Cooking the perfect steak can be a daunting task, especially when it comes to achieving that perfect balance of flavor, texture, and juiciness. Novice home cooks often overlook the importance of letting the steak cool down in achieving a juicy and tender result.
So, how long should you let your steak rest before slicing it? And what’s the science behind this critical step?
In this post, I’ll answer these questions and provide tips and techniques for achieving a perfectly rested and juicy steak every time.
How Long to Let Steak Rest?
Ideally, you should rest a steak until its internal temperature reaches 120°F/49°C. The best way to measure the temperature is using an instant-read thermometer. However, you can apply a few rules of thumb when you don’t have a thermometer handy.
If you can’t wait to serve the steak, rest it for at least five minutes to allow the juices to distribute through the piece of meat. If you have time to rest it more thoroughly, follow these guidelines:
- Five minutes per inch of thickness
- Two minutes per 100 grams
- Ten minutes per pound
- Thinner steaks should rest for half the time they take to cook.
- Thicker cuts should sit for the whole time they take to cook.
And if you don’t want to be bothered by calculations, aim for around 10 minutes for cuts thinner than 1.5 inches and 20 minutes for thicker cuts.
The same guidelines apply to meats cooked in the oven. If you slice them too early, you’ll lose most of the flavorful liquids.
Why Your Steak Needs to Rest
So, why am I telling you to keep your hands off that sizzling piece of meat? The reason has to do with how muscle fibers react to high temperatures.
But before I can explain what happens, we need to debunk a common myth.
The Myth of Trapped Juices
The popular, yet incorrect, theory for why resting a steak makes it juicier goes like this: When the steak’s surface touches your pan, the water in the tissue moves toward the center, where it gets trapped. So, if you cut the steak immediately, all the juices flow out. But if you let the steak rest, the liquids return to the edges, resulting in a juicier steak.
The problem with this theory is that the center of a steak doesn’t expand as you cook it, meaning water doesn’t get trapped in the center. In fact, a cooked steak is slightly narrower than a raw one since some of its water evaporates.
The Science Behind Letting Your Steak Rest
Now that we know the idea about trapped juices is incorrect, let’s explore what happens in reality.
In the Food Lab, one of my favorite cookbooks, Kenji Lopez explains that as you cook your steak, the meat loses its ability to retain moisture and expels water to the surface. At high temperatures, the muscle fibers contract significantly, which reduces their ability to hold water.
When you let the steak rest, the fibers gradually relax and stretch as the temperature decreases. This stretching motion lets the liquid redistribute evenly throughout the meat. So, less water flows out when you cut the meat. The longer you allow the fibers to relax, the more moisture you can retain in your steak.
Let’s consider a steak cooked to rare to demonstrate how resting time affects its liquid retention. The table below shows the changes in the steak’s internal and external temperatures and how much juice is released after cutting. This information is based on chef Kenji Lopez’s excellent book, linked above.
|Time after cooking||External temperature||Internal temperature||Liquid outflow|
|0 mins||200°F/93°C||125°F/52°C||95 percent|
|2.5 mins||170°F/77°C||125°F/52°C||70 percent|
|5 mins||145°F/63°C||125°F/52°C||30 percent|
|10 mins||125°F/52°C||120°F/49°C||5 percent|
As you can see, the rate of temperature decrease slows down as time passes. That’s why even resting your steak for five minutes leads to a dramatic difference in its juiciness. However, liquid retention doesn’t increase linearly as you wait longer.
You’re unlikely to see significant improvement after the ten-minute mark unless your cut is thicker than 1.5 inches.
How to Rest Your Steak After Cooking
When you remove your steak from the grill or stove, heat will continue to move from the surface toward the center. So, the meat will keep cooking internally even as its exterior cools down.
This phenomenon is called carryover cooking, and you can use it to your advantage by trapping the heat while your steak rests.
Follow these steps to get a perfectly rested and juicy steak:
- Have a piece of aluminum foil handy before the steak is finished cooking.
- Take your steak off the heat and move it to a clean plate or serving board since you don’t want the residual heat from your pan or grill to overcook the meat.
- Loosely wrap the foil around the meat in a tent-like shape.
- Set a timer for the appropriate duration depending on your cut.
- When the timer goes off, remove the foil and slice your steak.
Pro tip: If you baste your steak with butter and aromatics, move your herbs and garlic onto the meat before wrapping it with foil. This way, the flavors have more time to get to know each other.
