This week’s Special Sauce episode kicks off with Serious Eater Marc Lampert asking Kenji about the process of cooking with ingredients packed with umami. “Does umami cook out like an acid would?” Marc asked. Here’s part of Kenji’s response: “A general rule of thumb for cooking is if you can smell it that means that its concentration in the pot is going down…So if you are cooking a stew and it smells like there’s this wonderful red wine aroma that means that the more you smell red wine in your house, the less is left in the stew. There’s a finite bucket of it, and if it’s in your house then it’s not in your pot.”
With Marc’s question squared away, the episode moves on to my far-reaching conversation about fast food with former Atlantic staff writer Adam Chandler, the author of Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America’s Fast-Food Kingdom. He described to me the high school fast food ritual that started his journey: “On weekend nights, we would all pile into our cars and go to Whataburger. It was the last thing we did before we rushed across Houston to go home for our curfews. And that was our sacred ritual. I have the fondest memories of sitting down, and having breakfast with my friends right before we all went to bed…They have something called a breakfast taquito, which is eggs, a tortilla, hash browns, and American cheese…It’s my deep-fried madeleine right there. It’s just perfect.”
I asked Adam why that taquito was perfect, and he said, “It was a comfort food for me. I think that was all I really considered it to be as something that even the adult menus at fast food restaurants kind of feel like a kid’s menu. There’s something about eating something with your hands, and taking it out of paper wrapping that feels kind of like a celebratory innocent thing…There was no formality required.”
Adam and his wife even celebrate Valentine’s Day with fast food. “We have a ritual for the last four years. We’ve gone to White Castle on Valentine’s Day, so I have to do a special shout out for that because I don’t know if you know this, at White Castle, they do table service every Valentine’s Day. They have a red tablecloth.”
Finally, the episode moves on to Daniel Gritzer, who talked about his favorite ways to cook a steak, which includes a technique that many cooks have been told is verboten. He said he does use a smoking hot pan, but then he busted a myth about flipping your steak just once while cooking.
To hear the rest of Kenji’s explanation of how to use flavor agents, lots more fast food wisdom from Adam Chandler, and Daniel’s steak-cooking tips, you’ll just have to listen to the whole episode.
Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce 2.0, Serious Eats podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce we begin with Ask Kenji, or Kenji López-Alt, Serious Eats chief culinary consultant gives the definitive answer to the question of the week that a serious eater like you has sent us.
J. Kenji López-Alt: A general rule of thumb for cooking is if you can smell it, that means that its concentration in the pot is going down. The more you smell red wine in your house, the less is left in the stew.
EL: After Ask Kenji a conversation with our guest Adam Chandler.
Adam Chandler: They have something called breakfast taquito, which is eggs, a tortilla, hashbrowns and American cheese. My deep-fried madeleine right there. It’s just perfect. It’s perfect, you know, it’s perfect.
EL: And, finally, on today’s podcast, a teachable moment from the Serious Eats test kitchen.
Daniel Gritzer: That old cooking tip that you should not flip your meat too much is not true. The more you flip it, the more even of a doneness you’ll get in the center.
EL: First up, our chief culinary consultant, author of The Food Lab, Kenji López-Alt. Kenji, Marc Lampert wants to know, he says, I was wondering about the process of cooking with umami sources. Does umami cook out like an acid would? For example, if I add fish sauce at the beginning of cooking a stew would the perceived umami be the same as if I added it at or near the end of the cooking process of the stew?
JKLA: That’s a very good question. First of all, acid doesn’t really cook out like say you’re making a vinegar reduction for a Béarnaise sauce, the reduction is going to be much higher in acidity than the one you started out with. Although some amounts of the acidic acid will also be evaporating, but acid does concentrate as you cook. As far as the things that trigger the sense of umami, those are typically we’re talking about glutamic acid, and maybe an acetic acid, and a couple of other amino acids, but those are the sort of big ones. Those are chemical salts. They dissolve in water. I am almost completely positive that they do not evaporate, or they do not leave in great quantities with the water as it evaporates.
