One does not always associate steak with Italian cooking, but one of the glories of Tuscan cuisine is, indeed, a simply prepared Porterhouse steak, grilled rare, over a wood fire: bistecca alla fiorentina, or literally ‘Steak Florentine’. The dish is so typical that if you ask for a fiorentina in a restaurant, without saying more, this is what you will be served.
The recipe is exquisitely simple, but as for any other kind of steak, there are some key points that you need to bear in mind, starting with the quality of the meat. In Italy, a true bistecca alla fiorentina is made with Chianina beef, raised in the Chiana Valley. Chianina beef is apparently now being raised in the US, although I have yet to find it in any market. You can make a beautiful steak with good quality beef of any origin. In the US, look for choice or, better, prime grade meat. For this holiday meal, I found a beautiful side of prime Porterfhouse displayed at the local butcher, which could be cut to order—which brings me to another key point: a bistecca alla fiorentina must be cut thick, at least 1-1/2-2 inches (3-5 cm) but even better at 3 inches (7.5 cm) thick. This allows a nice crust to form on the outside of the steak while the inside remains rare. A fiorentina is never, ever served well done (nor, in my opinion, is any good steak).
Preparing your steak for grilling. There are also certain preparatory steps that are critical to ensure the best results. If you get your steak from a good butcher, it should already be aged and rather dry to the touch—as it should be. But if you buy your steak in a supermarket, it is likely to be rather wet, in which case it helps to air dry it in the fridge for a few hours or even overnight. Place the steak on a rack or—if you don’t have a rack—you can prop it up with two chopsticks, over a plate to catch any blood that may drip out. This will allow air to circulate around the steak, top and bottom, so it dries evenly. Even so, turn the steak every so often to ensure even drying on the outside and circulation of the blood inside the steak. If you air dry your steak for more than a few hours, cover it loosely with a towel to prevent the meat from drying out too much.
Even more important than air drying is tempering the meat: making sure that the meat is room temperature before you cook it. If you plan to eat the meat the same day you buy it, just leave it out until you plan to cook it (unless you live in a tropical or sub-tropical climate). But if you have refrigerated the meat, take it out of the fridge an hour or so before you plan to grill it, so that it come back to room temperature. This operation will ensure more even cooking.
Grilling. Now get your grill nice and hot. (Some sources will warn against excessive heat, which supposedly can toughen the meat, but I have not found this to be true in practice, at least not with good quality meat.) Wood is the fuel of choice here—oak is traditional—or charcoal. If you must, a gas grill will do, although the final product will lack the characteristic smokey flavor of a true fiorentina. But don’t sweat this too much; I make do with a gas grill myself. If you have a smoker box, pre-soaked chips of oak or another a mild wood will add character to your dish.
Place the steak on the grill. If your meat is cut thick as it should be, lower the heat a bit, to ‘medium-high’, and grill it for five to ten minutes on each side, depending on the thickness of the steak (See notes below). If you like cross-hatched grill marks, place the steak across the grates diagonally, starting at ‘ten o’clock’:
Then, halfway through the cooking time for this side, turn the steak to ‘two o’clock’:
When you turn the steak over to cook on its other side, you will see the lovely cross-hatched grill marks that are the pride of so many ‘grillmeisters’ (see first photograph above). Now season the steak liberally with salt as the steak cooks on the other side, repeating the two and ten o’clock positions if you like. Turn the steak over and season it again on its just-cooked side. Finally, for a 3-inch monster, you can and should grill the steak on its flank for another five minutes or so, using the bone to prop the steak up. This will drive the blood away from the bone for more even cooking.
The total grilling time for a 3-inch monster fiorentina will be about 25 minutes (see Notes below for details on cooking times and testing for doneness.
Resting. After your steak is done, remove it from the grill and let it ‘rest’ for about ten minutes. This resting is another crucial step (perhaps the most crucial of all) that ensures that the meat will remain juicy when you carve it. Use a rack or chopsticks, just as you did for the air-drying, to ensure circulation all around the steak; this avoids the crust getting soggy underneath.
Carving and Serving. A fiorentina is too big to serve individually. It is typically carved up, first by removing the filet and then the contrefilet from the T-bone, then each against the grain:
|Removing the filet (aka tenderloin)
|Removing the contrefilet (aka strip steak)
Each diner helps themselves to as much steak as they want. Many people serve the meat with lemon wedges, but as far as I’m concerned a sprinkling of salt—and maybe pepper—is all this steak needs!
