Several years ago, when my friend Cuong Pham and his wife Anne, owners of Red Boat Fish Sauce, came for dinner, he asked if they could bring his uncle and aunt. Sure, I said, the more merrier. His uncle, a former intelligence officer in Vietnam, charmed me right away and then he leaned in and asked in a stealthy manner, “How do you make great bit-tet [steak in Vietnamese]?”
My advice was this: Season a thick quality steak simply with lots of salt and pepper, sear and fry it up with a little fat in a good pan that heats nice and hot and evenly, and let the steak rest before slicing. He was happy to get the advice but neither of us realized that another key to cooking up steak, a super umami steak, was actually right under our nose — Red Boat Salt. (If you don’t know about this great umami agent, get the lowdown here.)
I’d used Red Boat Salt for a delicious umami mayonnaise but when Cuong asked me to help him and his family spread the word about the salt’s uniqueness and usefulness in home kitchens, my mind instantly went back to his uncle’s steak question.
Can Red Boat Salt take a steak to the next level?
To find out, I did a side by side test on beef top sirloin. I got Prime steaks cut from the cap (more tender) portion of the sirloin at Costco. You can find this cut at Whole Foods and elsewhere. Or, just use your favorite steak. Make sure it’s at least 1 inch thick. Mine were about 1 ½ inches thick and trimmed of fat.
In the photos below, on the left is steak seasoned with sea salt and pepper, on the right is a steak seasoned with my Red Boat Salt blend and pepper. The steaks were cut from the same piece of meat.
Which had more umami? The sea salt one was salty good but the one that got the Red Boat treatment had a brighter flavor.
Second, I decided to see what happened if I put a fancyish rub with Red Boat Salt and slapped that on a steak. I blended 1 ½ teaspoons sugar, 1 ½ teaspoons smoked paprika, ½ teaspoon sweet paprika, and 1 ½ teaspoons Red Boat Salt blend. Then, I seasoned another steak with simply with my Red Boat Salt blend and pepper.
The rub was tasty but the simply seasoned steak was dynamite in how it amplified the natural beefy flavor and made it shine. Perhaps I’m conservative when it comes to steak but I just like a good thick cut, salt and pepper, and a hot pan. A little butter at the end moistens things nicely.
Red Boat Salt took the steak to a higher level that wasn’t just about being salty. It was about having extra deliciousness. The great thing is you don’t have to do anything fussy. You just need the magical Red Boat salt.
Red Boat Umami Steak Dinner
The next day, as a personal challenge, I made a steak dinner seasoned with Red Boat Salt. I seasoned the steak with a little oil, then rubbed on my RB umami salt blend and black pepper and let it hang out on a cooling rack to dry.
Letting steak sit directly on the rack allows the seasonings to bloom and penetrate a certain portion of the meat to make it extra flavorful. This is often referred to as a “dry brine”. I typically let the meat sit at room temperature for about 45 minutes – while I make the rest of dinner, sip wine and/or snack.
When it came time to cook, I selected carbon steel skillet because I needed something that would get ripping hot. I fired it up and also turned on the exhaust fan to high. Plus I opened the nearby kitchen window.
The steak pan-searing details are below in the recipe. After resting to allow the juices to circulate well in the flesh, I sliced the beef against the grain. Use a sharp knife and feel free to turn the steak to get the grain right. You’ll end up with nice tender slices.
Beef is luxe in Vietnam and few people sit down to eat an entire steak the way we tend to it in America. My mom always served her steaks presliced on a platter for sharing. I continue that tradition in my own home.
Umami Steak Sides: Potatoes and Asparagus
For this dinner, while the steaks rested and got well seasoned, I boiled chunks of Yukon Gold potatoes. The drained potatoes were tossed with garlic, Red Boat Salt blend and Spanish smoked paprika; then the potatoes were fried in a skillet with olive oil over medium to medium-high heat.
Additionally, I cooked plump asparagus spears in sous vide (180°F for 12 minutes); you can boil or steam the asparagus, but I like the concentration of flavor from sous vide. Once done, the asparagus spears were cooled in an ice bath, then set aside.
After cooking the steak (see the recipe below), I washed the skillet, then warmed the asparagus in the pan with little butter, and seasoned it with some of my Red Boat umami salt blend. (Feel free to toss the asparagus in the pan without washing it; I wanted to keep the spears tasting pure.)
Because the potatoes had sat for a bit, they were reheated in their skillet. Finally, all three components of the meal were put on a that platter at the top of the page and brought to the table!
The flavors were great because unlike MSG which can make everything taste like MSG when too much is used, Red Boat Salt plays well with other ingredients. The beef, asparagus, and potatoes were extra tasty and satisfying. Their natural flavors shined and were not overwhelmed by the umami salt. That’s what good umami is — kind of hard to pinpoint and always incredibly delicious.
Red Boat Super Umami Steak
- 2 thick beef steaks about 12 to 14 ounces each, 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 inches thick
- 1 to 2 tablespoons neutral oil
- 1 1/2 teaspoons Red Boat Umami Salt blend or scant 1 teaspoon Red Boat Salt combined with rounded 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1/2 teaspoon recently ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter cut into 4 pieces (optional)
- Pat the steaks dry with paper towel. If the steaks are devoid of a fat layer, rub 2 teaspoons of oil on them. Then season all over with the salt and pepper. Set on a rack and let hang out for at least 45 minutes. (Or, set the rack in a baking sheet and refrigerate the meat, uncovered or loosely covered, overnight; return the steaks to room temperature before cooking.)
- To cook, heat a medium or large skillet (carbon steel, cast iron, or stainless steel work well) over medium-high or high heat until super hot. A whisper of smoke is a good sign.
- Add a thin film of oil, 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons. Then lay down to steaks to cook. Total cooking time is 8 to 12 minutes, depending on the thickness of the steak, the desired doneness, and your pan.
- In general, let the first side (your pretty presentation side) cook undisturbed for 4 to 5 minutes. Turn the steaks and cook for 3 to 4 minutes for medium rare. Turn the steaks one last time and cook for about 1 more minute to reinforce the pretty first side. If you want to enrich and baste with butter, lower the heat slightly during the last 1 to 2 minutes and add the butter pieces to the pan, and if you like, even the tops of the steaks, allowing them and drip down. Swab the steak in the butter or spoon the butter onto the steaks. The sides often need help so sear those briefly for about 30 seconds, too.
- To gauge doneness by temperature, use a thermometer and aim for 120°F for medium-rare or 130°F for medium. When satisfied, transfer the steak to a rack or plate and let rest for 5 to 10 minutes, uncovered. The internal temperature of the steaks will rise as the beef rests. Slice against the grain to serve.