Steak has long been at the top of the list of what Americans eat when they celebrate. Some people may like a lobster, go for a glazed ham or fancy a fillet of salmon. But for many of us maybe especially on Father's Day the go-to dish for fine eating is steak.
"I think it's the Maillard reaction," said Tim Childers, executive chef at Rockwell's, in Toledo. "When you sear a steak and it gets that savory brownness, and it hits your tongue and you taste it, that's what makes your mouth water. I'd say it's all about the caramelization of the sugars of the steak."
The searing is important that's the Maillard reaction, which refers to the browning and caramelizing of everything from bread crusts to steak. But so, too, is the way the seared exterior is a gateway on your palate to the juicy, beefy interior. Each rich mouthful is hearty and decadently satisfying.
The professionals have ways to get that crucial sear that are not available to the rest of us. At Rockwell's, for example, they blast it in a 1,600-degree broiler to get a quick sear on the surface and then bring it out to the table on a 500-degree plate, which finishes cooking the steak to the proper temperature.
But what's a home cook to do? The experts agree that the best way to cook a steak, if possible, is on a grill.
"Put a nice sear on the outside to seal in the juices," said Sean Moran of Mancy's Steak House, also in Toledo. "Let it sit for about three minutes, turn it on a bias so it gets those nice cross marks from the grill."
After another three minutes, "flip it and do the same thing." That's for an average-size steak, cooked medium. The times will vary depending on the thickness of the meat and how done you want it.
What type of steak you choose to cook depends both on your taste buds and your wallet.
Sirloin is one of the less expensive cuts of steak, and "is the most prevalent in supermarkets and a lot of restaurant chains. It has such a great steak flavor, it is classically what you think of when you think of a steak. It has a firmer texture than the filets and strips, but it makes up for it in flavor," Childers said.
On the opposite side of the scale is the filet, which is the most tender steak, though it has less of a meat flavor than a sirloin or a strip. It is the most popular choice by far at most steak houses, and can also be the most expensive cut of meat.
A lot of people prefer a strip steak, which is kind of between the two, Childers said. Strip steak comes from the strip loin, which is well-marbled with fat and has a lot of steak flavor. A New York strip is the same cut of meat as a Kansas City strip, but the Kansas City strip sometimes still has the bone attached.
That bone is the central feature of the porterhouse. On one side of the bone is the strip; on the other is the filet. A T-bone steak is the same cut of beef but from farther up the cow, so that the filet part, the tenderloin, is smaller.
"Porterhouse is good, but it can kind of be difficult to cook because (the two sides) cook in different ways because of the different musculature. Sometimes I'll cook it for a minute so it gets a good surface sear, then I'll cover the tenderloin part with tin foil so I don't overcook it while I'm cooking the strip," Childers said.
The Rockwell's chef added that "rib eye is my favorite. ... I think it's the most flavorful and textured meat. It has the cartilage. I love it."
To top a steak at home, Moran makes a simple sauce of balsamic vinegar that has been reduced a bit. "It gives a little flavor, a little sweetness to it," he said.
But steak houses are finding that a lot of people merely want to dot their steaks with compound butter, which is softened butter that has herbs or other ingredients worked into it and is then chilled again.