JKLA: I imagine that it would behave sort of similar to salt where if you’re boiling a pot of salted water, little bits of salt might escape mainly through actual liquid water, sort of splashing out of the pot, and taking some of the salt with it, but the steam itself, the water vapor itself is not going to contain any salt. In fact, I’m positive of this because you can see this if you boil a pot of water that has any sort of MSG, glutamic acid in it, and you let it condense on the lid of a pot, when those droplets sort of dry, they don’t leave any kind of trace minerals behind or anything. Most of that is going to stay in your pot.
EL: So do you add the fish sauce at the beginning, or at the end?
JKLA: The short answer would be, again, as the answer to almost all these questions is follow the recipe. Presumably the recipe tester has tested that. With something like fish sauce, I generally add, well, if I’m cooking at home, maybe I’ll add a little splash at the beginning, and then add a fresh splash at the end because some of those sort of funkier flavors cook off as it reduces. A general rule of thumb for cooking is if you can smell it that means that it’s concentration in the pot is going down.
EL: Got it.
JKLA: So if you are cooking a stew and it smells like there’s this wonderful red wine aroma that means that the more you smell red wine in your house, the less is left in the stew. There’s a finite bucket of it, and if it’s in your house then it’s not in your pot.
EL: Right, so that’s a bad sign even though it makes the house smell good.
JKLA: Yes, yes. Well, it depends. Some of those flavors you do want to burn off the harsher flavors. With fish sauce, you add a splash of it, and you can immediately spell that super funky, fishy aroma, and that’s because it’s cooking off. It’s not going to be in the pot anymore. So if you don’t like that aroma at all and you want to minimize the funkiness add it at the beginning. If you like it, and you find that it improves your food then add a little bit at the end, or you can do what I do, which is a little splash at the beginning, and a little splash at the end to sort of brighten it up.
EL: Got it. I think Marc is in much better shape as a result of this.
EL: Kenji López-Alt is Serious Eats chief culinary consultant and author of The Food Lab. Send your questions to Kenji to firstname.lastname@example.org. Okay. Now I have the distinct pleasure of talking with Adam Chandler, a former staff writer for The Atlantic, Chandler has just published his first book Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America’s Fast-Food Kingdom. I loved your book, man.
Adam Chandler: Thank you.
EL: It was really awesome. I have a zillion questions for you that will require roughly as much time as to drive through appearances 60 miles apart.
AC: Sounds great.
EL: First of all, tell us about life at the Chandler table growing up. I assume you didn’t eat fast food every meal.
AC: I did not. Although, if we’re talking about the Chandler household maybe there’s a couch I can just lie back on.
EL: Yeah, you can. We sometimes have a couch, and then I tell you to stop. We have to stop now. Don’t worry.
AC: Right. You’re on vacation all of August. Okay, got it.
EL: Yeah, exactly.
AC: Well, I did eat a lot of fast food growing up and this has to do, I think in large part because I grew up in Texas where car culture kind of reigns supreme. You drive everywhere in Houston and that really kind of influences the way that eating happens. I also had two working parents so I didn’t have, which in the 1980s Texas seemed a little strange. The traditional mom stays home and cooks dinner paradigm that I think a lot of my friends and a lot of people around me did. So dinner was often eaten out, or on the go.
AC: Yeah, so it was less traditional. I hope she doesn’t tune in.
EL: That’s okay we-
AC: I hope she does. My mother is not a fantastic cook and neither is my father.
EL: Welcome to the parents not being fantastic cooks club, which I am president and founder.
AC: She has since become a magnificent cook. My dad remains cooking agnostic, but she waited until I left the house for that to happen. So a lot of it had to do with time, and a lot of it had to do with skill and function. I think that’s how I ended up eating dinner out a lot. And on times when we were pressed for a quick meal, fast food kind of factored in. I was also a fussy eater so that-
EL: Yeah, I was going to ask you. Were you a picky eater?
