Steak isn’t a one size fits all deal. Not even close to it. Some of the best cuts of steak for an iron skillet don’t fare well when used in a stew and vice versa. Choose the right cut of steak, and you get delicious and tender meat, while the wrong cut or a mismatched cooking method can easily give you something that’s dry and chewy instead.
Pan frying is also one of the easiest and most accessible ways to prepare steak. Sure, you can throw it on the grill outside and that’s excellent during a party. But, if you’re preparing dinner at home, the stovetop is the way to go.
To do this well, you’re normally looking for boneless steaks. Those with a decent amount of fat and marbling work best, as the fat stops the steak from drying out (and gives you a richer flavor!). There’s still plenty of room for variation though, including steaks to match every budget and fat preference.
So, why a cast iron skillet anyway? You can fry your steak in other skillets and still get a delicious result. However, cast iron skillets get very hot and heat evenly, allowing you to cook a much tastier steak than you could otherwise.
Steak Cuts For Your Skillet
Ribeye is typically a boneless steak cut from the cow’s rib area. It’s an exceptionally popular cut of meat, as it’s fairly fatty and is packed with flavor.
This is also a perfect cut for anyone just beginning to cook steak, as ribeye is very forgiving. To make things easier still, look for a relatively thick cut of ribeye.
Steaks between 1 and 1.5 inches thick are excellent for pan frying. Because these take a while to cook, it’s easy to get the desired level of doneness. Working with a thinner steak raises the risk of overcooking it.
There’s one thing to watch, though. Ribeye steaks contain plenty of marbling and some pockets of fat, which can sometimes lead to flare ups while you’re cooking the steak. Watch out for this, especially if you’re using a high heat.
Top sirloin is another excellent choice. It’s a boneless premium cut of meat that comes from the back of the steer (not surprisingly, from a cut known as sirloin).
There’s some debate about top sirloin, with some people saying the cut isn’t flavorful nor is it tender, while others say that it has both of these features. Which is true largely depends on how you cook it.
In particular, sirloin is a lean cut, so it’s easy to overcook the steak and ruin it. Watch the heat as well. Most of the time, you’ll get a better result from medium heat than from high heat.
If you cook it well, you should end up with a relatively tender and flavorful piece of steak. That’s pretty good, as this is also an inexpensive cut.
Bottom sirloin is a cheaper sirloin cut. It isn’t as tender or as tasty as the top sirloin, but the lower price makes it a better choice for some families.
Bottom sirloin is lower in fat than many other entries on this list, so you need to be more cautious when pan frying it. Marinating the meat first can help, as this makes it more tender and can prevent it from getting too dry.
Choosing cuts of at least an inch helps as well, as bottom sirloin cooks quickly, so it’s easy to overcook thin steaks.
The filet mignon is famous as one of the tenderest and most expensive cuts of meat. It has a surprisingly subtle flavor, but this can be offset by wrapping the steak in bacon or by seasoning it well.
You can cook a filet mignon entirely in a cast iron skillet or use a combination of oven cooking and pan frying to give a tender interior and crisp exterior.
New York Strip
This popular steak cut goes by many names, including New York strip, shell steak, club steak, and simply strip steak. Oddly, the steak even gets called the sirloin strip at times, although it doesn’t come from the sirloin. Whatever you call it, though, the New York strip is always a classic.
The cut comes from the short loin of the cow and is relatively lean. It has a strong flavor too, so you don’t need much seasoning when you’re cooking it. It’s also fairly tender, allowing you to avoid marinating it entirely.
Most of the time, you’ll be cooking this steak over a high heat. Just be sure to pay close attention, so you don’t overcook the meat.
Skirt steak is probably familiar, even if you didn’t know what it was called. This is one of the classic cuts of steaks used to make fajitas.
The steak is often chosen for its low price and delicious flavor. However, it’s also a lean and tough cut, so you need to be careful with it.
First, marinating the meat is essential. You’ll want to use an acidic marinade, as this breaks down the muscle fibers and increases the tenderness of the meat.
Once marinated, the steak then needs to be cooked over a very high heat. A cast iron skillet is ideal.
Watch the cooking time here, though. The steak is tastiest when cooked rare or medium rare. You might get away with medium as well, but nothing beyond this. The more the steak is cooked, the tougher it gets. This is a tough cut anyway, so it’s best to err on the side of caution.
Flank steak comes from a different part of the cow than skirt steak, but it has similar properties. In fact, flank steak and skirt steak can be used interchangeably in many of the same recipes.
Here too, you’ll need to marinate the steak before cooking it and avoid cooking it for too long.
Cutting these steaks against the grain helps as well. If you go with the grain, the meat will end up far too chewy.
Chuck Eye Steak
Chuck steak is normally tough, making it a poor choice for your frypan. Chuck eye steak is an exception to that rule.