Cuts of beef: While a top quality, thick cut Porterhouse steak like the one shown in this post is what you need to make a true fiorentina, this kind of eating does not come cheap. (The ‘monster’ shown here set me back a cool $90.) In our house, a steak like this is a treat for special occasions, so I don’t mind the expense. Still, if you are looking to spend less, the same technique can be used for just about any cut you prefer. T-bone would be the next closest thing, followed by a strip steak (which is nothing more than the contrefilet served on the bone.) And my personal favorite cut for steak, a bone-in ribeye, also called a ‘cowboy steak’, is wonderful made this way. Of course, if you can’t afford—or can’t find—aged prime beef, ‘choice’ grade (which is what you are likely to find in a supermarket) will also be delicious. I would not use this technique on lower grades of meat like ‘select’, which really need some help—like a marinade—to make for good eating.
There is much debate among steak connoisseurs about the precise best way to prepare a fiorentina or, for that matter, any other steak. Here are some brief explanations of the major ‘issues’:
Seasoning. Some sources, including the august Artusi, solemnly warn against seasoning the steak at all before it is entirely cooked, on the theory that salt will draw out the juices. More modern sources allow seasoning the seared side of the meat, as suggested in this post. Other sources even recommend seasoning the meat before cooking—something that had been thought to be anathema but actually works well if you season the meat an hour or so before grilling, which allows enough time for the salt to penetrate the meat, which draws the juices back in.
Turning while grilling. Then there is the traditional school of thought that the steak should only be turned over once. But more modern sources call for turning the steak several times, which is said to ensure more even cooking. I have tried both and, quite frankly, can’t tell much difference in the taste or texture of the final product. Turning often does allow you to season the steak more thoroughly but you sacrifice those nice, neat grill marks.
Dressing. Some of the earliest sources, including Artusi, call for dressing the cooked steak with a dab of butter. This touch, so uncharacteristic of Tuscan cooking, is said to have been invented for ex pats—specifically, the English—who played such a prominent role in the life of 19th century Florence (as portrayed in the film Room with a View). More common these days—and more consonant with Italian culinary tradition—is a drizzle of olive oil.
Rubbing and Marinating. It is also common to rub the steak with some olive oil before grilling, which helps it brown and form a nice crust. Some sources (including Artusi, again) condemn the practice and says that it gives the steak a terrible ‘off’ flavor, but I have not found this to be the case. A nice rub of olive oil can help when you are using a less-thickly cut steak. When you are using a thick steak, you will have enough time for the steak to brown nicely on its own. You will even find some recipes for a ‘fiorentina’ that call for marinating the steak with rosemary, garlic and other aromatics. These variations can be delicious—and for lesser grades of beef, almost obligatory—but they are definitely not authentic.
Cooking Times. As mentioned at the outset, a true fiorentina is served rare—very rare. For those who cannot stand the idea of a blood red steak—if you really must—you can serve it medium-rare. However, a well-done fiorentina is heresy. Most traditional recipes call for cooking the steak about 5 minutes per side, for a 1-1/2 to 2 inch (3-5 cm) steak, which makes for a very rare piece of meat. You can increase this to as much as 10 minutes per side for a thick cut steak. (This article contains a convenient chart on steak grilling times by thickness.) A 3 inch (7.5 cm) ‘monster’ Porterhouse will take a total of 25 minutes, including 5 minutes on its bone side, for a rare steak as pictured in this post.
|A properly cooked fiorentina is served very rare…
Testing for doneness. The most exact way of testing a steak for doneness is to use an instant-read meat thermometer. Steak is rare at 125 degree Farenheit (52 C), medium at 140F (60C) and well done at 170F (77 C). But using a thermometer will puncture the crust and allow juices to flow out of the meat, so most grillmeisters prefer the touch method, using the so-called ‘rule of thumb’: raw meat feels like the muscle just below your thumb (sometime called the ‘mound of Venus’, particularly in palmistry) when your hand is open or slightly cupped. If you if touch you index finger with your thumb, this muscle will contract a bit, becoming a bit firmer—the same firmness as a rare piece of beef. when you press it gently with your index finger Touch your middle-finger for medium-rare, and so on. The following diagram illustrates this ‘rule’ well:
And a final note on Tuscany’s most famous butcher…I always associate bistecca alla fiorentina with Dario Cecchini, who may be the first—and only—celebrity butcher in the world. And here is short guide to the way Dario prepares this dish. Dario has his own website and blog. He has been featured on any number of ‘foodie’ TV shows, including Gourmet magazine’s Diary of a Foodie and Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. It’s well worth catching one of these episodes if you can: Dario is quite a character—the only butcher I know who regularly quotes Dante!
|The remains of the day…
Notice that a properly prepared steak, even when served very rare, exudes only a minimal amount of blood. Those delicious juices are still inside the meat….