The Steak Issue

No Mis-Steak About It

Since childhood, I’ve been something of a vegetable fanatic: opting for cucumber slices over a pack of cookies at snack time, packing peppery-hot radishes in my lunchbox and begging (truly, begging) my parents to cook more cabbage. Sure, part of it was my weirdo youthful tastebuds, but another element was how truly fascinated I was by vegetables’ unique personalities.

I loved the way every tomato has a slightly different pattern or hue, creating a whole palette of colors when picked fresh from the garden. I was riveted by the knobs, bumps and nodules on the sort of vegetables we would now call “misfits”: those carrots that just aren’t tapered enough; the eggplant shaped more like an animal balloon; the zucchinis that have accidentally wound themselves into curlicues through the growing process. And then there were the naturally built-in textures of broccoli’s hairbrush-like crowns; sweet potatoes’ velvety, burnt sienna flesh; and the scratchy, rutted feel of corncobs that absolutely blew my little eight-year-old mind. All that grew out of the dirt? I would think. Whoa, dude.

It’s no surprise, then—given my predilection for oddball, funky-textured produce—that cauliflower ranked among my top vegetables as a youngster and has only risen through the ranks as I’ve aged.

Once upon a time, the cream-colored veggie with the kind of domed shape and cragged hand-feel that some would say resembles a brain—an association that isn’t helped much by the fact that one unit of cauliflower is technically referred to as a “head”—was a frequently side-eyed produce zero. Now? Cauliflower is a fine dining culinary hero, thanks in large part to its infinite versatility, the ever-growing vegetarian and vegan population and, yes, good-for-you features.

“Cauliflower is loaded with nutritional and health benefits. It is a powerhouse of vitamin C, fiber and antioxidants. The nutrients in cauliflower help reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease and brain disorders; fight inflammation; improve digestion; and aid in weight loss,” writes Lindsey Grimes Freedman in her 2020 book, Cauliflower Power. “Another reason for cauliflower’s popularity is its ability to take on many forms. It can morph seamlessly from a whole head to dehydrated crumbs to a creamy sauce. Parents desperate to work more vegetables into their kids’ meals have found cauliflower to be the perfect partner.”

And even if you’re not trying to smother it in cheese sauce for suspicious little tykes or munch on a floret for the health benefits, cauliflower has proven itself delicious enough to be a hearty, middle-of-the-plate star. Don’t believe me? I challenge you to order the roasted whole head of cauliflower with whipped goat cheese at Dominica in New Orleans and not dream about it for weeks after. (Spoiler: It’s impossible!)

In home kitchens, cauliflower “steaks” are the center-stage-ready, crowd-pleasing—dare I say, meaty?—way to feed a crowd (even one with all different kinds of dietary restrictions!) while still being able to create a satisfying, zhuzhed-up meal. Inherently vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free and keto-friendly, these cheekily named, unexpected showstoppers might not be “steaks” in the traditional sense, but they’re tasty, satisfying and surprisingly simple to prepare. Explore all the ways below that you can treat your cauliflower steak just like a beef steak—and maybe even get a little bit more creative with it.

First things first: carve your cauliflower.

More than likely, if you are buying a filet or ribeye to prepare for a hearty steak dinner, your preferred cut is already portioned and ready to go thanks to the handiwork of your favorite meat counter whiz. (But if you happen to be the kind of person who goes straight to the bovine source and can do whole-cow butchery, more power to you.)

For cauliflower steaks, it’s going to take a little bit more effort on the front end to turn this cruciferous veggie into something (sort of) resembling a New York strip. Begin by choosing the biggest, most bulbous head of cauliflower you can find—you want to get as many steaks out of this as possible, after all—and remove all the tough exterior leaves, if there are any. Cut the bottom stem off so the cauliflower can sit upright and balanced on its own, then slice the head from top-to-bottom, creating 3 or 4 cauliflower steaks, depending on the mass of your cauliflower. (The center “steak” slices are more likely to stay whole while cooking, while the exterior steaks might crumble into florets. That’s fine! They’re still delicious; roll with it.) The cauliflower steaks—which are, essentially, a cross-section of the vegetable—are now ready to be treated to the kind of ogling and attentive cooking typically reserved for their non-plant-based counterparts.

