I have a fearsome task before me today, and that is to persuade you to stop doing something that millions of Americans have been happily embracing since the invention of “dining out.” I refer, of course, to ordering steaks at a restaurant.
Let me note that I am not anti-steak. I love steak. Grilled, broiled, pan-seared, made into succulent sandwiches – about the only way I don’t like steak is boiled. Steak is delicious. You should eat it. You just shouldn’t eat it at a restaurant, unless that restaurant is a high-end steakhouse that has devoted itself exclusively to the preparation of prime, dry-aged steaks.
I know what you are thinking: But I love steak! And as I say, I love steak, too. But it’s not worth ordering from a regular restaurant, because unless you are seated in one of a handful of steak shrines, you can do it at least as well in your own kitchen.
Think about the reasons you might go to a restaurant. Maybe you’re celebrating something. Maybe you want to have food cooked by an expert that you would have a hard time replicating at home. Maybe you like the ease and comfort of sitting in a nice atmosphere where someone else has done all the hard work of cooking and cleaning. Those are all excellent reasons to dine out. But they are better served by ordering almost anything else.
The problem with ordering steak when you go out is that the chef doesn’t do much to it. It’s expensive, but it’s expensive because the raw ingredient – which is to say, steak – is expensive. At most places, all the chef does is season a precut hunk of meat, expose it to heat for a little while, and maybe plop some butter on top to make it taste extra succulent. You can do that at home. It takes little skill, and it creates almost no mess. In other words, you aren’t getting much added benefit from going to the restaurant. So don’t pay someone else premium prices for minimal work; make them spend hours prepping and cooking that wild boar ragu for you.
If you want a dry-aged steak, you can do it at home with a minifridge in the basement or garage. Dying for a fancy béarnaise sauce? You can make it in the blender. If you’re having trouble getting the meat cooked exactly to a turn, buy a sous vide setup, which is so foolproof that you literally cannot screw up the cooking; no matter the thickness of the steak, it will turn out absolutely perfect, every time. All in, the entire kit – sous vide, minifridge, blender, vacuum sealer, and a hibachi or cast-iron frying pan to put a sear on – will set you back less than $500 new, which is to say, less than a couple of steak dinners for four. And you can probably slash that by at least half by shopping garage sales. Then get some good steaks – by mail order if your local meat counter is truly abysmal – and have yourself that celebratory steak feast. Total active time spent cooking should be well under half an hour. And if you don’t want to do the dishes, you can use fancy paper plates.
Yes, investing in such a setup will cost you more than a single steak at a restaurant. But then it will keep generating delicious dry-aged steaks for years. Those are years that you will be able to spend eating restaurant food that actually would be difficult, or annoying, to replicate at home, while also enjoying a great steak from time to time. Or if your idea of a great meal is always and forever “steak,” you can skip the restaurant entirely and, over time, save thousands of dollars. I can do a top-notch steak dinner for eight at home for less than it would cost to take the two of us out for a mediocre piece of beef, and without much greater effort.
I apply the same rule to chocolate: Most people love chocolate, so chocolate desserts are generally a boring default on a menu that offers much more interesting, and harder to prepare, options. But I confess, when I raise this to dinner companions, they often react as if I had suggested we nip out between courses and find someone to mug. There is, after all, a reason that the defaults are the defaults.
OK, maybe you’re a novice baker who doesn’t think of fallen chocolate soufflé cake as the sort of thing that’s easily whipped up for an impromptu dinner party. In the case of steak, however, there really is no reason to order it in a restaurant unless your grill was stolen, your broiler is broken, or your stove-top doesn’t get hot enough to heat a cast-iron pan. Anyone can make a good steak with a modest amount of training and/or equipment. And at the prices they’re asking for steak these days, that person should be you, not the one in the restaurant kitchen.
Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes on economics, business and public policy.