AC: This is really my fault. I like to send the blame elsewhere. I’m going to have to lie down on the couch now. No. Yeah, I was a fussy eater. I hated vegetables until I was in my 30s, which is a long time, so I ended up eating a lot of hamburgers.
EL: You obviously love fast food. One of the things I loved about the book is that you are an unabashed fan of fast food, which has caused you a lot of blowback in the social media world, right?
AC: Yes, definitely, as you know, as I expected it to, but there are more people who love fast food than hate it. The statistics are pretty clear on that.
EL: So did your parents approve? Did they enthusiastically endorse fast food growing up?
AC: I think there was definitely more of a let’s just get this over with kind of attitude to eating. We did dine out a lot. Houston’s a great food city now.
EL: Amazing. And you wrote this beautiful piece after the hurricane about what an amazing city Houston has become in terms of its ethnic diversity, and everything else.
AC: Houston has become even more interesting as a culinary city. It’s a very hot culinary city right now, but even growing up, I had access to really excellent food. I didn’t always have really excellent food. Sometimes it was a means to an end is a bucket of KFC coming home from soccer practice, or something like that, which feels normal and relatable. this was the time, I think before fast food was really demonized in the way that we know it to be demonized in sort of the culinary consciousness of today.
EL: Give us your sort of quintessential fast food experience as a teenager.
AC: As a teenager there isn’t one, there are a few. One is sneaking out of high school to go get Whoppers with my friends and that was we had off campus lunch, but we never had enough time to do it, so we would go. One of us would get our car, and we would run to the Burger King that was relatively close to school on 99 cent Whopper day. My friends would basically have a Whopper eating contest, which I don’t recommend.
AC: I know.
EL: That’s painful.
AC: It was. We all had I think economics right after lunch, and none of us learned a thing about economics after that. We just fell asleep in that class. Then we had this ritual. We had this Texas chain that everybody from Texas will tell you is the best food in the world. It’s called the Whataburger. Most people know it, or have met a Texan who will die on the hill that it’s better than In and Out, and better than any other fast food restaurant there is. And at 11 p.m. every single night they serve breakfast, which is a brilliant stroke for people who are …
EL: Drunk food
AC: Drunk food, or leaving the rodeo and just want something. It’s really perfect for what it is. So on weekend nights, we would all pile into our cars and go to Whataburger. It was the last thing we did before we rushed across Houston to go home for our curfews. And that was our sacred ritual. I have the fondest memories of sitting down, and having breakfast with my friends right before we all went to bed. There was something that felt kind of transgressive about it, but it was actually the most wholesome way to spend the last 45 minutes before someone’s parent would be tapping their foot. We didn’t have cell phones. This was the last few years before cell phones were ubiquitous so we could kind of set a clock to our Whataburger experience. We waited for 11 o’clock. We had our breakfast, and then we went home.
EL: What was your breakfast of choice at 11 p.m.?
AC: Well, this has been supplanted by other items in popularity. They have something called the Honey Butter Chicken Biscuit, which people are obsessed with now. They didn’t really have that when I was growing up, but they have something called a breakfast taquito, which is eggs, a tortilla, hash browns, and American cheese.
EL: Oh yeah. You write about that in the book.
AC: Right, right. And it’s my, my deep-fried madeleine right there. It’s just perfect. It’s perfect, you know, it’s perfect.
EL: I think maybe you and I should collaborate on a book and it should be called Deep-fried Madeleines.
AC: I would love that. I’m game for that. Everyone has one. That’s the best part about it. Everyone has this one thing, especially in the fast food realm, that when you say Wendy’s, someone’s mind will go to frosty and french fries. That’s the one thing that kind of comes to mind for someone. I feel like everyone has that kind of item that really stands out. And for me it’s this completely nonsensical breakfast taco that we call a taquito. It comes in a flour tortilla and you can get it with bacon if you want. You can get it with sausage, but I thought the hash brown one was perfect.
