The problem with porterhouse (updated)

Second try at porterhoouse

On the second try I had my skillet off-center above the flame to protect the tenderloin.

I have been paid to cook steaks and paid to eat steaks and write about them, but until recently I had never cooked nor eaten a porterhouse. Finally, after producing some aspirational copy for this “king of cuts” I decided it was time for boots on the ground.

A porterhouse is two steaks in one—a filet and a strip steak, separated by a bone. (The T-bone is a similar cut from further down the loin, with a smaller amount of filet.) Sounds like a great solution for the meat glutton. Can’t decide? Have both! But the problem with porterhouse is that the cooking and eating characteristics are very different for these two cuts of beef.

My steak, a Certified Angus procured at my local market, was on the small side at a little over a pound and one inch thick. I dusted both sides with Cavendar’s Greek seasoning and slapped it into a hot bare cast iron skillet and cooked till it was crisp and the flesh on the strip side was beginning to firm up—an indication of medium rare. I let it sit 5 minutes, and tucked in.

The filet is what most people will eat first, I expect. It’s smaller and on the outside as the steak is usually presented and there is no band of fat to get through if the steak is well trimmed. My first bite was ecstasy. I immediately thought, “this is like eating liver for someone who doesn’t like liver”—incredibly buttery mouth feel and feral, bloody taste. My filet was fairly small (I’d guess 2 ounces) and quickly disappeared.

Then I attacked the strip, usually my favorite cut, but it seemed coarse and chewy compared to the filet. It was also a bit more done than I like—still red in the middle, but on the done side of medium rare. I didn’t like it.

I did not plan to eat this entire steak myself, so I carved off a nice square to save for later and trimmed the rest off the bone so I could do some gnawing. And the meat near the bone was just plain raw, not rare, and at its heart not even warm. Yuck.

That last problem was likely the result of my habit of refrigerator aging. If I’d let the steak come up to room temperature then the bone would not have insulated the surrounding meat and kept it cool. But the rest of the problem is endemic to the identity of the steak, I think.

Even though I know the strip is a more flavorful cut, when the two are side by side tenderness trumps flavor. (Modernist Cuisine has a nice discussion of tenderness, which they define as the ease with which you can bite through a piece of meat, not chew it; the authors note that even lions have trouble chewing a sinewy antelope in the wild.)

As to the done-ness, most experts will tell you lean meat cooks faster but this just wasn’t the case for me. Maybe I had a leaner than usual strip, or maybe the outside of the skillet where the filet cooked was a bit cooler.

I did a survey of the online menus of a bunch of famous steakhouses and was interested to find most do not even offer the porterhouse but only filets, ribeyes and strips. Morton’s has porterhouse as a meal for two that is carved tableside. So perhaps the little woman gets the filet and the man the strip? And Peter Luger’s apparently cuts the meat off the bone, grills it in the kitchen, then reassembles the steak before serving. That would take care of the problem of degrees of doneness since the two steaks could be cooked on different parts of the grill.

Next time, I’m having a ribeye.

UPDATE: this experience gnawed at me, so I tried it again with another porterhouse and cooked it off-center on the flame so the filet was protected. The filet was again much rarer than the strip–it was blood rare while the strip was on the verge of medium rare. Based on the skillet position I would have expected the same degree of doneness. So I’m disputing the “lean meat cooks faster” thesis.

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