Think of pan-frying as sauteing on steroids. Like sauteing, pan-frying cooks food quickly over high heat — but it does so with a little more oil and thus handles heartier foods, such as rib-eyes. But not just any rib-eyes — leave the thin cuts for the saute pan. Thin rib-eyes cook to medium within a few minutes, before they develop a robust texture. Thick rib-eyes, those that measure 1 1/2 inches thick or more, develop a complexly flavored, caramelized crust almost 1/8-inch thick before they reach medium rare. If you want to get into the finer points of rib-eye selection, look at aging.
Rib-eyes are not created equally. Wet-aged, dry-aged and fresh rib-eyes differ widely in tenderness and taste.
Dry-aged rib-eyes undergo open-air aging in a controlled environments for up to 10 weeks or more, during which time the beef loses up to a third of its moisture content. This dehydration concentrates the beef’s flavor. Aging also encourages protein denaturation through enzyme activity, which matures the flavor and tenderizes the steak.
Wet-aged rib-eyes undergo aging in a vacuum-sealed package, but only during the time it takes to get from the processing plant to the supermarket. Wet-aged rib-eyes are slightly more tender then fresh rib-eyes.
Fresh rib-eyes are what you commonly find at the supermarket meat counter. These rib-eyes are sold within a few days of cutting.
Your tastes and budget determine which rib-eye suits you best — they all pan-fry using the same technique. Bones have little effect on pan-frying — bone-in and boneless rib-eyes both cook at about the same rate and have the same flavor. Bones do make a striking presentation, though, and the 3- to 4-inch rib sticking out of a cowboy-cut rib-eye makes an awesome handle to eat steak in the style of a caveman.
Seasoning is literally a matter of taste. When you have a high-quality, expertly aged rib-eye, though, take a minimalist approach — simply add a couple of herb sprigs to the oil. Oil slowly draws out the aromas and flavors of herbs during cooking, evenly and uniformly blessing the steak with their essence. Don’t deface a rib-eye with an amalgam of aggressive spices, or you’ll obscure the natural beef flavor of the meat and its marbling.
Salt early and salt liberally. Salt at least 45 minutes before you pan-fry to let the kosher salt work its way into the meat a bit. For a comprehensively seasoned rib-eye, salt it three days early and let it sit on a rack in a shallow dish in the fridge until you cook it. This “ripens” the beef, similar to dry-aging, and improves its flavor. The salt also makes it into the meat as much as it can, all the while softening the protein and increasing tenderness.
Pan-frying a rib-eye expertly requires a heavy pan — stainless steel or cast iron. Nonstick pans and saute pans have their place, but not in pan-frying. Oil temperature is only as stable as the pan that heats it, and thin pans heat quickly and unevenly, making it difficult for them to maintain a constant temperature. You need a roomy pan, too, one with enough space to comfortably turn the steak over in — 12 inches wide works best for a rib-eye.
Add about 1/4 cup of vegetable oil to the pan and set it on the stove over high heat. Heat the oil until it starts to “dance” in the pan and produces little wisps of smoke.
Lay the rib-eye in the pan using tongs. Sear the rib-eye until the prized crust forms on both sides, about 5 minutes total. Lower the heat to medium and add 2 to 3 tablespoons of butter to the pan. Add a couple of hardy-leaved herb sprigs, such as thyme or parsley, in the oil if desired.
Pan-fry the rib-eye for about 5 to 7 minutes longer for medium rare, or until an instant-read thermometer measures 125 degrees Fahrenheit in the thickest portion. Flip the steak over every 20 to 30 seconds — frequent flipping is paramount to even cooking. Spoon butter over the rib-eye several times during cooking, as well.