EL: Is there one to an order?
AC: There’s one to an order, and if you’re feeling really ambitious you can get two or three.
EL: So is it like a foot long taquito?
EL: It’s six inches maybe?
AC: Yeah, I’d say about six inches, yeah.
EL: My local fast food memory has to do with a place that’s no longer in business called Wetson’s.
EL: And Wetson’s-
AC: Is that Connecticut?
EL: No, it was in Long Island right across from E.J. Korvettes.
EL: By the way, E.J. do you know what E.J. Korvettes stands for? Eight Jewish Korean War veterans. It’s a true story. I think, I don’t know, maybe it’s just lore, but when I moved to L.A. when I was a senior in high school, actually, what became our fast casual experience of choice was actually a Tommy’s burger.
AC: Oh, sure.
EL: Which was not much of a chain. They tried to make it a chain, but my favorite part was when you’d asked for a milkshake, he would take one of those little pints of milk, shake it, and then hand it to you. That was their milkshake.
AC: That feels very, Tommy’s. I’ve gone to Tommy’s a few times when I’ve been in L.A. and I’ve really felt that kind of you want something special, we’ll make you something special, and shake it up.
EL: So when you were eating fast food, were you already thinking big thoughts about it, or was it just part of your adolescent experience?
AC: It was a comfort food for me. I think that was all I really considered it to be as something that even the adult menus at fast food restaurants kind of feel like a kid’s menu. There’s something about eating something with your hands, and taking it out of paper wrapping that feels kind of like a celebratory innocent thing so that really stuck with me. There was no formality required. And that’s one aspect of it that’s been sort of celebrated throughout its history is that it’s very democratic.
EL: It is, along with pizza.
EL: And obviously pizza and fast food are now intersecting.
EL: Curiously, you actually didn’t write about much in the book.
EL: Did you just make a decision that was just too much territory to cover?
AC: Pizza is tough because it’s hard to come up with a specific definition of fast food. Even fast food industry folks will tell you that fast food is something else than what it’s commonly described as. They actually hate the term fast food. They call it QSR, quick service-
EL: Right, quick service restaurants.
AC: Yeah. I kind of drew the line at places that have drive-thrus, and combo meals, and are cheaper than fast, casual, and maybe a ball pit with some bacteria in it. Those are the standards that I would apply.
EL: That was your definition of a fast food restaurant.
EL: Adam Chandler, you go off to college and you become a journalist.
EL: Tell us briefly about that path, and it wasn’t to become a food journalist, right?
AC: Right. It was a weird path I would say in that I didn’t intend to become a journalist either. I went to an MFA program at Sarah Lawrence, and I studied nonfiction writing. So I went from having weeks long stretches to luxuriate on an essay. And after that I sort of figured, well, what am I going to do here afterward? So I entered journalism in the age of blogging where you have not weeks, but minutes to luxuriate on a topic.
EL: Welcome to my world in 2006.
AC: Exactly. I wrote a lot about the Middle East, which was sort of how I got started. I was living abroad in Israel in between high school and college. For whatever reason that was extremely interesting to me. It was a tumultuous time. And then I came back to America and it became a tumultuous time in America. In Israel, the Intifada broke out, the second Intifada broke out while I was there as a student.
EL: What year was that?
AC: 2000 and 2001.
AC: And then I went to school in Washington, DC, and my third weekend of school was 9/11. I think I was really heavily influenced by what was happening in the world, and it kind of affected, I think, I became a more politically minded person than I think I anticipated to be. That sort of led me through I’d say my first 15 years of college and even journalism, but throughout it all, I think food was kind of lurking in the background because I always had this sort of latent interest in it.
EL: So like you wrote for Tablet, you started their political blog, right?
AC: I didn’t start it, but I did what I could to continue it.
EL: Tablet is a magazine about contemporary Jewish culture.
EL: And then you ended up at The Atlantic.
