Good Eats Season 1, Episode 1 – Steak Your Claim
Well here we are, folks! The very first episode of Good Eats, “Steak Your Claim.” Premiering on July 7th, 1999, Alton Brown would begin a show that would change the way people thought about food and how they approached cooking. I used to watch the show when I was little and dream about cooking. Alton’s show targeted not only my insatiable hunger but also my intellectual curiosity in a way that no other show managed to do. I came away feeling smarter. I came away feeling like not only could I replicate what I’d just seen, but that I could apply that knowledge in so many other avenues in cooking. Good Eats always left me feeling educated and empowered.
I quickly became addicted.
It was many years before I actually became serious about cooking in the way Brown would have wanted me to be, but once I did, I came back to him again and again as I learned. My future girlfriend and I would stay up late every night watching episode after episode, absorbing what Alton had to say but also being thoroughly entertained by him. Cooking is a fundamental part of my life now, and Good Eats was a fundamental part of my development as a cook, maybe even as a person. The inquisitiveness, the dedication to research, the importance of learning good judgment over rigid directions, while these aren’t the only things that have informed my cooking, they are major factors in it even still.
So early this year I decided on a whim that I was going to cook along with every episode of Good Eats. I clearly didn’t think it through because when I announced it I hadn’t considered things like the episode where he makes a salmon smoker out of a cardboard box and a fan. Did I really intend to do that? Well, I don’t know. That’s something we will have to address when we come to it. But I do know it’s something I want to try.
And with all that preamble out of the way, let’s get on with the episode!
Alton chose steak for the first episode of Good Eats because of the simplicity (and importance) of technique when cooking a steak and also because of his love of Americana, and as he says at the beginning of the episode, there isn’t really a more American food than steak.
I can’t say I share his fondness for our country and I also don’t really agree with his choice of steak for a first episode. Maybe things were different in 1999, I was too young to really know, but these days steak is expensive. For example, down here in Atlanta a decent ribeye will cost upwards of $10, and that’s if you find a good sale. Now I don’t think that’s necessarily out of budget for the average home cook but I do know this, that’s an expensive piece of meat to ruin.
Alton presents the show as being targeted towards a complete novice, and back when I was myself a novice nothing would have killed my enthusiasm quicker than ruining $30 of high quality meat. It may be a good starting point for the show, and thematically it’s an excellent starting point, but I have trouble thinking of many worse starting points for a beginning cook.
All that said, I think Alton does an excellent job of breaking down all the information and making it as fool-proof as possible. The show is a flood of information, often too much to really take in on one viewing. I know all this stuff, but if I didn’t I imagine I’d need two or even three viewings to process it. On the other hand, just because the information comes fast doesn’t mean you’re inundated. The show is extremely judicious in what it presents, it has to be to fit it all in 21 minutes, and there’s almost everything you need to know here to cook a good steak, with almost nothing you don’t. Even with the flood of Youtube videos these days I still can’t think of a better primer on the pan-fried steak.
Alton spends nearly half the episode just on helping you pick out what cut of steak you’re gonna cook. He does a decent job here, but he doesn’t really do a lot to differentiate the cuts. You see where they come from, but you don’t learn much about their flavor and peculiarities. Ultimately he decides on the ribeye, which is his favorite cut and happens to be mine as well. However, I firmly believe a beginner should start with a strip steak. Not only is it more forgiving, it’s also cheaper. It may not be a powerhouse of flavor like the ribeye, but it holds up well next to it.
I’m not going to supplement Alton’s lesson here, but if you would like to learn more about the different steak cuts, well this guide by Kenji over at Serious Eats breaks the big ones down excellently.
And then we’re off to the cooking! Alton selects cast-iron for the job, which even someone as hard to please as me can’t complain about. He does, however, advise you to just toss your skillet into a 500˚ oven and walk away saying “it’s cast-iron, it doesn’t care.” Now the skillet itself may not care, but the seasoning will and that’s a good way to burn it off. He only steps away to prepare the meat but he ought to at least warn a cast-iron newbie about the damage they can do.
The steak is cooked simply: salt, pepper, oil and a hot pan. Alton says season it with salt and pepper then toss it in to sear, turning only once. People share this wisdom a lot and I believed it for a long time unquestioningly, but its just not true. You can get an amazing sear flipping every 30 or 60 seconds and it helps the center cook more evenly on both sides. Jamie Oliver does it, Gordon Ramsay does it. Or, if you’d like some sources that aren’t pompous blowhards and actually know what they’re talking about: J. Kenji López-Alt does it and so does Heston Blumethal. So please don’t listen to Alton here and flip your steak.
Alton also suggests you finish your steak in the oven. I’ll admit this is a perfectly acceptable way to cook a steak. But if you want the best results, again you have to look elsewhere. The reverse sear method produces much more consistent results then finishing in the oven, thats because by hitting your target temp first you will not only cook your steak more evenly, you’ll also cook it more gently. By searing an already cooked steak you get a more even temperature gradient throughout the meat and you don’t have to risk burning your perfect sear.
The best way to reverse sear is, of course, sous vide, which is the ultimate way to cook a steak. Of course, back in 1997 you couldn’t get a sous vide machine at home and Alton couldn’t have recommended it. But, you can attempt to replicate the perfect sous vide results by cooking the steak low and slow in an oven, which will also have the added benefit of pasteurizing it at 130˚F.
After all that how do I feel the episode holds up today? Well, not as well as some but I think it’s still a fine way to cook a steak. Steak has such a cult about it, it has an elitism and a perfectionism to it that no other meat really has. I have to admit all that is lost on me. I think it’s interesting, and on the rare occasion I do cook steak I do it as best I can, but I do my best not to buy into the mythology of it. And I think Alton does too, if only because the dated nature of the program. Alton describes steak in an accessible way, a way that will make sense to anyone, no matter how much time they’ve spent in the kitchen. He doesn’t try to reinvent or perfect or even put his own spin on how we prepare steak, instead he distills it to its basic elements and presents them with as much verve and goofiness as he can muster.
In that I think he’s largely successful. If I was teaching someone the basics of cooking then this is the steak I would show them how to make. Simple, elegant, and perhaps most importantly, fast. And with techniques that will be applicable in a wide variety of dishes.
And so next week that’s exactly how we’re going to cook a ribeye.