'Pittsburghing' a steak at home


January 27, 2002|By Jim Coleman | Jim Coleman,Knight Ridder / Tribune

Q. How does a chef know when a piece of meat is properly "Pittsburgh"? Can I do this at home?

A. You do not have to be a chef to burn a piece of meat and set off the smoke alarm, which is what you will be doing if you are "Pittsburghing" a steak. It's interesting how terms for the same type of food are different in various parts of the country. If you were to travel down South, say to New Orleans, you would see "blackened steak" on the menu. On your return trip, you'd be offered "Pittsburgh" steak.

The only real difference between the two is the seasoning blend -- the goal and the procedure for both dishes are essentially the same.

With either preparation, you are trying to sear the meat at such a high temperature that the very outside begins to burn, sealing the juices inside. You will know if you did it properly if the outside of your meat is black (almost burned, but not really), but the inside is nice and pink and extremely juicy when you cut into it.

Only someone who has had one too many beers would want to Pittsburgh a steak until it is well done. In fact, most people who order a Pittsburgh ask for their meat to be served rare.

Now as far as doing it at home, you will need a cast-iron skillet and a good ventilation system. Put the skillet over the highest heat and leave it there for 15 or 20 minutes until it becomes so hot that it starts turning white. (Remember that this is one hot pan, so don't go grabbing that handle. You might want to warn the rest of the family, too.)

Dip your steak in a little melted butter, season it with salt, pepper and whatever else you like, and place it in the extremely hot pan. Now this is where the smoke alarm comes in. Not only are you going to get flames popping out of the pan, but the amount of smoke you are going to generate would be more than enough for special effects in a Steven Spielberg movie. While the fire department is knocking at your door, you should flip the steak over to repeat this whole surreal process.

Can you do this at home? Well, yes, you can. At this point, however, you may find yourself asking, "Who in their right mind would do this at home?" In fact, I don't recommend it unless you have a gas burner attached to your outside grill (like I do), which makes the process a little less of a hassle.

No matter what, it's still tricky, so when you're in the mood for a Pittsburgh, here's my suggestion. Go to a restaurant, order two beers, and let its kitchen deal with it.

Jim Coleman is the executive chef at the Rittenhouse Hotel in Philadelphia, a cookbook author, and host of radio and television cooking shows.

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