EL: They didn’t say, oh, we got to hire Adam Chandler to write about food.
AC: Right. I begged them to let me write more about food, and they had just killed their food program.
EL: Yeah, which my friend Corby Kummer had started.
AC: Yes, yes. I love Corby and I love his writing so much, so I actually asked them to let me try to revive it, and they very politely said, “No.” So I ended up writing more about business as a result of that, and that’s kind of how fast food I think entered the picture it was sort of, well, I started writing about food because I was covering news and world events and it was very depressing and sad. I would write about fast food as sort of a way to have something that was a little bit, no pun intended, easier to digest.
AC: Not dealing with the global war on terror, or ISIS, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the million other things that I tended to write about. I found, I guess, my perspective on it, and just having a love for it, and a respect for the institution of fast food set me apart from other writers. Unexpectedly, I would get really strong responses to stories I’d write about fast food because I think the fact that I enjoy it came through.
EL: Yeah. And that was politically so incorrect, dude.
AC: Yes, yes, but I’m obviously respectful of the shortcomings. I can’t help but notice them, and believe that real change has happened, but I do think that a lot of the blame for fast food gets shifted onto the people who are buying fast food, or who happen to love it, or happen to find comfort in it, and not to sort of the systems around it that make it problematic. And, also, I was bartending when I moved to New York, so I worked in really nice bars that were attached to a Michelin star chefs, and I worked at dives. Some of the labor issues, and some of the health issues we talk about when we talk about fast food are very deeply entrenched in the restaurant industry, too.
EL: For sure. Of course, there’s The Fight for $15.
EL: Now, my friend Steve Greenhouse just wrote a book about … He was the labor reporter at the Times.
AC: He’s amazing.
EL: I think the title of the book is Beaten Down, Worked Up, but he wrote a chapter in that about the tomato pickers in Florida.
EL: Forcing Burger King’s first Burger King to pay more to these pickers.
EL: So there’s inextricable links between fast food and every aspect of American culture.
EL: And I think that’s what I picked up on, not just in your book, but you wrote that hilarious piece about getting a Taco Bell phone, which if you go to Adam Chandler’s website you could read, but it was hilarious. But you do this magic trick, which is you take the topic seriously, and explore all the connections to all the aspects of fast food without taking yourself too seriously. And that’s a really hard line to straddle. And that’s actually what I look for in Serious Eats contributors. Like they can take their subjects seriously without taking themselves too seriously. Kenji and I used to talk about this for hours at a time. So that’s, I think, your gift to all of us is that you’re an unabashed fan of fast food, and that piece about getting the free phone, which turned out not to be really free.
AC: Right. There’s no such thing as a free Taco Bell cell phone.
EL: Yeah. So you were writing occasionally about fast food, even when you were at The Atlantic, and when you were at Tablet, and whenever you could, right?
EL: While you were feeding the sociopolitical beats you were supposed to be covering.
AC: Right, exactly. I was given a little bit of slack to get away with things. It would turn out to be some of the better responses I would get to stories would not be an impassioned treatise about the Israeli-Arab conflict, or anything like that. It would be about a Double Down at KFC. And that’s sort of what people want when they log onto the internet sometimes. They don’t want to read about certain things that feel intractable, they want to read about something that gives them a break, a reprieve. And I think that’s sort of what fast food does in a culinary, and an editorial sense.
EL: If you could give me a list of your five favorite things to eat what would they be?
AC: Obviously, the Whataburger breakfast taquito will top my list. I have a really disgusting ritual that I’ve had from sixth grade on where I would order Nachos Bell Grande at Taco Bell, and I order two tacos to go along with it. And sometimes it’s the Doritos Locos Taco, which is the new newfangled since 2012 Doritos shell taco.
AC: And I eat the two tacos on top of my nachos, so whatever falls out of the taco lands onto the nachos, therefore, I have a deluxe nacho.
EL: I like that.
AC: Which is my private, I can’t do this in front of anyone else.
