Legend has it that the last words that the great economist John Meynard Keynes said before he shuffled off to that great Endowed Professorship in the sky were something along the lines of: “my only regret is that I did not drink more champagne.” Today being New Years Day, i.e. the day after New Years Eve, I find it very hard to sympathize with his particular dying regret, but then again I also find it very hard to look at any bright lights. However I think we can all agree with the general sentiment of not wanting to be caught dead with any culinary regrets so this year I am resolving never to pull a Keynes with respect to one particular food: New Year’s Resolution 2009 is to eat more steak. Now some of the Junta’s truly zealous readers may recall that Claire already wrote about this topic, and well, in her Quest to Cook the Perfect Indoor Steak. But since New Year’s is a time for reflection I can think of no better day to return to this important technique, and be reminded that there’s nothing in life that can’t be improved with the liberal application of butter and alcohol.
The indoor, pan-seared steak has always been a great option for the yardless, grill-less, apartment-dwelling masses of which I am proud to consider myself a member but now, with the days grown short and the temperatures dropping into the bone-chilling sub-50-degree range here in LA, even the most die-hard grillers are being forced to leave their Webers for the safety of heated kitchens. While a pan on your stovetop may not give you the char of an open flame, it will give you something even better: a frying pan to deglaze.
The basic idea of deglazing is very simple: after sautéing your steak you set it aside, add a liquid to the pan, and scrape up the caramelized bits of meat left sticking to the pan. The French word for this delicious detritus is fond, but if that’s too elitist for polite company feel free to go with “Steak Concentrate” instead. You can vary the liquid you use to deglaze a pan, you can add spices, you can thicken the resulting sauce, but the general process of soaking, simmering and scraping will stay the same. For today’s meal I cooked Steak au Poivre with whiskey (completing the whole boozy scene with bourbon-braised onions) and as I stumble through the steps below I will list the ingredients I used, then expand generally on the deglazification process in the paragraph that follows.
Step 1: The Indoor “Grilling”
1 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp olive oil
As I said, Claire’s post covered this really well. First dry the steak with a paper towel and season it (I used freshly crushed peppercorns, salt and a little cayenne pepper). Then open windows, heat pan, put in steak, wave at smoke, three to four minutes a side on medium-high heat, and you’re done. The only thing I would add is that, if you plan on making a sauce, avoid using a non-stick pan because more sticking means more Steak Concentrate™. I use a cast-iron skillet which is heavy and massive enough to get searingly hot and really blacken the outside of that steak. Now since you aren’t using a non-stick pan you’ll need to add oil or butter. I typically use about a tablespoon of olive oil and a tablespoon of butter. I vaguely remember Mark Bittman mentioning in his Minimalist feature for the NYTimes that this mixture gets hotter than either of the two substances alone, but I may have dreamed it all…
When you’re done cooking the steak, set it aside and cover it with tin foil or a pot lid to keep it warm because you’ve still got a little work to do. Then it’s usually a good idea to pour out the burned grease, but unless you’re really dying to meet your local plumber make sure you dump this into a can and not down your sink, which will clog faster than the internet would have if Ted Stevens hadn’t been around to keep the tubes clear.
Step 2 or 3: The Herbs and Onions
1 green onion, chopped fine
A sliver of butter (maybe a teaspoon?)
Start adding flavor to your sauce. You should sauté shallots or green onions in butter before you add any liquid. Dried herbs can be added after adding the liquid.
Step 3 or 2: The Deglazing
1/4 cup whiskey
1 cup beef stock, boiled down to 1/2 cup
If you’re at all attached to your eyebrows you’ll want to take the pan off the burner before adding any high-proof liquor, then put it back, turn up heat and start scraping the burned bits from the bottom of the pan. You should have enough liquid to coat the bottom of the pan, but not to fill it to any appreciable depth (no more than 1/4”).
Now there’s no rule that you have to use alcohol to deglaze your pan post-steak: While water alone will give you a pretty tasteless brown liquid that I’d hesitate to call a sauce, you can always deglaze a pan with the stock of whatever you just cooked, e.g. beef stock for steak, chicken stock for chicken. Apparently veal stock is mild enough to swing both ways, but I have never found it outside of a restaurant supply store. Yet for some reason I was always unsatisfied with a sauce made of stock alone and was never sure why, so I had the boys down at the lab crunch some numbers and I believe we can now express the problem mathematically:
(beef) + (beef) = beef
If you deglaze a pan with stock you’re missing the chance to add new, complimentary flavors to your sauce. Booze, on the other hand, has bite: whether you use wine or decide on something a bit stiffer (which you’ll want to use less of and mix with stock, as I’m doing here), you‘ll add the astringency of alcohol plus the complexity of the beverage’s flavor to your steak. And, as always, you’ll probably also get a beverage out of the deal to keep the chef company while he or she scrapes the pan.
The classic booze to deglaze with is wine, and one of the main perks it offers, running a close second to the taste of finished product, is the vast array of impressive sounding French names you get to use. Amaze your friends! Confound your enemies! Use white wine (or vermouth) and it’s a sauce Bercy. Switch to red and you’ve got sauce marchand de vin*. Add some bone marrow to that and it’s sauce Bordelaise. Add an anchovy instead and… well I can’t find the French name, but it’s surprisingly delicious. Seriously, just stir the anchovy into the wine until it dissolves. There doesn’t seem to be any pretentious name for a sauce made with Jim Beam, but how about sauce flambeur dégénéré**? Or does anyone know the French word for “dog track”? But in all seriousness, don’t be put off by the humble choice of hooch, because whiskey’s sharpness really does taste good with this steak’s crust of charred peppercorns. And the hard-A is not without precedent: open a copy of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and you’ll see that a traditional French steak au poivre is made not with wine but with brandy or cognac.
Step 4: The Thickening
Thicken your sauce by boiling it down so that when you stick a spoon in it comes out coated. Remove from heat and stir in a tablespoon of cold butter. Pour over steak and serve.
Step 5: The Slow-Clap
And I’m not talking about the ironic, cat-petting, chair-spinning “veeery clever, Mister Bond” slow-clap either. No, I’m talking a triumphant Rudy/Hoosiers/Cool Runnings slow-clap. A sauce makes for a fine looking steak, and any guests will no doubt be rapturous in their praise, so sit back and let the applause wash over you. You can leave out the details of how easy the stuff was to make, or about how deglazing actually helped clean the pan while you were cooking. We’ll even keep between you and me that whole thing about how a sauce like this can fancy-up a cheaper cut of meat, because hey, Keynes has been in the news lately for more than just drink preferences and witty last words.
* “Wine merchant’s sauce.”
** “Degenerate gambler’s sauce?”