Steak is one of our most iconic foods. It's featured in our childhood cartoons (Fred Flintstone's lunch), is practice-punched by Rocky, our cardiologists make it a symbol for the foods that can kill us, mafia dons get hit on their way to steak dinners ("Big Paul" Castellano outside Manhattan's Sparks Steakhouse in 1985), and it's a food that signals extravagance at investment banker Bordeaux-soaked deal dinners.
Leaving all the clichés aside, some of us just love steak for its flavor and richness. For carnivores, sometimes there is no more perfect a meal than a medium rare New York strip steak with a border of crispy and unctuous fat, its surface seared and with a crunch of salt and freshly cracked black pepper. I don't eat this often, but once or twice a year it is a uniquely satisfying meal.
For a food that seems as simple as steak, there are things to know that can make your buying, cooking and eating more successful. So first, some basics.
Most of the time when we buy meat we don't pay attention to its "grade." But with steak, it matters.
There are 8 USDA grades of beef: Prime, Choice, Select and then Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter and Canner. Only about 2% of the beef in the U.S. is Prime and most of it goes to our best restaurants, with some to our top butchers. That means that most of what is sold in our markets is Choice or Select, which are still very good. Below these levels beef starts going into processed foods, including frozen beef patties, jarred tomato beef sauces, and other canned and frozen foods. At the lowest levels the beef is used in pet foods. Or so we hope.
What's the criteria for each grade? It's based on the age of the animal at the time it is slaughtered, plus something called "marbling." This is a measure of the amount of inter-muscular fat within the ribeye of the animal, which in turn determines its tenderness and flavor. To be graded as Prime, beef must have more than 8% ribeye marbling; by the time you get to Select, it can have as little as 3% marbling. The lower grades soon reach zero.
The odds are that when you buy a steak you're getting either Choice or Select. If it is Prime, you will know it because the butcher will have this fact prominently displayed (it's the beef equivalent of a 25-year-old single malt Scotch). If you have a butcher who can get you Prime beef, be prepared to pay a high price but you'll receive a superb piece of meat.
Like fine wine, high grade beef improves in taste, becoming sweeter and more tender if it is aged for a period of time.
That's because a day or so after an animal is slaughtered, rigor mortis sets in and the meat toughens as the muscle fibers shorten. But the very enzymes that cause rigor mortis, if left to stay for a couple of weeks or more, have the opposite effect and provide a natural tenderizing. Most beef is aged using what is called a "dry method," meaning it is simply hung in a controlled environment -- with controlled temperatures, humidity and circulating air. To prevent spoilage, the temperature is just above freezing (about 34° to 36° F) and any surface mold that may develop is simply cut off.
But aging also adds to the beef's cost. That's because the butcher has to pay for the care of the beef in the storage space, plus, as with any inventory, there is a cost to having the meat be unsold for the aging period. Over the course of aging, the beef shrinks in size due to moisture evaporating and thus weighs less, another reason that it costs more.
Types of Steak
There is steak and then there is steak. What most of us think of as steak is a piece of meat that can be simply cooked on a grill or in a cast iron pan, with a quick sear of surface heat to achieve the desired doneness (rare, medium rare, medium, well done). The meat is richly flavored and tender to cut as well as to chew.
If this is your goal, your choice of steak should be a ribeye, strip, filet mignon, or t-bone from the animal's rib or loin. The steak can be with, or without a bone, and it usually comes with a band of waxy white fat along one surface.
But a steak can also come from the flank or plate, the parts of the animal that produce less glamorous -- and less costly -- cuts like skirt steak, hanger steak, flank steak, or one of the various cuts that gets the label "London Broil." These have less fat and are tougher, and thus need either more time or more care (marinades, special slicing, braising) to cook for a good result. Our recipes give you some ways to do that.
Asking For Help
Depending on where you live, a steak can go by totally different names. In my well-worn copy of Aliza Green's Field Guide to Meat, a good part of the book's beef section is devoted to the other names given to every cut. For example, she gives 18 different names for the bottom round (the outer portion of the upper leg).
Since beef terminology can change by country, by region of the U.S., and even within a single city, it's a challenge to buy the right cut for the right recipe. Aside from carrying a textbook with us to the grocery store, your best route is to buy from a good butcher. Meat is expensive and we want to buy the right thing, get excellent quality, and maybe score some advice on how to cook it.
If you don't usually shop at a butcher shop, the decision to pay $20+ a pound for a steak should warrant a visit. Think of it as a field trip with the prize of dinner at the end. Since any visit to the butcher shop is a chance for a mini-lesson in meat, ask the butcher how he cooks his steak (even if I don't copy their method, I always learn something when I ask this question) and ask about the other cuts of steak and why people like them.
Most cities have a number of excellent butchers and in New York, we have many. Some of my favorites include: L. Simchick, Florence Meat Market, Pino's Fine Meats, Hudson & Charles, and Citarella in Manhattan, International Meat Market in Astoria, and Marlow & Daughter, Prospect Butcher Co., and Staubitz, all in Brooklyn.