EL: Yeah, some things are meant to be eaten in private.
AC: Right, exactly.
EL: I’ve learned that, by the way, the hard way.
AC: Right. It should be like when you go to a ramen shop, and you just have those booths where you don’t have to look at anyone.
AC: I feel that most of my existence in fast food restaurants should be that way. Wendy’s Spicy Chicken Sandwich, I think is phenomenal. I love it.
EL: That’s a controversial move given the Popeyes chicken sandwich introduction.
AC: Right, right. I think Popeyes did a good job with it. I have so many years with that Spicy Chicken Sandwich from Wendy’s. I’ve grown with it. I used to hate mayo and I used to hate tomatoes, and now I order it with mayo and tomatoes. I’ve grown as a human being into the sandwich.
EL: Yeah, expanded your food consciousness.
AC: That’s a generous way of putting it. I will take it. I will take it. Let’s see. I love a McFlurry at McDonald’s. I think it’s perfect in some ways.
EL: It’s cold and almost creamy.
AC: Right. It’s cold and almost creamy.
EL: And sweet.
AC: It has the texture. It really comes down to texture. What I think fast food does well is it has items that are just full of texture. You bite into something it’s kind of crisp, and then it’s kind of cold, and then it’s just a beautiful melange of texture and temperature. So that’s four. Boy, I don’t know, the Cajun chicken biscuit at Bojangles, which I only tend to have at airports because there are a few major hubs, whether it’s Charlotte or United that fly through places with Bojangles, and I stop and get this biscuit, and I’m a happy traveler. It puts me at peace in a stressful place.
EL: You have incredible breadth. Your purview is so wide in fast food. It’s very impressive.
AC: I really hope my girlfriend’s listening to this. We have a ritual for the last four years. We’ve gone to White Castle on Valentine’s Day, so I have to do a special shout out for that because I don’t know if you know this, at White Castle, they do table service every Valentine’s Day. They have a red tablecloth.
EL: I have to say, I didn’t know that.
AC: Well, you heard it here. 50,000 people do this every year on Valentine’s Day. You have to get reservations weeks in advance, or else you’ll get a four o’clock slot, but from four to nine at every White Castle across the country, almost every White Castle across the country, they do table service. They have really beautiful decorated, well, beautiful is … Plastic flowers and little chocolates, and they come up to the table, and they take your order, and it’s really wonderful. And you have young families, and you have old couples, and you have people who just don’t want to spend their time fighting it out in Manhattan or elsewhere for a table when they can just have sliders and it’s great, it’s a lot of fun.
EL: That’s so awesome. I don’t know, I could get into serious trouble, Adam, if I suggest to my wife that we’d go to White Castle for Valentine’s Day. I don’t know, but maybe not. And now we can get the Impossible Burger.
EL: And Impossible Slider.
AC: You can get an Impossible Slider. We did the Impossible Slider this year and it was, you know. I have my own issues with it, but I think it’s good. I’m more a fan of seeing people just having a low-key Valentine’s Day that’s kind of about love, and I think that that’s fun. People are all kind of interested in talking to each other at this event because everyone’s sort of, what are you doing here? What are you doing here? There’s …
EL: It’s the experience.
AC: Yeah, exactly.
EL: And I presume they don’t raise their prices.
AC: They don’t raise their prices. You get to leave a tip for a fast food worker, which is something we should be able to do somehow anyway, but can’t. It’s a really pleasant experience.
EL: Nah, we haven’t even gotten really into Drive-Thru Dreams, so I want to hear much more about the book, but we have to leave it right here for now.
EL: And now it’s time to check in with the Serious Eats test kitchen crew.
Daniel Gritzer: There’s so many ways to cook a steak.
EL: Serious Eats managing culinary director, Daniel Gritzer.
