I've been thinking about steak lately. Maybe because the weather is cooling and grilling is much more appealing to me in the fall. I remember when I first began to cook professionally, I always thought of myself as a meat cook. I loved the grill, adding the charcoal, playing with the different hot spots, having different pieces of meat and fish at varying degrees of doneness spread out in front of me. It was fun and it required a zen-like concentration to keep track of everything, no matter how fast the tickets were flying. I never understood the attitude that the grill station was boring. For me it was way better than juggling pans over on saute.
Meat temperatures have become a very subjective thing. People know exactly how they like their meat but they don't always know the proper terminology. If you look at charts of meat cooking temperatures from 20-30 years ago through today you will notice that the temperatures vary by 5-10°F depending on the author. It's this variation that can make a meat cook a little crazy. Plenty of people are convinced they like their meat medium rare (red and warm in the center fading to pink as it moves toward the edge of the meat) when in fact they actually prefer medium (pink and juicy all the way through). In one restaurant we finally had the servers ask people to describe how they enjoyed their meat instead of taking a temperature and found that diners were much happier with the results this way.
Many people think that how you cook steak is just about color and juiciness. It's so much more than that. Tenderness is a huge factor. Rare meat is chewy. Medium rare, while still retaining it's texture has softened considerably. Medium is arguably the point where tenderness and juiciness intersect, before the meat begins to dry out. Medium well has a noticeably drier texture and the strands of the muscle become more visible, an effect that continues as you move into well done territory. In a similar manner juiciness changes as you cook the meat. Rare meat is still cool in the center. It's chewy because the fats haven't completely melted and the muscle fibers are still tightly woven together. As a result the meat is drier and less giving against your teeth, with the fat and juices slowly melting into your mouth as you chew. Medium rare is warm throughout and the juices are lightly flowing. The muscle fibers have softened and each bite breaks apart much more quickly, releasing still more juice and flavor into your mouth. Medium meat is very juicy, so much so that you actually lose a significant percentage to the plate as you cut the meat. Much of fat has rendered out, loosening the muscle fibers so that the strands are easily broken apart. This results in meat that barely needs a steak knife and the cut pieces are usually swiped through the juices on the plate making them seems juicier than they actually are. Medium well is drier and while it has the reputation for being flavorless it simply has a different flavor. In some ways it can taste even more beefy due to the loss of fat and moisture. Medium well is more about the flavor of the char that builds up on the outside of the steak paired with the ropy texture of meat.
Speaking of the char, as we all know, that is so important. Otherwise we would just steam the steaks or serve them straight out of a sous vide bag. The difference between grilling and sauteeing meat is the crust. A cast iron skillet yields a totally different effect than a grill or a wood burning oven. For some people that crust is the holy grail. It's not so much about the texture of the meat on the inside it's the salty, crunchy goodness on the outside and that well cooked texture that matters most. While many of us will happily nick the crusty, well done pieces off a roast we don't think of steak in those terms. Our personal prejudices often say that steak must be juicy and pink. Think about this, a nicely cooked well done steak is like a giant piece off the top of the roast. You can argue that steak is too expensive to be treated that way but the person who loves well done meat will never agree. That's the beauty of food and there is room for everyone at our table.