Let’s say you’ve decided to cook a beautiful steak dinner for yourself (or for some company). As you’re preparing the goods for a trip to flavortown, you begin to realize that you don’t know how to season a steak. Salt is a must, but doesn’t pepper burn? Maybe I’ll throw some garlic in, or should I go with onions instead? I knew I should have just bought some pre-made steak seasoning.
You don’t need to be an expert to know how to season a steak. You’ve come this far, so don’t be discouraged by the myriad of seasonings and spices. In this article, I will explore how to season a steak and guide you through some essential seasonings/spices that you will need to bring your steak game to another level. Not only will you learn how to season your steak, you’ll also learn when to season your steak.
Before we begin, please understand that not all steaks should be seasoned the same. High-end cuts can be seasoned simply, while some other cuts require rubs or marinades. This guide is targeted towards the higher-end cuts (ribeye, NY strip, picanha, etc.).
Disclaimer: These tips are only applicable to traditional pan-seared steaks. Different applications (sous-vide, reverse sear, etc) require slightly different techniques.
How to Season a Steak: The Essentials
We all know that salt enhances the flavor of foods. But why and how does it do this? It’s simple – saltiness is one of the five primary basic tastes. Flavoring foods with salt increases the concentration of ions that our taste buds recognize as “salty”. Certain ions activate certain tastes. Salt also complements/enhances sweet, sour, and umami receptors and suppresses bitter receptors. For those of you who don’t know, “umami” refers to a pleasant savory taste. A boiled hamburger has little umami, while a fried hamburger (the crispy brown crust) has a lot of umami. The egg white has little umami, while the egg yolk is packed with umami.
You can’t have a steak without salt. In fact, it’s probably the first thing that came to mind when you searched up “how to season a steak”. Eating a steak without salt is equivalent to eating rice alone or baking cookies without any sugar. However, the type of salt that you use matters almost as much as when you decide to salt your steak.
For all intents and purposes, salt tastes like salt when you season and then cook. A steak seasoned with table salt will taste just as salty as a steak seasoned with an equivalent amount of himalayan pink salt. The differences come out when you finish your steak with salt (just before serving), but that’s the topic for another blog post. The only exception to this is smoked salt, which will impart a gentle smokiness to your steak. Nevertheless, salt is a vital foundation when you’re learning how to season a steak. Know your salt just as much as you know your steak.
“Coarse salt” is also sold as “kosher salt” or “coarse sea-salt”. This type of salt is characterized by large and dense crystals, which prevent the salt from rapidly dissolving. I like coarse salts because you can actually see how much you’re putting on your steak. Season your steak liberally and cook. You can also top the steak with a little extra coarse salt before serving. This provides more saltiness but also gives the steak a textural contrast between the soft muscle and the crunchy salt. Coarse salt is very dense – use it sparingly.
Here’s what I recommend:
Coarse Sea Salt:
Coarse Kosher Salt:
Himalayan Pink Salt:
Smoked Coarse Salt:
Iodized or non-iodized, table salt is characterized by a very fine grain (small crystals). This is where I started learning how to season a steak. While it is inexpensive and readily available, table salt compacts easily and readily dissolves in the presence of moisture. Unfortunately, this means that you’re more likely to over-salt your steak when using table salt. If using this type of salt, I would liberally season from a height before cooking, and serve the steak without any finishing salt.
If you’re going to use boring-old table salt, you might as well use something fancy. Here’s what I recommend:
Fine Smoked Salt:
Fine Himalayan Pink Salt:
I would argue that flake salt is the best salt to use on steaks. It is characterized by large crystals with little volume (high surface area, low density). This salt dissolves significantly less than table salt but dissolves easily when compared to coarse salts. The size of the crystals allows you to easily see how much salt you’re putting on your steak, and the low density prevents you from oversalting. Flake salt is also delicate enough to grind up with your fingers. If you decide to use flake salt, I would recommend seasoning liberally before cooking, and finishing the cooked steak with a small pinch right before serving.
These are the flake salts that I use:
Normal Flake Salt:
Normal Flake Salt in Bulk:
Smoked Flake Salt:
Smoked Flake Salt in Bulk:
Verdict: Season your steak with salt beforehand from a height to prevent clumps. If your salt has a large grain, you can add some extra just before you serve the steak.
The peppercorn (most commonly sold as black pepper) is a dried berry used as spice and seasoning. These have a unique compound called “piperine”, which provides the peppercorn with a spiciness that is different from traditional chili peppers. Peppercorns generally have a sharp and pungent aroma, with a “hot” but not “spicy” taste (it doesn’t linger). Fortunately, they also come in a variety of sizes, colors, and tastes to fit your palate (I normally just use a rainbow blend).