DG: One of my personal favorites is to do it old school style in a hot pan with oil, butter, aromatics, like thyme and garlic. Yes, it’s easier to mess up. It is easier to overcook your steak. Yes, you will have more of a doneness gradient then if you use a method like sauteed, or the reverse sear, but, man, do you get flavor in return. You get the most crunchy, crusty, roasted exterior to the meat that you can imagine, and if you do it right, it’s still tender and juicy and beautiful in the center.
What kind of steaks can you use for this? Any tender quick cooking cut like tenderloin, also known as Filet Mignon, rib eyes, like I have here, T-bones, porterhouses, strip steaks, skirt steaks, hangar steaks, anything that remains tender even when it’s rare or medium rare. The other thing I’ve done in advance of cooking this steak is I have done what’s called a dry brine. What that means is I season the steak all over with salt, top, bottom, sides. I had it on a wire rack and I let it air dry for, actually, this was overnight, but at least one hour. That’s enough time for the salt to draw out moisture from the steak. Then it gets real wet and kind of puddly on top, and still enough time for it to reabsorb that moisture. You only want to dry brine if you have enough time to allow the steak to dry off before you put it in the pan.
Moisture is the enemy of good browning. We always want the steak dry. This is a fast method where things kind of, you know, they don’t happen instantaneously, but you need to be ready. You have to have everything mise en place. Mise en place, can I verbify it like that? Have a nice mise en place, all set up. You don’t want to have to be running to your refrigerator, finding your thyme, sprigs, or anything like that once you start. As soon as the steak goes in the pan you’re on until it’s out of the pan. I’ve got my oil to start it off. Neutral oil, high smoke point. This is canola. I got my steak, got my butter that I’ll add to the pan after I get the initial sear on this and then start basting it. I have some nice fresh thyme flavor, and garlic. Got my instant read thermometer to take the temp on this steak. I also have some tongs. I have a slotted offset spatula. And very importantly for butter basting I have a nice big spoon to baste with.
You just want that oil as hot as it can get flirting with the smoke point. All right. This oil is smoking. Ready, steak? We’re going to flip it every 15, 20 seconds. That old cooking tip that you should not flip your meat too much is not true. The more you flip it, the more even of a doneness you’ll get in the center. That’s what the spatula is for. Flip it. And what we’re going for here is just a nice hard sear right at the beginning. Nice crust.
The reason I don’t add the butter too early is because I want to get a really good sear on this steak first, and butter has some water content that will drop the temperature of the pan a bit when it first goes in, but also it has milk solids that will scorch and burn the longer it’s in the pan. So I really want to just get this super, super, super high heat with the oil first to get that really good sear. Then I can add the butter. I can even lower the heat a little bit. In goes the butter. In goes the thyme. In goes the garlic. Tip the pan and baste. And this butter it’s infusing now with the garlic and thyme flavor. The milk solids are browning and taking on a deeper, more complex flavor. And by doing this, I’m also cooking the steak from the top and bottom at the same time. It’s kind of enveloping it in this intense scalding hot fat.
You still want to flip that steak. If you leave it too long on anyone side, it’s always going to cook more intensely from the bottom up so you’ll get an uneven doneness. For me, this just scratches every carnivorous muscle in my body. Now I’m going to take this out. All right. Here we go. Let it rest. The steak is cooked perfect medium rare, which is harder to do with this method than the other ones, which really kind of make it easier to nail the doneness. I think I’ll just take a bite. Oh, it’s so tender. Oh, my God. Whoa. Um. What you really get here is just this profound seared crispy crust, and such good roasty flavor, and every bite you can hear in your ear this like potato chippy kind of crinkle as the crust crackles between your teeth. It really ended really good.
EL: Serious Eats Managing Culinary Director, Daniel Gritzer.
DG: It’s so good.
EL: More from our test kitchen next time. That’s it for today. Next week on Special Sauce, Kenji will be back to answer with his usual scientific precision your culinary question of the week. Do send in your questions to email@example.com. All this, and we’ll have Adam Chandler back again on next week’s Special Sauce. So long, serious eaters. See you next time.