffee and chocolate to bread and beer, as well as roast meat. It is essentially a caramelisation in a food that is not primarily sugar. “The sequence begins with the reaction of a carbohydrate molecule (a free sugar or one bound up in starch) and an amino acid (free or part of a protein chain),” McGee writes, “An unstable intermediate structure is formed, and this then undergoes further changes, producing hundreds of different by-products. A brown coloration and full, intense flavor result. Maillard flavors are more complex and meaty than caramelized flavors, because the involvement of the amino acids adds nitrogen and sulfur atoms to the mix of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen”. This produces a far more complex and interesting array of flavours. “Above all else,” McGee says, “searing intensifies flavor by means of the browning reactions, and intense flavor gets our juices flowing.”
Like any good chemical reaction, a Maillard reaction requires a lot of energy to work, which means a lot of heat. “They speed up as the temperature increases and the moisture content decreases, so they occur significantly only at around 120˚C,” Blumenthal says, “Searing can, therefore, be difficult to get right. The high heat that generates Maillard flavours also causes water loss and dryness. There’s a risk that, by the time the centre of a piece of meat is cooked, the outside will be overcooked.” For this reason, a heavy bottomed (in order to distribute the heat evenly) frying pan needs to be heated for a few minutes until the oil smokes when added before the steak should be put onto it.
This brings us back to the flipping debate (that is to say the debate about flipping, not me using “flipping” as an expletive). Blumenthal’s commitment to regular flipping of a cooking steak comes from McGee’s “Aids to Successful Grilling and Frying”, which the latter summarises as: “Warm Meat and Frequent Flips”. McGee feels that overcooking the outside of a steak, or similar, can be achieved by ensuring the meat starts out warm, meaning less cooking time, and the meat is flipped often, meaning better texture and more moistness.
Following McGee’s advice, I wrapped one of my steaks in cling film and immersed it in warm water for an hour to bring the temperature up. At a temperature of 40˚C, the steak would only then need to increase 10˚C to reach the internal heat necessary to qualify as “rare” (at 50˚C a steak is rare, at 60˚C it is medium, by the time it gets to 70˚C – or “well done” – most of the juices are gone and it has reached a point that Blumenthal describes, not unreasonably, as “leathery”). The other, I simply unwrapped form its vacuum packing and left out to reach room temperature, as the Gordon Ramsay advice suggested.
When it comes to the fattiness of a steak being fried, what is really important, all the sources agree, is to get a good piece of meat, a couple of centimetres thick, with some decent marbling. This is the fat that will make a cooked steak nice and juicy. I made sure, then, that both steaks were nice looking sirloins of similar size and shape, both with good streaks of marbling throughout.
There are other differences in the perfect steak methods beyond flipping. The suggestion in Heston Blumenthal at Home is to salt the meat (but not add pepper at this point as it will burn) and add a little groundnut oil to the pan before adding the steak when the oil starts smoking. This advice, however, suggests adding both salt and pepper and rubbing it into the steak, which is then brushed with olive oil. Whether or not it makes much difference to the final product is debatable, but I made sure just to salt the steak that I had warmed immersed in water, before putting it in a pan with smoking oil, while I added salt, pepper and oil to the other.
Taking Blumenthal’s advice, I flipped the first steak every 15 seconds, using a temperature probe to see when it got towards the required 50˚C. The second, I made sure not to turn until it had been well seared, about a minute and a half and then allowed it to cook for the same amount on the next side until it had the soft texture of a rare sirloin.
Allowing the steak to rest for a few minutes before serving is also important, as it allows for the juices to settle. Having done this, I cut the steaks in half and noted that the first, the multi-flipped version, was a more juicy pink texture and appearance inside, while the unflipped was more seared but less juicy.
Putting them to a taste test it was very difficult to tell much difference between the two methods. If I had to pick a preference, I would probably say that the multi-flipped steak a la McGee was the preferable one, the slightly juicier one, but it would be pretty marginal. It seems likely that with the speed of cooking a rare steak it does not make much of a difference how you sear and fry it. If I preferred it more well done there may prove more difference. At the end of the day, the quality of the meat itself will always make a bigger difference than the cooking method.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: In some respects, I think the differences between the two steaks might have been more pronounced if they were worse quality (or, as Mustard says, if they were more well done). At the end of the day, buying good meat has the most impact, and though flipping it regularly might keep the steak juicier, it can only do so if the steak is juicy to start with.