By now, Donald Trump’s preferences when it comes to steak temperatures has been well documented, by everyone from The Washington Post to Eater.com. First, there were the anecdotes from his longtime butler, who mentioned that Trump enjoyed his steaks so well-done, they would “rock on the plate” as they were being carried to him, presumably on a gold tray. Then, there was that fated evening at BLT Steak in Washington, D.C., as investigated by the Independent Journal Review, where the then-president-elect ordered a gorgeous dry-aged $54 New York Strip steak, cooked well done, and then smothered it in ketchup (or catsup, if you like spelling things in weird unconventional ways).
The whole sordid episode got me thinking: Had I ever even EATEN a steak cooked to well-done? Because I like the way meat tastes, I’ve always been solidly in the rare/medium-rare camp, where science has proven the sweet spot lays, where heat, fat, protein, and salt combine into the pleasure-giving chemicals that our brains have been feasting hungrily on since the discovery of fire.
Sure, I’ve COOKED plenty of meat to well-done (since a surprisingly high percentage of my customers seem to like it this way), but it’s always been with more than a little bit of silent judgement running through my mind, as I read the ticket and apply meat to hot pan. To me, the customer that orders his steak or burger well-done is suspicious, unwilling to trust me as a cook to present them with a new experience, a taste sensation that may be a little bit different than what they’ve been cooking at home. Sure sure, I know, taste is subjective. But if you get to have ideas about your steak, then so do I.
At any rate, no, I’ve never eaten a steak cooked to well-done, and I’ve definitely never smothered it in ketchup when it was done. So, since we’re now living in Trump’s America, I decided it was time to see how the 1% lives.
I started with the best piece of meat I could afford (that is, could afford to destroy): An 18-ounce New York Strip steak, grass-fed and corn-finished, from our local butcher. I carefully massaged the steak on both sides with a layer of kosher salt, and following my normal method for cooking steak, threw the whole thing in an oiled cast-iron skillet over high heat.
Normally, I cook my steak for about three minutes on one side, flip it, and then transfer the smoking cast iron skillet to a 550 degree oven to finish for a another few minutes. Depending on the thickness of the cut, this reliably gets me to around 130 on the meat thermometer, and then resting the steak gets the middle to a perfect 140, while maintaining a glossy, thick crust on the outside with a warm, red middle.
To cook my steak Trump-style, though, I had to do things a little differently. I still used the cast iron skillet method, but left the steak alone for a good 6-7 minutes before transferring it to the oven, where I just kind of walked away and forgot about it for a while. I went in the other room, checked my email, saw my kids for a minute, nagged my wife, deleted some unused apps on my phone, scrubbed one of the toilets, reorganized some things in the pantry, and generally just mindlessly dicked around in my house for about 20 minutes.
This cooking method proved perfect. I pulled the steak out of the oven at a ripping internal temperature of 166 degrees; the perfect temperature for anyone who loves their steak to be cooked through to a uniform lifeless grey, all moisture, flavor, and color having been unceremoniously stripped away from the flesh and left pooling in the skillet, never to be tasted by human mouths.
I didn’t rest the meat for as long as I normally would, since the point of cooking meat this way seems to be to drain a perfectly nice steak of all of its moisture and flavor, turning it into basically garbage. With this in mind, I wasn’t too concerned about letting the juices redistribute inside the meat; I slathered that sucker in ketchup, sat down with my fascinated five year old, and devoured the whole entire thing.
So, objections to the cooking method and the hints it may provide about someone’s character aside, how did it TASTE? I struggled to be fair, to find positive aspects to charring an innocent cow beyond recognition, until the fat and flesh fuses into a solid texture more akin to eating moon rocks, than to a noble, massive, once-mooing beast.
I suppose if you are eating steak for the char and for the crust, cooking your steak to well-done brings those things in spades. In fact, the whole thing is “crusty exterior,” revealing a dry, bland, flavorless center. Cooked this way, most of the flavor you are getting is from the salt and from the pan, and that isn’t in itself, always a bad thing.
Dousing the entire sad affair in ketchup was a new one by me, as well. In a way, there’s at least some sort of sick order to this line of thinking; if your method of cooking removes all of the juiciness, flavor, and sweetness from the meat, I suppose it makes some sort of sense to ladle those flavors back on, straight out of the bottle.
The effect of cooking a perfectly good steak to well-done is that of taking an expensive cut of meat, and making it taste exactly the way food tastes at McDonald’s. And that’s not even necessarily a bad thing! McDonald’s has plenty of loyal fans, myself among them. It does seem strange, though, to produce a gorgeous, carefully raised, and in Trump’s case, painstakingly-aged piece of meat, and reduce it to a slab of carcinogen-rich, overdone, flavorless flesh, whose role is not to satisfy or please the palate, but simply to fill an empty void in the belly.
This is caveman food. Or better still, the kind of food that a caveman imagines rich people would eat, food that HE could someday eat if he could learn to put on an ill-fitting suit and tape his tie together and spout nonsensical catch-phrases at his increasingly baffled constituents, instead of smearing shit on the walls of the cave and riding brontosauruses or whatever it is kids are being taught about evolution these days. It’s food for someone who is scared of food, of change, of the encroaching advances of a social order that just doesn’t make sense. It’s food, not coincidentally, that my five-year-old daughter simply LOVED, but that I won’t eat again.
Bonus! Want to hear my (and Violet’s) original unedited tasting notes for this post? Here they are:
Lead photo: Stephen Lovekin/WireImage for Hill & Knowlton