When Exactly Should You Pepper Your Steak?

With the exception of salt, pepper is the most common and ubiquitous condiment in American cooking. The berries themselves vary greatly in both color and flavor , but when and how you grind and cook them also has a big impact on their flavor. (As a child, my sister referred to ground black pepper as “hot salt,” although it was soft enough to sprinkle on a cantaloupe liberally.)

The little bag of black “pepper” that comes with prepackaged meals and takeaways is so far removed from freshly ground foods that it’s hard to believe they come from the same berry. Grinding peppers gives off aromatic compounds, and these compounds can evaporate quite quickly, which is why people pay so much attention to “freshly ground pepper” in restaurants with white tablecloths. The fresher it is, the more of these compounds you will taste.

Heat also has a huge impact on the flavor of the pepper. Gently browning can get rid of some of the more volatile aromas, but it can also enhance and enrich the aroma; but burnt peppers are bitter and even pungent, so I rarely season the steaks with pepper before cooking them.

This decision ultimately depends on preference – I don’t want the bitterness to compete with the pure meaty flavor of the steak – but it also has to do with the method. I like to roast my steaks in a hot skillet to maximize Maillard browning and crusting, and hot is not a temperature that favors the pepper and its compounds. Coarse chunks of pepper can also prevent the meat from coming into contact with the pan, resulting in an uneven browning.

But as long as you factor in the pepper and the flavor you want to extract from it, there is no problem seasoning the steak before cooking. Sometimes a little bitterness is nice, and let’s not forget that there is a whole classic French dish that celebrates this very combination of beef and toasted, lightly toasted pepper – steak au poivre.

The difference is that almost all poavr steak recipes require a lighter and softer heat – usually medium to medium-high – rather than bursting, opening all windows and turning on pan temperature fans, which is why many steak lovers (myself included) seemed to were obsessed with it. The peppercorn steaks are a delicious mix of savory, rich, tangy and – yes – slightly bitter.

So when exactly should you pepper your steak? It depends on you and your taste. If you want a slightly bitter, pungent and contrasting crust, season it ahead of time and possibly reduce the heat a little. For a more floral, citrusy and woody peppery note, grind it after the steak is done. You can also do both, depending on how much pepper you like.


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