Peppercorns are best when freshly cracked to your desired coarseness, as it maintains the fresh “peppery” aroma and taste that contrasts so well with rich and hearty steaks. Use less pepper than you would salt because pepper is only meant to assist in seasoning your steak. I generally grind my pepper to a coarse grain (I want to be able to chew some peppercorn bits).
Traditional steakhouses season their steaks with pepper before cooking. However, modern cooks claim that peppercorn burns when you sear your steak and will impart a bitter aftertaste. I think that modern cooks have no idea what they’re talking about.
Raw peppercorn is pungent and spicy, while cooked peppercorn mellows out and is almost smokey. Peppercorn won’t burn unless you’re cooking your steak for a really long time or at a really high temperature (or both). Standard pan-seared steaks (cooked for about 3 minutes per side on a surface that is about 500°F/260°C) will have no issues, especially if there is oil in the pan. Burnt peppercorns can become a concern when you’re using intense and direct heat to cook/sear your steaks (e.g. blowtorch or charcoal).
Obviously, you want to crush your peppercorns before using them. Buy a refillable pepper grinder or a mortar and pestle. Don’t waste money on grinders that you can’t refill.
Here is the pepper blend that I recommend:
Rainbow Peppercorn Blends:
Verdict: Season your steak with crushed pepper before cooking, and finish it with more crushed pepper right before serving. It won’t burn if you’re cooking the steak on a pan.
In case you want to buy salt and pepper in-bulk:
How to Season a Steak: Aromatics
If I had to choose one herb to pair with steaks, it would be thyme. Thyme offers a dry, pine-like aroma and a pungent earthy taste that is reminiscent of lemon and mint. Its flavor is oil-soluble, meaning it extracts and blends in well with fats and oils. Thyme has a woody stalk and small, soft leaves that can be eaten without any textural impact.
I find that thyme burns easily, so add it to the oil when you’re about halfway through cooking (when you start to sear the second side of the steak). Tilt the pan so that all of the oil/butter runs into the thyme, and then baste the steak with the infused fats. However, the shortened cook time leaves something to be desired. I suggest that you pick off some thyme leaves and sprinkle them on top of the steak as it rests.
I would say that rosemary is a close second when it comes to herbs. Rosemary is much heartier than thyme – characterized by a powerful pine/lemon aroma. It has a pungent, woody taste that is slightly bitter, unlike thyme’s gentle notes. Rosemary is also oil-soluble, so it lends itself well to fats and oils. Its stalk is much woodier, and the leaves are similar to pine needles (tough and hard).
I normally just add rosemary at the beginning of the cook and let it infuse. Its woody stalk and tough pines can stand up to the heat. Tilt the pan so that all of the oil/butter runs into the rosemary, and then baste the steak with the infused fats. Try not to get any of the leaves on the steak itself (even if cooked). They are tough and have an unpleasant texture, similar to chewing on a small stick (or a pine needle).
Steaks don’t need much to taste good, but they need garlic to taste great. Whether it’s minced, powdered, or dehydrated, garlic lends a powerful but pleasant flavor to any meat dish. When served raw, it adds a sharp and pungent garlic taste to the steak. However, cooked garlic is characterized by a mellow, creamy, and nutty taste. Both raw and cooked garlic pair well with steak. Granulated garlic is acceptable too – it’s actually my preferred application.
Add roughly chopped or crushed garlic to the pan during the beginning of the cook (as you begin to sear the first side). Allow it to flavor the oil, and use the infused fats to baste the steak. I like to lay the steak on top of some raw minced garlic as it rests so that I can get some extra garlicky punch into my steak.
Pretty much the same as garlic, but onion. The flavor in an onion isn’t as concentrated as garlic, so I suggest you use granulated onion powder or dehydrated onions as seasoning before cooking your steak. Alternatively, you can also marinate your steak in an onion puree for 10-20 minutes before cooking to help tenderize the meat and impart a strong onion flavor. Any onion works except for red onions.
While it isn’t generally used in the cooking process itself, parsley can brighten steak with its mildly grassy aroma and flavor. Parsley is also water-soluble (not oil-soluble), so it will splatter and burn when you add it to hot oil. Chop it up and mix it with some softened butter. As the steak is resting, spoon some of this parsley-butter over the steak and allow the flavors to mend together.