Make a Pan Sauce While You Wait
While you’re waiting for your meat to rest, why not make a delicious pan sauce that will add another layer of flavor to your dish?
The easiest one I know requires red wine, beef stock, whole-grain mustard, and a shallot.
Start by mincing and sauteing the shallot until it’s translucent. Then deglaze the pan with the wine and add the stock and mustard. Once everything is well combined, add a knob of butter for extra richness.
Your pan sauce will taste best if you make it in the same pan you cook your steak. That’s because you get to use the bits of meat that stick to the pan—aka, the fond. However, you can use a clean pan if you grill your steak.
Pro tip: Save the rendered fat and juices of your steak before making the pan sauce. You’ll need them to reheat your steak.
Looking for a more sophisticated recipe? Watch this video by Babish for a deep dive into pan sauces:
How to Serve a Crispy Rested Steak
Just like a batch of fries, a steak tends to lose its crispy texture as it cools down. Fortunately, there’s an easy trick to get it nice and crispy again.
Here’s what you need to do:
- Reheat the juices you saved earlier.
- Place your steak on a wire rack set over a baking sheet.
- Carefully pour the hot juices on the meat and enjoy the satisfying sizzle.
- Serve your steak.
Cooking Techniques to Reduce Resting Time
If you just can’t wait for your steak to rest, there are a couple of cooking techniques you can use to reduce the resting time while still getting a juicy and flavorful result.
This technique was developed by renowned chef and author, Adam Perry Lang.
Instead of letting his meat rest, Lang likes to create shallow cuts on the steak to increase the surface area for browning. And if he’s cooking a thick cut, he takes a wood bat and pounds the meat flat.
The larger crust on the meat means you’ll lose less liquid when you immediately slice it. But the outflow will still be significant compared to a rested steak.
Lang has a clever way to use these juices. He places some aromatic herbs on the serving board so that the juices combine with the herbs to create a sauce-like liquid, aptly called a board sauce.
Here’s Lang demonstrating his process:
I personally prefer a rested steak, but the one time I tried this technique, it turned out better than I expected.
Popularized by Kenji Lopez-Alt, this technique turns the traditional way of making thick-cut steak on its head. But it only works if you have some time on your hands.
The idea is to slowly cook your steak in a low-temperature oven and sear the outside for a short time to develop a crust. This way, you’ll get perfect doneness throughout the steak, unlike a pan-roasted steak where the center is usually rarer than the outside.
A reverse-seared steak requires very little resting because the protein fibers aren’t exposed to high heat for long. So, they’re not severely contracted and retain more liquid.
Here’s how to reverse-sear a steak:
- Generously season your steak with salt and pepper.
- Insert a temperature probe towards the center of your steak.
- Put the steak on a wire rack set over a baking sheet and insert it into an oven that’s been preheated to 250°F/120°C.
- Once the steak is cooked, move it to a smoking hot cast iron pan and sear each side for two minutes.
- Sear the sides for 30 to 40 seconds.
I still recommend resting your steak for a couple of minutes to allow the juices to redistribute.
Resting Your Steak Before Cooking
Many steak enthusiasts argue that you should let your steak come to room temperature before cooking it. They recommend 20-30 minutes of resting time outside the fridge. The rationale is that if your raw meat is closer to the final eating temperature, you’ll get more even cooking and browning.
Although that theory isn’t technically wrong, it’s ineffective.
That’s because the internal temperature of your steak will barely increase after 30 minutes sitting at room temperature. You’ll need at least two hours for any meaningful change in the internal temperature. Otherwise, the outside will cook too quickly while the inside absorbs the heat without cooking.
So, instead of resting your steak before cooking, pat it completely dry with a paper towel. This way, you’ll remove excess moisture from the surface, which leads to faster and more even browning.
You’ll also get a better sear and avoid potential food safety issues from letting meat warm to room temperature.
Resting Your Steak: Key to Juiciness
Resting is a critical step in making the perfect juicy steak. Even five minutes of resting retains roughly half of the liquid that pours out when you slice your meat. For optimal results, always let your steak sit on a plate wrapped in aluminum foil for at least 10 minutes after you take it off the burner.
I know it can be hard to resist the temptation of a sizzling piece of meat. But the wait will be worth it when you taste the tenderness and flavor of a properly rested steak. During those few minutes, you can make a quick pan sauce to double your dish’s flavor.