1. Buying the wrong cut of meat
Just because it’s called “steak” doesn’t mean that a cut of meat will turn out tender and flavorful when it’s grilled or sautéed. Top round and bottom round steak, for instance, are lean and tough and are best cooked by braising or slow-cooking in liquid. Flank steak is another chewy cut, which can indeed be grilled (or broiled), but needs to be marinated first and then sliced thinly against the grain. The best cuts quick and simple preparation include strip steak, T-bone, porterhouse, ribeye, and filet mignon.
2. Cooking it damp
One of the pleasures of a well-prepared steak is a crusty, caramelized exterior. Blotting both sides of the meat well with paper towels before cooking helps the crust form through the chemical process called the Maillard reaction — which won’t happen if there’s too much moisture on the surface.
3. Cooking it straight from the refrigerator — maybe
This one’s controversial. The common wisdom, as relayed by such authorities as Bon Appétit and Delish, is that you should always leave your steak out for 30 minutes or so, so that it comes to room temperature, which is said to make it easier to cook evenly. But the science behind this theory is shaky. First of all, it takes longer than half an hour to bring a good-size steak to room temperature throughout. And experiments have shown that cooking a steak cold yields basically the same results as cooking one that has warmed up. What to do? One thing that does seem true is that cold meat can seize up and toughen when heat is applied, so it might be a good idea to take the meat out of the refrigerator 20 minutes or so before cooking, so that at least the surface isn’t chilled.
4. Using the wrong kind of pan
Non-stick pans, stainless steel pans, enameled pans — they’re all useful cooking vessels for various purposes. Cooking steak is not one of them. If you can’t char your steak on a grill, the best pan is a cast-iron one. Cast-iron pans heat evenly and can stand up to very high heat; they require less oil or other cooking fat and become naturally non-stick over time; and they go easily from stovetop to oven. This is essential if you’re cooking your steak with the pan-to-oven method, which involves searing it for a couple of minutes on each side, then finishing it in the oven (about 15 minutes at 350º will bring an inch-and-a-half-thick steak to rare).
5. Underseasoning it
Season your steak with more salt than you think it needs and with plenty of freshly ground black pepper. Some of it will come off as you cook the meat anyway, especially if you’re grilling it — but remember, too, that you’re only salt-and-peppering the surface of the meat, and when you take a bite of a nice thick steak, you’ll want enough seasoning to enhance the whole thing. Many chefs even season generously before cooking, and then season again when the steak comes off the fire — and they presumably know a thing or two about how to make meat taste good.