Season simply (or go wild!).

Every grill-master has their own way of seasoning steak—whether it’s a secret family spice blend or an elaborate cooking-resting-cooking process they swear by—but few would deny that a generous rub of salt and pepper all over the exterior is a mighty fine way to bring out the best in any cut of meat. When it comes to cauliflower steaks, things work a little differently.

Cauliflowers seem to have as many nooks and crannies as the surface of the moon, meaning that—even after you have cut your head into more manageable, steak-like slices—there are still a lot of fine-toothed area that need seasoning. And unlike the receptive, supple nature of regular steak, thanks to the vegetable’s naturally firm exterior, just sprinkling salt and pepper on the outside and calling it a day likely isn’t going to result in the full-bodied flavor you want from the dish.

Instead, make a saline solution out of water and salt, brush it over the exterior of your cauliflower steaks—making sure to dab a little into every crevice—then sprinkle with a crack of the black pepper. This works particularly well if you want to the cauliflower to serve as a sort of satisfying, neutral base to go along with a more powerful sauce or accoutrement (more on that later).

If you’re interested in giving the cauliflower steak itself a flashy flavor profile, then consider the entire spice cabinet your playground. Make an adobo-and-maple glaze to coat your cauliflower steaks if you’re in the mood for something smoky and spicy-sweet or try a balsamic and brown sugar mixture for a more subtle tang. Combine harissa with a handful of its favorite friendly aromatics—cumin, smoked paprika, coriander—and brush all over your cauliflower steaks for a Tunisian taste, or marinate them in a blend of orange, lemon and kumquat juice for a bright, citrus-forward meal. Whatever seasoning inspiration strikes, you can’t really go wrong by treating your cauliflower steak like a blank canvas ready to be made into toothsome art.

Get to grilling—or roasting, or…
Much like traditional steak, grilling is perhaps the best way to bring out all the caramelized, smoky flavor possible in the ultra-adaptable cauliflower steak. After rubbing your veggie planks with the spice mixture of your choice, use the high heat and direct flame that grilling provides to properly embolden and enhance the flavors—all while getting a little bit of that ultra-coveted char on the outside. After 6to 8 minutes on each side (depending on the thickness of your steaks), move the cauliflower to the grill’s indirect heat and close the lid to soften them all the way through, which should take another 3 to 5 minutes. And with just that little bit of effort, you will end up with a perfect, ultra-healthy dinner time showstopper.

Don’t have a grill, or don’t feel like standing outside over a fire when it’s 90 degrees and muggy outside? I understand. Cauliflower steaks are also delicious when cooked indoors on grill pans or in a cast iron skillet drizzled with a little bit of olive oil. Just remember to move them to the oven after searing the outside to ensure they’re able to cook the whole way through. Afterall, what good are the perfectly flavored-and-textured outsides of a cauliflower steak if the insides are (gasp!) raw?

Don’t be shy about the accoutrements.
Steakhouses love to find any-and-every way to gussy up their steaks with add-ons, whether they’re piling on the blue cheese, melting a knob of herb butter over the top of a porterhouse or covering a T-bone in a slurry of garlicky mushrooms. Think about your cauliflower steaks in the same fashion—just pull from a list of lighter, fresher ingredients. A vibrant chimichurri is always a welcome addition when spread over a perfectly grilled cauliflower steak, as is the bite of an olive tapenade. Feel empowered to take the attitude, “the saucier, the better!” when ladling your homemade pesto, green curry or Romanesco sauce over your cauliflower steak—in this case, there’s never too much of a good thing.