Similarly, chives are also not used in the cooking process itself. Chives are close relatives to onions, garlic, and green onions (scallions). They are prized for their mild onion aroma and flavor. Chives are water-soluble and are not to be added to hot oil. I chop chives up and sprinkle them right on top of the steak before serving. You may not notice a difference in taste, but their bright-green color provides an aesthetic contrast to the dark brown crust of the steak.
How to Season a Steak: Wildcards
MSG (Monosodium Glutamate)
So here’s the deal – MSG is not bad for you. I’ve spent countless hours reading and studying literature reviews, meta-analyses, and scientific journals. I’ve consulted many of my professors on the topic. A very, very, VERY small portion of the population has adverse reactions to it, but MSG is the primary component in Chinese food, Dorito chips, canned soup, ramen noodles, etc. Additionally, it’s naturally found in tomatoes, cheese, and mushrooms.
MSG is umami. Salt is used in foods to enhance saltiness, but MSG is used in foods to enhance the umami component. MSG is absolutely delicious and totally unnecessary. However, I no longer cook steaks without it. Use it as you would salt, or use it alongside with salt. Season your steak with MSG before cooking. You can also choose to sprinkle a little bit of MSG onto a steak as it rests. Try it – MSG on steak will truly change your life.
Here’s what I use:
If you’re still indifferent with MSG, you can use mushroom seasoning. I mentioned before that mushrooms are naturally high in umami compounds. Mushroom seasoning provides the same umami punch as MSG does with the addition of a slight mushroom aroma/taste.
Both the lemon and the lime offer acidic juices that cut the richness of the steak beautifully. I personally find lemons to be a little “sweeter” and limes to be a little more potent (almost bitter). Regardless, adding lemon/lime to my steak has blown my mind (especially if you’re eating a well-marbled cut). If you’re going to learn how to season a steak, I highly suggest that you squeeze a few drops of lemon or lime juice onto your steak as it rests. Alternatively, you can also sprinkle some of the zest onto the steak or incorporate it into a compound butter.
By the way, I prefer limes over lemons when it comes to steaks.
Sounds weird, right? But it works so well. Think about it – steak and eggs for breakfast (or lunch, or dinner, or second dinner, or midnight snack), but to a whole new level. Coffee can be mixed with other spices (usually smoked paprika, ancho chili, cumin, brown sugar, and salt) to make a rub for your steak. A coffee rub imparts a delicate bitterness and unique, robust smokiness to your steak. If made properly, the rub is also slightly sweet and slightly spicy. Fortunately, you won’t notice the coffee grounds.
Here are the premade rubs that I like:
Cowboy Crust Rub
High Octane Rub
In case you want to make your own:
Ground cumin has a very distinctive aroma and flavor. It is earthy, nutty, and warm. While it’s great in guacamole and chili, its unique earthiness pairs excellently with strong meats such as lamb or beef (especially grass-fed beef). Ground cumin can be chalky and grainy, so it needs to be cooked in oil. Whole cumin seeds are fibrous unless fried to a crisp, so I would just avoid those. Season your steak with a small amount of cumin, and sear it in a little extra oil on high heat.
You what? I know that it sounds weird, but you have to trust me on this. Why do BBQ sauces taste so good, and why do all competitive pitmasters have a secret BBQ rub recipe? The secret is in the caramelized crust (bark) and the sticky glaze.
When I first started learning about how to season a steak, I never once considered using sugar. I’m not asking you to use a lot of brown sugar. All you need is a small pinch to coat the surface of the steak. We know that the Maillard reaction gives browned (caramelized) foods a heavenly flavor. However, you’ll need amino acids, sugars, and heat to start the reaction.
By adding a bit of brown sugar, you can give your steak a deep, complex, and robust crust. The secret is to use it sparingly so that you keep the sweetness at bay. Additionally, you’re left with a beautifully caramelized fond at the bottom of your pan (if you so choose to cook your steak that way). Deglaze the fond with some bourbon, add salt and Worcestershire sauce, and you’re left with a smokey steak sauce.
In conclusion, the question isn’t really “how to season a steak”. It’s more about personal preference and the flavor combinations that work for you. Granted, you still need the proper salt content. Pepper is a given, but MSG is a life-changing wildcard. And brown sugar or a coffee rub? Don’t even get me started. My steak seasoning generally revolves around salt/MSG, pepper, garlic, thyme, and lime. Now that you know how to season a steak, go out and experiment!
If you enjoyed reading about how to season a steak, please consider leaving a comment or question below! If you disagree with my opinions, feel free to let me know why and I will get back to you.
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