The Great American Steak, Part 2
by Steve Holzinger
You can have the Great American Steak on your own table. Choosing and cooking the Great American Steak is something you can learn to do very easily. I can't think of any other cooking techniques that are so easy to learn and bring such great rewards I remember in London, when I was a GI, back in the fifties, a restaurant called "The Parker House," that served steaks, and put a carafe of freshly brewed coffee on the table to drink with your meal. I think that restaurant is where the Parkerhouse roll comes from. A Parkerhouse roll has a lump of butter folded inside of the roll before it is baked, and the butter melts and flavors the whole roll. Imagine a basket of freshly baked hot Parkerhouse rolls, a carafe of fragrant coffee, and a hot sizzling steak in front of you! Have I got your attention? Back to work. While many books have been written about meat, I think the best one is "The Meat Board's Lessons on Meat," published by the Education Department of the National Livestock and Meat Board, 444 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, 60611. It is full of great pictures and vital info. This classic belongs on every cook's bookshelf.
To choose the Great American Steak, all you need to know about is the cuts of steak, and meat grades. Then you are going to need to know about one method of cooking. Simple? Sure it is. We are going to broil your steak. Broiling, and other dry heat methods of cooking do not tenderize meat. Your steak has to be tender before you cook it. For every pound of tender steak on a beef carcass, there are seven or eight pounds of "less tender" meat that are more suitable for grinding or stewing. The most tender cuts for steak are in the loin and sirloin, and the rib. These cuts are tender enough to take the high temperatures of broiling and still stay tender, assuming that they are of the Choice or Prime Grade. The name of the cut of meat is on the package label, and often a sticker telling the grade is also on the package. The cut of meat itself may have the purple USDA CHOICE shield stamped on it. That is it! Nothing could be more simple. Just reach in and pickup a USDA Choice or Prime grade Shell Steak, and you will have a fine, tender eating steak. Well, that is almost it, but not quite. There are differences, small but noticeable differences that separate the ordinary customer from the expert. Would you like to be more expert? Read on.
Cuts of Beef: The Loin
The Loin is where the best steaks come from. It has 3 muscles, the eye of the loin, the tenderloin and the tail or flank. When a butcher cuts steaks across the loin, three different steaks are made. When the cut is on the sirloin end, (towards the tail) the tenderloin is largest, and it is called the Porterhouse Steak. It has the largest eye and tenderloin. Often the tail, or flank is removed, as it is not of equal eating quality. As the cutting moves to the center of the short loin, you have T-Bone steaks, with a full loin eye and a medium sized tenderloin. At the rib end of the shortloin, (towards the head) the tenderloin thins out, and you have a very small portion of the tenderloin and the full rib eye. This is called a Club Steak, and has the last rib bone in it. On the other side of the knife from the Club Steak, are the Rib Steaks, loin or Small end. As long as they have a single muscle, (not two or three) they are equal in eating quality to the Club steak, and may be priced more reasonably. The Rib Steak is called an Entrecote in French. Current butchering practice removes the tenderloin from the short loin. When you do this, you have a Strip Loin, also called a Shell. On French menus, the Shell Steaks are called Contrefilet, and the Tenderloin is called a Filet Mignon. The Short Loin steak without the tenderloin, or Shell Steak, is the most popular steak in restaurants. A good quality one weighing about a pound will cost you about $5.00-$6.00 bone in, the way I like it. You always order steaks in terms of the raw weight.
The Tenderloin has its head, the thickest part, laying against the sirloin, and its tail ends just before the Rib. Sometimes, the butt end is removed from the sirloin, making a Butt Tender. This will weigh about 4 lbs and when trimmed will give you 2 lbs of clean filet. A Chateaubriand is a double steak cut from the butt end. It should be at least a pound and better still, 24 ounces. A 24 oz Chateaubriand will be about six inches long (the length of a dollar bill) when raw. A Chateaubriand with Bearnaise Sauce carved at the table is an easy masterpiece. When you cut 6-8 oz steaks they are called Filet Mignon. Further down, you cut thin slices called Tournedos, which are best sautéed on a very hot fire in clarified butter, instead of broiling them. They are done in a minute or two. When I have a fine brown gravy, I get the sauté pan smoking hot with a very little olive oil, or clarified butter and pop in the thin slices. As soon as I see blood come through the top, I flip them, and 30 seconds later add a dash of brandy, followed by a spoonful of rich brown mushroom gravy. As this flops about in the pan, I slip it out onto a plate with toast points or tranche (slices) of buttery puff paste. Tournedoes are quickly turned over and served, by preference, very rare. I can use up all the tails, trimmings and irregular cuts of the filet, roughly diced, in a similar preparation, called Filet Goulash. We used to sell a lot of it at lunch time when I worked at the Jager Haus. Some customers insisted on having it on rye bread. I tried it that way, and now I know why. Have extra gravy ready. Tournedoes are also good with the Marchand d'vin butter I told you about last time.
