Have you ever paused while chowing down on a freshly seared steak and thought: “Mmmm... not a thing in the world could make this any better”? If you have, then we’re right there with you. One of the things that never ceases to amaze me is how with simple additions, my chef friends take something that seems perfect and make it even more perfecter.
Steak, it might shock you to learn, can be made even more enjoyable with some simple sauces. It’s amazing how a tangy or sweet addition can melt with the fat and open your pallet to complex flavors hiding in every bite of beef. This month, we’re going to take a look at three easily made sauces (Chimichurri, Teriyaki Sauce and Peppercorn Sauce), explore the history that brought them to life and then point you in the right direction to try for yourself at home.
The first sauce I was ever proud of was a homemade Chimichurri. I decided to try my hand at a friend’s BBQ, they had a bounty of fresh herbs in their garden so it was my time to flex. For those of you who haven’t tasted Chimichurri, it is a fresh, almost grassy, sauce with a bit of tanginess and some optional heat.
Hailing from Argentina, Chimichurri is crazy easy to make. Though there are many recipes, they usually come in two variations, green (the most well known) and red (similar, but with the addition of paprika and red peppers changing the color). Most simply, you make Chimichurri with a ton of parsley, red wine vinegar, garlic, oil and fresh oregano. I added jalapeño to mine, but once the basics are in play, you can go crazy. You can use your Chimichurri like a dip, or you can baste it on while cooking. Check out our recipe here.
There, like most things in food, is a ton of mystery surrounding the name, with the most nonsensical explanation being that at the beginning of the 19th century, English soldiers captured in the failed invasion of Argentina, requested the sauce, calling it “Jimmy’s Curry”. More likely, Chimichurri is a variant of the Basque word tximitxurri meaning a mixture of several things.
My favorite origin story for chimichurri involves those badass Argentine cowboys known as gauchos. Gauchos were migratory men, riding on horseback, working cattle, cooking over fire and sleeping under the stars. Some food historians think that chimichurri was invented by the gauchos to flavor the meat they cooked over the open fire. Can you think of a more romantic life? Check out this Milk Street article about Argentine steak treatment (the perfect combo of the reverse sear and chimichurri!).
Next, we’ll jump a few thousand miles and cross the great Pacific Ocean to our next stupidly-easy, straight-to-nirvana sauce. Teriyaki is a Japanese style of cooking from the 17th century, where a sugary sauce is lacquered onto grilled meat or fish until the meat takes on a shiny appearance. The word teriyaki derives from the word ‘teri’, meaning shining and ‘yaki’, meaning grilled.
A traditional sauce has three ingredients: soy sauce, mirin and sugar. To make the sauce you combine two parts of soy sauce and mirin (sake works too) and add one part sugar or brown sugar. That’s it!
In the Teriyaki style, you’d grill your meat on a low heat until it was ready to sear, then before searing, you’d brush on the Teriyaki sauce on both sides, flip it and brush on more sauce, flip, sauce, flip, sauce, flip, sauce you get it. The steak will take longer to finish because of the constant flipping and brushing and the result should be a shiny thick coating as the sugars in the sauce caramelize.
For your own Teriyaki journey, if you want to go traditional, but feel like a burger (because you know the importance of balancing all the cuts of an animal), Kenji has an amazing Teriyaki Burger that you have to try (no, like seriously, you totally have to).
For our final sauce, we’ll look at how a classic peppercorn sauce is used in the French dish Steak au Poivre (though it might not be as French as you’d think).
Peppercorn is a pan sauce and a pan sauce is just a fancy way to get all the dreamy crunchy bits of meat left in the pan from a hot searinto our greedy gobs. Serious Eats has a really good guide, but the basics are easy to follow.
You start, as you always should with a perfectly cooked steak. For the classic Steak au Poivre, you’ll coat the steak in peppercorns before cooking to give it a powerful crust. Once cooked, you’ll be distressed to see that bits of your perfectly cooked steak are left in the pan, but fret not, pour off most but not all of the fat and add a diced shallot and whole peppercorns to the pan. Then add a strong wine to deglaze (brandy or cognac are common) and finish with some stock (fresh beef stock if you have it, or veal), a small spoonful of mustard and good splash of cream. Now, you can reunite with your brown bits and rejoice.
If you remember, at the start I said this dish isn’t as French as you might think. It absolutely started in France, however, it was invented specifically for Americans! Multiple French chefs claim to have created the dish in the early 20th century and every story has a common theme that goes something like this: Classically trained French Chef [insert french name here] noticed he had an abundance of Americans in his restaurant, he also noticed they were often drunk and their pallets lacked any sophistication whatsoever, they couldn’t taste the beauty in his food. To wake their pallets up, he figured he’d give them a punch in the pallet and coat their steak in pepper so they had to taste it! Sure enough, it worked and we love Chef [insert french name here] for the pallet punch we so desperately & drunkenly craved.
There are thousands more sauces you can create, but if you go with any of these three, you’re onto a good and easy start. If you’re interested in learning more about sauces, you can get lost in James Peterson’s book, Sauces for hours. I’m personally working up my courage to make a mexican mole from scratch, though it has 36 ingredients and takes two days to make… I might be on the path of the Gauchos for some time yet.