In cooking as in life, simpler is oftentimes better. French cooking may have a reputation for complication, but, in reality, many classic homestyle dishes from “over the Alps” (d’oltralpe, as the Italians refer to things French) are quite simple.
To me, there is nothing that quite captures the spirit of simple, unpretensious home cooking in the French manner like a fine pan-fried steak au poivre accompanied with pommes frites (French Fried Potatoes). Like all simple cooking, however, it requires quality ingredients and sure technique—buy the best meat you can afford of the proper cut, and make sure to pay attention to detail; it makes all the difference if you want to achieve a result that is enticing rather than ordinary.
Lots of the same tips and tricks for grilling steak, which we’ve been over in the post on bistecca alla fiorentina (Florentine-Style Porterhouse Steak), apply equally to pan-fried steak, so you may want to check out that post as well. The great thing about pan-frying, though, is that you can whip up a quick but delicious sauce with the sucs and pan juices. This dish is defined by freshly crushed black peppercorns, sprinkled liberally on both sides of the steak, and—for more oomph—added to the pan sauce as well. The sauce, laced with brandy and enriched with cream, is poured over all. One taste will have you shouting Vive la France!
To prep and cook the steak:
- 1 steak (preferably top sirloin or New York strip steak; see Notes)
- Freshly cracked or coarsely ground pepper (see Notes)
- A pat of butter and a drizzle of oil
For the sauce:
- Another pat of butter
- One shallot, peeled and finely minced
- 50 ml (1/4 cup) Cognac, Calvados or other brandy
- 100 ml (1/2 cup) of heavy cream
Sprinkle the steaks liberally with the salt and pepper on both sides, and let stand at room temperature for a good hour or more, preferably on a baking rack so that air can circulate bottom and top. (Otherwise, be sure to turn the steak from time to time to expose both sides to the air.) The amount of salt and pepper are a matter of taste, of course, but I like to be fairly generous with both, as shown below:
When you are ready to cook, heat the oil and butter over medium-high heat in a heavy skillet (see Notes) until the butter has completely melted. As soon as the butter has stopped sizzling, add the steaks. Fry the steak on both sides until nicely seared and done to your liking. Total time will depend on the thickness of the steak and how done you like your meat— purists like myself will tell you that a proper steak au poivre is cooked only until rare or medium-rare, never well-done. I like mine done very rare, which takes only 3 0r 4 minutes a side for a thick-sliced steak. (For tips on testing for doneness, see my post on grilling a steak.)
NB: Be careful to regulate the heat so that the butter never burns; some cooks prefer to sear the meat in a skillet, then finish it off in the oven, which makes burning the butter less of a risk.
Remove the steak from the skillet and keep it warm while you prepare the sauce. Meanwhile, pour out most of the grease (leaving, however, all the sucs in the pan) and add a pat of butter and the shallots. After just 30 seconds or so, add the brandy, scrap up any sucs in the bottom of the skillet, and let it reduce to a syrup. Then add the cream, together with any juices that may have dripped out of the steak, and let that reduce as well until it has reached a saucy consistency. Test and adjust for seasoning; I like to add more pepper to the sauce.
Serve with the sauce poured over the steak, with pommes frites (French fried potatoes) on the side for a truly classic presentation.
The proper cut of meat is key to success. The Larousse Gastronomique recommends a contre-filet (top sirloin) or rumsteck (rump steak) but in the US you are more likely to find New York strip steak (aka Club or Delmonico steak), which is from a bit further up the cow than the sirloin, in your average supermarket. Though not traditional, I would venture that a hanger steak would also be delicious made this way. I love ribeye for grilling, but for pan-frying the less marbled strip or sirloin is a better choice.
You may have noticed that this recipe calls for salting the steak ahead of time. At one time that was considered heresy, on the theory that the salt would draw precious juices out of the meat, but more recent research has shown that while the salt will draw the juices to the surface at first, if you leave it to rest long enough (at least 45-60 minutes) the juices will retreat back into the meat, along with the salt, which will give you a tastier result than salting either during or after cooking. It’s a kind of ‘dry brining’. You’ll need to leave the steaks out for that long anyway if they’ve been in the fridge, so they come back to room temperature. And exposure to the air makes for better searing. (Again, for details, see my post on grilling steak.)
You don’t want finely ground pepper for this dish—and certainly not the pre-ground kind. Most recipes call for freshly cracked, not ground, pepper, but my pepper grinder has a very coarse setting that works very well and is a lot easier than cracking the pepper. If you don’t have such a grinder, you can crack the pepper with a mortar and pestle. And if you don’t have a mortar and pestle, place whole peppercorns in a plastic bag and pound them with the back of a heavy skillet. You’ll need to apply a little elbow grease but it is otherwise pretty easy to do.
Even cooking is essential for a proper steak au poivre, so be sure to use a heavy-gauge skillet. Cast iron is ideal, as is thick copper. I would avoid non-stick skillets, as you don’t get those tasty sucs, but they’ll work in a pinch. If you don’t need or want a sauce, you can make a steak au poivre in an empty, dry skillet, on a cast iron griddle or on a stove-top grill pan.
There are different methods and ingredients for making the sauce. Probably the most common method uses beef or veal stock either instead of or in addition to the cream, but, at least in our kitchen, we don’t often have stock available year-round. And, in any event, I find that the pan juices provide plenty of meat flavor without that ‘artificial’ boost. The Larousse Gastronomique allows for white wine instead of or in combination with the brandy.
Although pommes frites are a classic side for steak au poivre, you wouldn’t be amiss with oven-roasted, mashed or pan-fried potatoes, either. Sautéed greens or nice green salad goes very nicely as well.