The Sirloin is also called the Hip. The sirloin has portions of the backbone and the pelvic bone in it, and the steaks are named for the bones or muscles they contain. There are three muscles in the sirloin. The top sirloin is the continuation of the loin eye, the tenderloin, and the bottom sirloin. Nearest the leg, the bone is wedge shaped, followed by the round bone. In the center of the sirloin, the best part, is a flat dog biscuit shaped bone. This is a favorite steak of mine. Beware the sirloin steak in the supermarket case that looks like a porterhouse. When you turn it over, it will have a very large pin bone in it, making it a poor buy. The best buys are the round bone steaks, and I love to pick a good one inch thick one for shish kebab. I get bamboo skewers and soak them overnight in water, so they won't burn. While a photo of a shish kebab with all the different color veggies and meat on the steak looks great, that is not the best way to cook it! Unfortunately, none of the veggies have the same ideal cooking time as either the steak or each other. They best way to do them is to do separate skewers of onion, peppers, mushrooms etc., and put the steak on separate skewers too. Leave a little space between each cube of beef, so the marinade or dry rub will soak in. Shish kebab is an economical way to enjoy great steak. If you know how to pick them, you can even use inexpensive cuts of very high quality like chuck steak, but I prefer sirloin.
Marbling....the key to great steak. This is what the experts know that most consumers miss out on! In every butchers show case, there is variation from steak to steak. You can pick the best ones for yourself, if you know how. Marbling, the fat deposited inside the meat....those little white flecks is the key. When cattle are brought in from the range to the feedlot, the fat is sparse and yellow, from eating grass. At the feedlot, they are fed grain, to fatten them. This fat is white, and is first deposited on the outside of the muscle. Gradually, some fat is deposited inside the muscle, and this fat, marbling is an excellent predictor of tender meat. Marbling is what you should look for in Prime and Choice beef. It is what you want to choose. I was in a supermarket near closing time, and there were just a few steaks left. I was suprised to see that they were well marbled and of excellent quality. The next day, when I visited the same showcase, I saw that some steaks were of OK quality and a very few were of the excellent quality I saw the night before. Then it dawned on me. The customers were choosing the least good steaks first, and leaving the best ones. Customers were choosing the ones that had the highest lean to fat and bone ratio. This is called Yield Grade, and is more related to economy than great taste and tenderness. The best eating steaks weren't being chosen because they were too fatty or too wasty. Most people I show a picture of marbling to choose the slightly abundant picture as the steak they would buy because it has a bigger eye. They are not far from wrong. Try to pick the steak that offers the best compromise between finish (marbling) and conformation (size and shape of the eye).
How do I know when its done the way I want it? Cheat! Make a little cut along the bone on the side you wont show. See if it looks the way you want it. Make a tight fist with the thumb poking out. Press the flesh between your thumb and forefinger with your index finger. Feel the give. Press the steak with your index finger. The give in the steak at medium rare is about the same as the give in your hand. Of course, all hands are different, so you may need to do a little calibrating to the tune of " a little more (or less) than my thumb zone." You will learn and soon be broiling like a pro. Hint: keep a glass of ice water for your finger. Sometimes the steaks get a mite hot. Another tip: Use a spatula, or tongs, not a fork to turn the meat. Forks make the steak bleed out.
Just one more basic technique for you before we go. Most people that don't grill steaks well on the charcoal grill make the mistake of cooking too soon and too hot, and using way too much charcoal. Their charcoal still has black on it and still shows flame. You will pull your hand held at the grill level away in 2 seconds when it is too hot. Worse, you will still smell lighter fluid! Uchh. Forget that stuff. Use a chimney starter and two crumpled up pages of the New York Times (or equal). I did it for years! Let the coals get an even layer of gray ash that the glow shows through.
You will pull your hand held at the grill level away in 4 seconds. At the 5 second or more level, the coals are covered with a thick layer of ash, and are more suitable for doing chicken. Your charcoal briquettes should only be one layer deep, two inches wider than the space you need to cook the meat. These handy tips and lots more come in a booklet called "Grilled Beef" by the Meat Board Test Kitchen and Beef Industry Council. You can write for one at 444 North Michigan Ave, Chicago, Illinois, 60611. This booklet is full of great tips. Tell them eGGsalad sent you.
Steve's #8 Recipes
- Bearnaise Sauce
- Clarified Butter
- Rice Pilaf with Cashews
- Shish Kebab of Beef (economical)
- Steak Marinade
This page originally published as part of the electronic Gourmet Guide between 1994 and 1998.
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This page modified February 2007