Monday, April 13, 2009

Lou's Most Excellent Kitchen Tips: Steak

With spring and summer coming I figured these tips would be handy.

There are eight USDA grades of meat: Prime, Choice, Select, Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter and Canner. The grading is done via visual inspection by a trained USDA inspector. Prime is the highest marbled grade and there are three gradations of Prime and Choice marbling (+, standard, and -). Choice and Select are what you find at most grocers. Standard and Commercial are usually reserved for store branded products. Everything below that is typically used in processed foods (think Slim Jim’s).

The cut used by inspectors to determine the grade is the rib eye.

The age of the cow has a direct effect on the marbling. The older the animal, the less marbling and the tougher the meat is.

Angus bulls (four of them) were first imported to the US in 1873 from Scotland. Black Angus (sometimes referred to Aberdeen) are from the original breed but due to cross breeding no original progeny are available today in the US. Red Angus have been selected out from the Black Angus population. Angus cattle are also hornless.

While the “Certified Angus Beef” label has been in use since 1978, Angus beef still must meet quality standards that have been set up for Angus and labeled “Certified Angus Beef” which are separate from USDA grading.

Kobe vs. Wagyu? Kobe is Wagyu. Wagyu in Japanese means “Japanese cattle.” Kobe is Wagyu from Kobe, Japan, which is so finely marbled some cuts look near white and go for $300+ per pound.

The first importation of Wagyu cattle into the US was in 1976: two Kumamoto Red Wagyu bulls and two Tottori black Wagyu. The next importation didn’t occur until 1993 and then 1994. American Wagyu have some resemblance to Kobe, but in this writers opinion doesn’t even come close. Worth $80 for four one ounce pieces?...........kind’a.

If you don’t know how to cook steak don’t bother with Wagyu. You really need to know what you’re doing.

The term "hanger steak" got its name from butchers who when cutting up the animal off a hanging meat hook always had this piece as the last one. It is the last piece "hanging."

Most taste tests have the rib eye coming in first for flavor and texture. Strip steaks, like the NY or Kansas City strip are often the close second. Filet mignons, while being the tenderest of cuts, do not have that beefy flavor you get from a rib eye or strip.

The rib eye comes from the rib roast, which is usually referred to as "prime rib." There is nothing "prime" about prime rib unless it is USDA prime. What the market calls "prime rib" is actually rib roast and is likely choice grade. . How "prime rib" got its incorrect name is probably due to choice cut rib roasts still costing a minor fortune.

Always rinse your steaks quickly under cold water and pat dry with paper towels prior to doing anything with them. Trace amounts of residual blood from the steak makes its way to the surface leaving a metallic tasting residue due to oxidation.

The best seasonings for steak are salt, fresh coarse pepper, and a little extra virgin olive oil. Garlic works too: just rub a cut clove on to it. Do not use minced garlic on the meat as it will burn while cooking and not taste good.

Remove your steaks from the fridge two hours prior to cooking. Generously salt and pepper and set them on a cooling rack uncovered at room temperature. This process mimics dry ageing. Rub with just a little olive oil prior to cooking so the steaks don’t stick to the grill.

Dry ageing is an easy way to add tenderness to your steaks. You can take a cheaper cut of meat and make it nearly taste a grade better if you do this 2 – 3 days prior to cooking. Set them in a fridge, uncovered, on a cooling rack over a plate. This is OK – you won’t get sick from it. They may start to look a little funky but don’t worry. For larger cuts of meat dry age times of 10 – 21 days are not unusual. Do not attempt this unless you have very controlled conditions which you likely don’t since the equipment is often specialized.

Contrary to popular belief both Ruth’s Chris and Morton’s wet age their beef, not dry. Wet ageing does not take as long (about half the time as dry), cheaper, and more economical since the steaks do not shrink as much. Nearly 90% of the “aged” meat on the market is wet aged. In this process, steaks are placed in plastic bags, vacuum sealed, and stored in the fridge for 7 – 10 days. The steak comes out tender but the flavor profile is not as intense as dry aged beef since the beef doesn’t shrink and concentrate flavors due to moisture loss.

Save marinating for cheap cuts. If you want additional flavors for your steaks make sauces and serve them on the side.

