North Fork Chef: Big red steaks go with big red wine

A glass of merlot at Bedell Cellars. (Credit: Randee Daddona)

In the cold winter months, when your chargrill is covered, a pan-seared steak with a pan sauce, accompanied by a glass of big red wine, is a pretty good combination. 

Many of us (including me) have cut back on both the size of our steak portions and the frequency of eating red meat in general. It is both wasteful and unhealthy to consume a big steak. And we all know that a moderate amount of wine with dinner is both healthy and a happy generator of good will.

What is a big red wine? My fellow columnist Lenn Thompson can give you a better answer than mine, but it is usually a wine that is high in alcohol, with firm tannins and good structure due to the acidity. Why does a big red wine go so well with a steak? A steak contains a large dose of protein and fat. The flavor is robust and requires a powerful wine that can clear the palate and compete with the richness of the meat.

Of course, all big red wines are not the same, just as all steaks are not the same. Price is often a pretty good indicator of quality in both cases (but not always). Cabernet sauvignon and its blends are the most common big red wines and the most common “luxury” steaks are the filet mignon, rib-eye, strip sirloin and porterhouse. In my personal experience, I stay away from big red wines that are too cheap. They can be an awful dose of raw alcohol and oak with little fruit and even less complexity. Much better drink beer with steak than a lousy wine.

As far as the meat is concerned, the luxury cuts in the top grades (USDA choice and prime) are delicious but very expensive. I have found that with a little butchering know-how and some tenderization techniques, a lesser cut of beef can be cut into lean 8-ounce portions and be very satisfying. In the following recipe I have attempted to show how this is done.

As far as the wine goes, I have enjoyed local wines for the past 40 years and you can choose from a variety of merlots and cabernets and their blends that will match this steak.

Pan-Seared Top Butt Sirloin Steak with Canadian Whiskey Sauce

The boneless top butt sirloin is a wholesale cut of beef located just behind the short loin. It is a lean cut that is less tender than the luxury cuts but widely enjoyed as sirloin steak. (Ask your butcher about purchasing a top butt.) The top butt that I purchased weighed 13 pounds.

Place the meat on a cutting board, fat side up. With a stiff-bladed knife, remove some of the fat covering, then peel back the cap muscle. The grain of this muscle runs counter to the grain of the main muscle so it is best to remove it.

Trim the cap of fat and gristle, then cut against the grain into 1-inch-thick steaks.

Trim the main muscle of most fat, silverskin and gristle, then cut it in half with the grain. Now cut the two pieces against the grain into 1-inch-thick steaks.

You will end up with 15 eight-ounce steaks plus enough trim to make a beef stew. Double-wrap each steak in plastic film and foil before freezing.

To prepare the steaks for cooking with maximum flavor and tenderness, begin by dry brining the steaks. To do this, sprinkle coarse kosher salt on both sides of the steak (about 1/2 teaspoon per steak), then place them on a rack over a sheet pan. Refrigerate, uncovered, for two days. Doing this will create deep flavor, help tenderize and help the browning effect.

To tenderize meat there are three basic methods: chemical tenderizing, mechanical tenderizing and marinating. Chemical tenderizing uses naturally occurring enzymes found in papaya, pineapple and kiwi fruit. A commercial example is Adolph’s.

Mechanical tenderizers include mallets for pounding the meat and devices with many small blades to puncture the meat.

Marinating with an acid ingredient such as vinegar does not penetrate the meat enough to have an effect on the connective tissue. Marinating is best for adding flavor.

I used the mechanical tenderizer on these steaks and it worked very well. You couldn’t even see the small holes that it made. Before cooking you just puncture the steak on both sides. (These tenderizers cost about $20.)

To pan-sear the steaks, heat a large sauté pan and add 1 tablespoon canola oil. When it’s very hot, place the steaks in the oil, being careful not to crowd. Cook for about 3 minutes before turning and cooking another 3 minutes. Remove the steaks to a sheet pan. Work in batches if you have more than 4 steaks.

When they are all browned, reduce the heat and place the steaks back in the pan.

Gently heat 1/2 cup Canadian whiskey in a small saucepan. Light the whiskey and pour it over the steaks. (Stand back from the flames.) When the flame recedes, remove the steaks from the pan and keep warm.

(I liked the Canadian whiskey because of its yeasty flavor. When flamed, it burns off most of the alcohol and leaves the residue in the sauce.)

Over low heat add 1/2 cup chopped shallots, 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard and 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce to the drippings in the pan. Add 1/4 cup water and bring to a boil, scraping the bottom with a wooden spoon. Cut up 1 stick of cold, unsalted butter and swirl it in to finish the sauce. Pour the sauce over the steak at service time.

If you want your steak a little more well done, place it in a 400-degree oven while making the sauce. Serve with a big red wine of your choice.

John Ross, chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years. He can be reached at