Classic. Originally Published: Report, Issue #3, March 2003
You hear the lament quite often: “Steak at home never tastes as good as steak in a steakhouse.” And, in most homes, that’s perfectly true. But I’m here to tell you that, armed with a few secrets, you can serve steak at home that matches steakhouse steak bite for yummy bite–and at a fraction of the cost for a restaurant steak dinner!
The main reason that steakhouse steak has always tasted better–what could be simpler?–is the steak itself. As you know, there is an almost unbelievably limited supply of high-quality steak available in the U.S. and, traditionally, all of it went only to the best steakhouses.
Today–because some of the best steakhouses are now shipping great steaks by mail to home consumers, and because lots of other businesses in the steak world have recognized the home consumer’s demand for great steak–it is possible, if you dial the right numbers, or log on to the right web sites, to get steak at home that’s every bit as mind-blowing in quality as the best steaks at the best steakhouses.
Choosing Great Steak: The Quality Factors: The very best way to choose a great steak…..is to choose a great steak purveyor! Finding a professional you can trust is, by far, your best strategy.
As for the steak itself, here’s what I’ve observed about the quality factors, Remember: there is no one factor that is the key to the puzzle, no Rosetta Stone for steak. You must balance a wide range of factors to make a judgment:
Type of Business. There are many kinds of steak purveyors out there. You can buy mail-order steaks from butchers, restaurants, packing facilities, ranches, internet “gourmet stores,” and more. Which is best? Some of my favorite steaks come from restaurants, but others come from packing facilities or butcher shops. My conclusion: the type of business does not matter, as long as you trust the producer.
Feed Type. This matters. It is corn that creates the buttery fattiness you find in the very greatest steaks. At the other end of the chain is grass–as in Argentine beef–which yields a much leaner steak. Many cattle ranchers feed their steers with a combination of corn and other grains, because some other grains are cheaper than corn–but corn alone, though politically incorrect, yields the best-tasting steak.
Where the Beef Is Raised. This is a related subject: the best American beef seems to be raised in “the corn belt,” states in which the price of corn is lower so that corn-feeding makes more economic sense. Look for steaks in particular from Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas.
Name of Breed. This information is usually not available. However, some cattle producers have begun trumpeting the fact that they use Black Angus cattle, and are trying to turn that breed into a kind of brand name. So you will occasionally buy beef from various sources that is called Black Angus beef. In my experience, I’ve had Black Angus steaks that were really good, some that were just good, and others that were not good. I’m not going out of my way to find Black Angus beef.
Grading (Prime, etc.) Steaks have to be certified by the U.S. government, but they do not have to be graded. However, most of the steaks you’ll come across have been graded. And the three grades you’re likely to see, in ascending order of quality, are Select, Choice and Prime. Avoid Select- you will never find a great Select steak. Choice, the most common grade, has more possibilities; you’ll find Choice steaks ranging from “very poor” to “close to Prime.” If I’m looking for great steak, and don’t know the purveyor, I’ll buy Prime only, which at least guarantees the highest levels of intra-muscular fat. But beware. Only 2% of all steaks are Prime, and, unfortunately, only a tiny percentage of all Prime steaks are truly great Prime steaks. So Prime can disappoint as well. However, buying Prime is still the wisest general strategy.
Method of Aging. Try to ascertain if your steak has been wet-aged or dry-aged; it makes a vast difference. Most steaks are wet-aged; the whole loin sits in a very large plastic bag, floating in its own blood. The good news is that after 3-4 weeks, the wet-aged steak does get tender. The bad news is that the blood does not allow air to penetrate properly, and the aging does not significantly enhance the flavor. Dry-aging is entirely different. The meat hangs on a hook in a refrigerator, completely exposed to the air. Like that has been aged, or cheese, dry-aged beef develops new flavors through its air contact; something wonderfully minerally and earthy begins to emerge. Furthermore, dry-aging breaks down the tendons in a natural way leading to better texture as well. Most producers are loathe to dry-age–because when the meat is ready to be cut into steaks, much of the outer part of a dry-aged loin has deteriorated and must be cut away. The producer can send a much higher percentage of a wet-aged loin to market. I always look for dry-aged steak.
Aging Time. The minimum aging time that produces a great steak–whether the aging is wet or dry–seems to be about 3 weeks. However, the most profound changes, both in flavor and texture, start occurring after that. The most important thing to keep in mind is this: if you like the minerally flavor of age, try to find dry-aged steaks that have been aged at least 4-6 weeks (you will also pay a fortune for them, because so much of the loin’s exterior is wasted by that much hang time). The aged flavor will be most apparent in the external fat.
Method of Cutting. Lots of places brag that their steaks are “hand-cut” but a machine can do an equally good job.
Thickness of Cut. Here’s a cutting factor that makes a huge difference to me. For a steak to cook properly, I firmly believe, it must be at least 1 1/2″ thick, preferably thicker. When you order your steak by mail, you will not be able to specify how thick you like it–so the average thickness of various mail-order steaks is an important thing to know.
Fresh or Frozen? This seems to be a no-brainer: fresh is always best, right? Not right. If a steak has been frozen properly, and for not longer than three weeks, and defrosted properly (in the refrigerator) you won’t notice a quality difference. However, when a steak has been frozen for 4 weeks–a drying-out begins, and a dissipation of flavor. At 6 weeks, anyone would notice a quality difference. The problem is this: who knows when the purveyor froze it? All things considered, the odds are better when you buy a fresh steak.
Color of Meat. Color is an important indicator of age, and age has much to do with the profile of your steak. Basically, the paler the color, the younger the animal was. Veal–young beef–is the palest of all. As the young steer ages, the meat moves into a darkish-pink area. A steak this color will be the juiciest and most tender because older animals yield drier, tougher steak. You’ll know than an animal was older if the steak color moves into red, dark red, and, finally, something like purple.
External Fat. There are two things to consider here: the color of the fat, and the amount of fat. Fat color tells you the same thing as meat color: the age of the animal that yielded the steak. The whiter the fat, the younger the animal. At the opposite end of the spectrum is yellow fat, which indicates an older animal. So the classic American color scheme for steak is reddish-pink meat, white fat. Fat means flavor, and I like my steak to arrive with lots of fat around the edges (you can always cut it away).
Internal Fat (Marbling). Every steak expert everywhere will tell you that one of the very most important things to look for in a steak is “marbling,” or the amount of fat that sits alongside the red meat in the steak’s interior. But there is one very important thing you must know: the exact pattern of the marbling makes a great difference. Most steaks with intra-muscular fat show streaks of white, usually longish, looking something like the Finger Lakes on a map of New York State. This can be good. But what’s sure to be great is marbling that looks like a wispy swarm of streaks, smaller streaks than the other kind, but many more of them. I started calling them “cirrus streaks,” after the clouds they kind of resemble. It looks like someone poked about 50 tiny needles into the steak and injected it with fine strands of cream cheese.
The Touch. Lots of professionals like to poke the raw meat with their fingers, and judge potential texture by what they feel. I had always mistakenly believed that a raw steak with a very soft, buttery feel to the touch would yield the best cooked steak. I’ve found that not to be true. Steak that feels like soft, fatty tuna when poked ends up on the mushy side to the chew. You can feel the tenderness of the best steaks with your finger, but a key element turned out to be a degree of resilience.