Cooking steak is more art than science. Too many variables exist: quality, cut, thickness, temp of steak, heat of grill or stove, outdoor temp if doing this outside, air flow over the grill, chef’s confidence, etc. This is something you just develop a green thumb for and one you can develop fast. Learn some basic principles outlined here and soon it will be effortless. You’ll soon become the King of Steaks.

The more variables you remove the more likely this will become reproducible.

Best way to cook a steak? Whatever tastes best to you.

My top choice is an open fire grill with lump charcoal and/or real wood. Lump charcoal or wood gives you a searing hot fire that’s much hotter than briquettes or propane. Light about 50% more charcoal than you think you need. The charcoal is ready when it’s just about to ashen on top. Place your grate about 3” from the fire and throw the steaks on 3 minutes later. Sizzle for 2 – 4 minutes, flip to a hot part of the grate, and sizzle 2 – 4 minutes more. Two minutes for flank steaks, 4 minutes for 1.5” rib eyes or filet mignons. Shoot down any flare ups with water as the burning oil/fat will affect the flavor albeit some folks are into that. Cooking time is dependent on steak thickness.

This method will give a very rare steak, pending thickness, but will be warm in the center if you let it sit out 2 hours prior to cooking. For more doneness, move the steaks to the other side of the grill where you don’t have a fire. Close the lid to just a crack and let them cook there.

Lump charcoal burns at around 1250 degrees Fahrenheit, hardwoods around 1100 – 1500 pending on wood and dryness, briquettes around 900, and a 36,000 BTU propane/natural gas grill around 600. All of these figures are highly dependent on airflow and design of the grill. The temperatures of the broilers at Ruth’s Chris approach 1800 while those at Morton’s are 800.

It takes a 36,000 BTU gas grill about 20 minutes to reach 600 degrees. It takes lump charcoal 30 minutes, from lighting to grill, to get to 1000 degrees. Think about that when considering how much time gas grills actually save.

Listen, the fact of the matter is that gas grills are for pussies. I don't care how big and shiny your "outdoor stove" is or how much you spent or how convenient you claim they are. You're a pussy, you know it, and just fess up to the fact you've got balls the size of peanuts. Us charcoal guys have a level of respect equivalent to that seen in pack animals and you're at the back of the pack cowering while we lead.

And your wife knows this too.

I like my steak served hot on my plate – I don’t go for this letting it rest at room temp for 5 minutes before dishing it up. Prior to plating I throw it back on the hot side of the grill for about 30 seconds on each side.

A cast iron pan is a fantastic way to cook steak too. No need for olive oil rub here either. Preheat your oven to 350 for one hour. Heat the pan up over medium high/high heat for about 8 - 10 minutes. Pour about 2 TBS of clarified butter per steak into the pan, let butter burn a little, then put the steak in, giving each steak at least 1” of room on all sides. Sizzle undisturbed 1 – 4 minutes, add 2 TBS more butter, and flip again. Remove pan from heat and place in oven for 8 – 12 minutes pending level of doneness desired.

Steaks only need to be flipped once and should be minimally manipulated while cooking. The reason is that the cooking process is melting the intramuscular fat that makes the meat tender. The more you fuck with the steak the more you screw that process up through squeezing and mushing it. You want the fat to melt and stay put where it melted. Never, never, never push the steak down onto the cooking surface while cooking it.

Testing doneness. You can use a meat thermometer but for that you need one where the temperature sensor is actually in the TIP of the instrument, such as a ThermaPen. Most meat thermometers have the sensor about 1” – 2” up from the tip. I use the “pinched finger” scale. Touch your thumb and index finger together and pinch the fleshy part of your skin in between them with your other hand – this is rare and if your steak feels like that you’re done. Middle finger to your thumb is medium and pinky to thumb is well done.

A steak will continue to slowly cook once removed from the heat for about 2 – 5 more minutes. Remember that. This is especially true with steaks cooked to the medium range.

If someone says they want it really rare or "mooing" (ugh...please...) and are absolutely adamant about it and making a scene...just do it. They’re either a) really serious or b) have a small dick. You'll know which by how much they eat of it.

Well done steaks are not worth cooking. If someone wants well done use a cheaper cut of meat and slather it with some kind of A1 product – they may even “ask for it by name.” It’s not usually their fault they’re like this: they’ve just never had a good steak. I’ve converted many well-done types to medium/medium rarers over the years by making them a good steak.

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