The cut is even called ‘poor man’s ribeye’ because it has a similar flavor and tenderness as ribeye steak (but is much more affordable). The tenderness means that you can pan fry a chuck eye steak just like a ribeye. There’s no need to marinate it at all.
We talked about filet mignon earlier. That’s the most famous cut from the tenderloin, but it’s not all you can do with the tenderloin.
You’ll also find steaks cut from different parts of the tenderloin. These are often thick, although some are cut thinly instead. Such steaks are excellent on a skillet, as you need to cook them quickly. After all, tenderloin contains little fat, so it’s easy to overcook the steak and dry it out.
Of course, tenderloin steaks still have a subtle taste. You’ll need to provide flavor from other ingredients, like herbed butter, bacon, or a rich sauce.
Hanger steak is one of those cuts that often gets passed over. It just doesn’t seem that exciting.
The cut is from the short plate region. It’s not an active muscle, so it ends up being pretty tender. It’s also a flavor packed piece of meat.
Like skirt and flank steaks, hanger steak is best when marinated then cooked quickly over a high heat. However, hanger isn’t as tough as skirt and flank, so it’s easier to get tender cooked meat.
The steak is typically a large piece of meat. You’ll need to at least cut it in half before pan frying it or perhaps into even smaller pieces.
This is another cut you might never have heard about, but you should definitely try. It’s a shin cut that’s becoming increasingly popular because it’s pretty tender and is also inexpensive.
Seriously, it can be as good as a tenderloin when prepared well – often at half the price.
There are some similarities between this cut and flank steak, except that flank is much tougher and needs to be marinated first. You can marinate merlot steak too, but doing so isn’t essential. It’s enough to sear the steak as-is in a hot pan.
Flat iron steak still isn’t that well known, which is a shame, as it can be delicious and tender. It’s easy to cook too. Simply use a hot pan and don’t cook it past medium rare.
Doing so gives you a flavorful and tender steak that’s also very affordable. You can also marinate it to increase the tenderness.
The one catch is that flat iron may contain tough sinew, which isn’t edible. You can remove this yourself or ask the butcher to do so when you buy the steak.
The T-bone steak is an honorable mention on this list. It’s a good choice for pan frying in that when you cook it well, you end up with an incredibly delicious meal.
This is because a T-bone includes two different cuts of steak, tenderloin and strip steak. These differ in their fat content, leading to variations in flavor and texture between the halves of your steak.
The catch is the bone. This makes T-bones difficult to pan fry.
There are two problems. First, meat tends to shrink when it cooks and can pull away from the bone. This can leave the bone in contact with the pan, while some of the meat isn’t, which is the last thing you want during cooking.
Also, the difference in fat content means that the two halves of the steak don’t cook evenly. The tenderloin tends to cook faster than the strip steak side. To get around this, you need to position your steak carefully so that the strip side is closest to the heat source.
Should you pan fry a T-bone? That’s a matter of opinion. Some people say that doing so is well worth the effort, as the steak can taste amazing. Others say it’s best to stick to the boneless cuts.
The cut of steak matters, but it’s not the only thing to think about. The following steps are important too. Follow them and you should end up with mouth-wateringly delicious steak.
Prepping is crucial. At the very least, you want to let your steak come to room temperature before you cook it.
This involves taking the steak out of the fridge at least 10 minutes before cooking. Some people keep it out for longer – up to an hour!
Then, use paper towels to pat the steak dry. Next is salting the steak. Both sides should be seasoned with salt. The steak needs to sit for roughly 10 minutes after salting too.
While these prep steps might seem a bit much, they do make the world of difference to your steak. Besides, they’ll become second nature as you go. It won’t be long before they take barely any attention at all.
Flipping your steak as you cook it is a given. You must do this to make sure the steak cooks evenly. You can use this opportunity to baste the steak as well, scooping butter or cooking oil over the top of the steak as it is cooking.
Some chefs recommend only flipping the steak once. However, this doesn’t have a huge effect. You can flip the steak multiple times if you find this easier. Doing so helps you to get a more even crust anyway.
Steak needs to be fried quickly over a high temperature. It’s easy to get this wrong and overcook the meat. As you do so, the fat starts to dissipate, giving you a tough and chewy steak.
The exact cooking time varies depending on the cut of meat, its thickness, and your preferences. As such, it takes trial and error to work out the best cooking time for you.
That said, it’s generally better to undercook your steak, rather than overcooking it.
Steak should rest for 5 minutes or so before you cut into it. This is the hardest part for most home cooks, but it’s worth trying (if you possibly can). Thick cuts of steak need a longer rest time – as much as 20 minutes.
Resting the steak like this helps the juices to get reabsorbed into the meat, giving you a more flavorful meal. If you don’t do this, then the juices run out when you cut your steak, making it drier and much less tasty.
Rather than resting your steak as-is, try covering it with aluminum foil. This helps keep the heat in, so your steak stays warm.