Ask Vir Ask Vir

Pursuits: No home steak ever tastes anything like the restaurant version

If you like cooking at home as much as you enjoy eating out then you may wonder why the food you make in

your kitchen never tastes quite like the stuff you ate in the restaurant, even when you follow the recipes from the restaurant’s own cookbook.


   There are several reasons for this. The first is that chefs lie. Most restaurant cookbooks will leave out one or two secret ingredients or will short-circuit the cooking process in the name of simplicity but in reality, to guarantee that you can never reproduce the dish perfectly at home.


   A second reason is that restaurants use ingredients differently from you and me. And often, the ingredients themselves are different. The British designer and resturatuer Terence Conran had a simple rule for his kitchens. If the ingredients were available in the supermarket, then the chefs were forbidden from using them. They had to order hard-to-find ingredients with more flavour than those you could get in retail outlets. So, the tomatoes were always juicier, the chickens were always free-range and expensive, the mushrooms came from a farmer and not an industrial operation and so on.


   Chefs also use ingredients in a way that you and I could never do. It was Escoffier who said that the three great secrets of French cuisine were “butter, butter, and butter” and certainly, chefs use more butter than we could have ever imagined. So it is with seasoning. Most restaurant food is seasoned and salted much more than home food. Ice-cream will be made with more cream than milk and more egg yolks than you can possibly dream of. Even little things will make a difference: we may fry onions but chefs will use shallots which have more flavour.


   Another crucial difference between home kitchens and restaurant kitchens is the nature of the equipment. It is virtually impossible to make restaurant quality Chinese food at home because our kitchens simply do not generate the right amount of heat or the enormous flames required for stir-frying. Restaurant ovens work to higher temperatures than the home version so baking in our kitchens will never yield professional-tasting results.


   Sometimes all these factors combine to make it virtually impossible to recreate even the simplest restaurant dish. Take steak. What could be simpler? You take a slab of meat, you cook it in a pan. And the steak is ready.


   Except that no home steak ever tastes anything like the restaurant version. This is why steakhouses abound even though we should all be refusing to pay restaurant prices for a dish that we could easily make at home.


   To understand why restaurant steaks are so different, you have to start with the ingredients. Good beef producers are not interested in the supermarket trade. They recognise that the bulk of high quality steak will go to restaurants all around the world. Restaurant chefs are specialists and make it their business to choose the best among various beef producers. You and I, on the other hand, are regarded by the beef industry as amateurs who would faint if a cow was butchered in front of us and are happiest buying little pieces of refrigerated meat in plastic packets. So, most supermarket beef is second-rate compared to the stuff that the steakhouses get.


   The second crucial factor is the cooking process. Contrary to what we may think, restaurant chefs do not simply pull a hunk of meat out of the fridge and grill it quickly on both sides. Restaurants want you to think that the process is that simple but in fact, it rarely is.


   At most restaurants, the steak cooking process has at least three distinct components. The first is the marinade. This can be as simple as drizzling a little olive oil on the steak and seasoning it with salt and pepper. Or, it can be more elaborate. This process is the key to accentuating the flavour of the meat and to breaking down the tough membranes that might result in a chewy steak.


 "The British chef, Heston Blumenthal, tells home cooks to buy a kitchen blow-torch and to sear the meat on the outside so that it is browned."

   The actual cooking is nearly always two different processes. At some restaurants, the steak is charred first at a very high temperature (up to 500 degree centigrade). This can be done on an industrial grill or on a griddle or even in a pan. You and I might think the steak is ready at this stage. But actually, there’s  a second process. The meat is now cooked again at a lower temperature. Some chefs put it into the oven for the second part of the cooking ritual.


   So, by the time you get the steak on your table it has already been seasoned and tenderised, charred on the outside, and then cooked slowly to ensure that the inside is perfectly done.


   It’s not as simple as taking a hunk of meat out of the fridge and slapping it on a pan.


   What do you do if you want to cook steak at home? My advice is to tell yourself that no matter how good a cook you are, your steak will never approach the quality of the steak at a top restaurant. Even if you get your hands on top-quality meat, your kitchen probably lacks the equipment to take it through both stages of the cooking process.


   The British chef, Heston Blumenthal, tells home cooks to buy a kitchen blow-torch (quite easy to find now that everyone wants to make crème brulee for himself) and to sear the meat on the outside so that it is browned. Then, you need to place it in an oven at under 50 degree centigrade for four to eight hours depending on the thickness and size of the meat.


   For the final stage, you take a large cast-iron pan and keep it over high heat for at least ten minutes. Next, you add a thin film of oil. Ideally, you should pour a drop of oil in the pan, shake it around, and then pour out the extra oil.


   Once the pan is ready then you add the steak. It should be cooked for a total of four minutes but you must flip it every 30 seconds. Then, the steak should rest for about five minutes. Only then is it ready to be eaten (or sauced or whatever it is you wish to do with it).


   I admire Blumenthal. But frankly, it is much easier to go to a steakhouse than to follow his recipe. However, there are some lessons to be learnt from Heston’s techniques. When I do cook steak at home, I try and get hold of a nice cut. The key to the pre-cooking process (at least for me) is to ensure that the steak is at room temperature (i.e. take it out of the fridge well in advance) and has been patted dry.


   I don’t like a lot of salt so I do a short marination with a little oil and even less salt and pepper. Then, I follow the final stages of Blumenthal’s recipe, heating the pan, using only a thin film of oil, and turning the steak every 30 seconds. It does not yield restaurant quality steaks. But they are perfectly edible – even if I say so myself.


  So ask yourself this: if even a steak can be such a complicated dish to cook restaurant-style, is it any wonder that the more elaborate dishes we try and make at home never resemble the restaurant versions?


   It isn’t that we are all bad cooks. It’s just that restaurant dishes are meant for restaurant chefs with their fancy ingredients and their advanced equipment.  And home cooking is meant for you and me.




Posted On: 05 Jul 2012 04:50 PM
Your email id will not be published.
Security code:
Captcha Enter the code shown above:
Your email id will not be published.
Friend's Name:
Friend's E-mail:
Your email id will not be published.
The Message text:
This email was created by [your name] who thought you would be interested in the following Article:

A Vir Sanghvi Article Information

The Vir Sanghvi also contains hundreds of articles.

Additional Text:
Security code:
Captcha Enter the code shown above:

CommentsOther Articles

See All

Ask VirRead all

Connect with Virtwitter

@virsanghvi on
Vir Sanghvi