Although Benny's Chop House Executive Chef Carlo Lamagna spends a lot of time in gourmet kitchens—he's been a sous chef at such acclaimed Chicago spots as North Pond and Perennial Virant—his earliest cooking experiences took place outside at the barbecue grill. His childhood in Michigan brought numerous summer grill-outs, and not much changed when, at age 11, he moved to the Philippines with his family. "We were always on the grill and using live fire," he recalls. "That's around the time that I really learned how to cook a piece of meat on the grill, especially steak."
He may have traded in the grill apron for a starched uniform and the paper plates for fancy china, but Chef Carlo still knows how to grill a mean steak, whatever the setting. Here, he shares five steps to cooking the perfect steak, seasoned with professional tips from his years of experience.
Step 1: Find a quality cut.
"First things first is finding a good source for the meat and buying the cut that you like," Carlo says. If you're looking for quality to rival that of Chicago's preeminent steak houses, Carlo recommends a traditional butcher such as Paulina Meat Market, or a more environmentally conscious source such as the Butcher & Larder. But if you're not willing to pay as much for your beef as it takes to fill an SUV's gas tank, there's hope. "Obviously, it's not as easy to get the kind of beef that we get," Carlo says. "But just get good beef. I wholeheartedly support getting it from a very responsible source, because 9 times out of 10, it's going to taste way better." In this spirit, he recommends Whole Foods as a more budget-friendly, yet still ethically driven source.
As far as the cut and quality, that's up to the individual—if you like a leaner steak, you can pick up a filet mignon; if you prefer a hearty, marbled cut, ask for a rib eye. There's one thing Carlo urges shoppers to keep in mind, however: is the beef grass-fed, or grain-fed? Beyond health concerns, this characterizes both the steak's flavor and the necessary cooking temperature. "Grass-fed tends to be leaner, so it's tougher meat, but it's definitely flavorful," he says. "You get a more robust beef flavor. Grain-fed helps increase the fat content in the cow itself."
Step 2: Sprinkle on your seasonings.
Step into the herb aisle at your local grocery store, and you’ll likely be inundated with dozens of choices for steak seasonings. But the best steak houses keep it simple. "At Benny's, we have a salt and pepper mix that we do specifically for steak," Carlo says. For cooks at home, the first step is adding a hefty dose of salt—what Carlo refers to as a "snow coating." He recommends taking two large pinches of kosher salt and dropping from about a foot above the steak. This technique, known as aerating, helps the salt spread evenly over the meat. As far as pepper, Carlo says a few fresh cracks from a pepper grinder will do it. Make sure to season both sides liberally. "The reason you heavily season the outside is that you can't season the inside—every time you cut that steak, the only salt that'll be provided is whatever's on the surface."
Step 3: Choose your cooking method.
If you don't have an outdoor grill or if the weather's lousy, cooking indoors with a cast-iron pan or a grill pan will do just fine. But in the summer months, heading outdoors is worth the effort; Carlo attests that it results in a more complex-tasting steak. Instead of using only one type of fuel, he suggests adding hickory, applewood, or cherrywood to regular charcoal on the grill for a distinctive aroma.
If your heart is set on adding herbs, sprinkle them on at this point. "You can take rosemary and just put it on top of the steak as it's grilling," Carlo says. "The aromatics of the rosemary will kind of seep in. If you're really adventurous, you can put it right next to the steak. As it burns, the smoke from the rosemary will envelop the steak."
Step 4: Let it cook—and be patient.
For grilling neophytes, the biggest question of all is often: how do you tell when the steak is done? According to Carlo, meat thermometers are useful, but only as a method to teach yourself how to judge the steak's temperature by touch. "You stick the meat thermometer in, you look at the temp, you touch it, and you feel the probe," Carlo says. "So you're like, okay, that's what it feels like when it's medium rare. And then progress." As for specific temperatures, he recommends that home cooks follow USDA guidelines, which suggest heating steak to at least 145 degrees before serving.
Some cooks swear by checking a steak's tenderness, but Carlo says that can be tricky. "It depends on the cut of the steak. If you have a thicker filet that tends to be a little bit softer, or if you have a rib eye, which has more fat, it could be soft but still be overcooked."
But above all, Carlo stresses patience. "If you keep checking the steak or if you keep flipping it over, it's not going to cook right. You're not going to develop a good crust. Let it get its mark, let it develop its flavor. Let it do its thing." As a very general guideline, he suggests two to four minutes per side for a 1- to 1.5-inch steak cooked to medium rare.
Step 5: Remove, rest, and serve.
So you're done cooking. Is it time to dig in? If you want a moist, flavorful steak, the answer is not quite. "You have to rest it," Carlo cautions. "Rest the steak for at least 10 minutes so that it redistributes the juices and so when you cut into the steak it doesn't, what they call, 'bleed out.' Because if it bleeds out, you're losing your moisture content."
Still, Carlo recommends taking all steak advice with a grain of salt. "Cook it the way that you would want to eat it," he says. "If it's a good piece of beef and you know exactly how you want to eat it, then eat it. Who cares about what everybody else says? Only you know yourself."