Articles

Don’t Be Cruel to Your Steak

Robert Elliott December 1 1948
Articles

Don’t Be Cruel to Your Steak

Robert Elliott December 1 1948

Don’t Be Cruel to Your Steak

Articles

Robert Elliott

Smother a steak with onions? No, No, NO! Buy it lovingly, cook it quickly, eat it worshipfully, and hands off the spices

WHEN A Canadian wants to have himself a real bang-up meal, in the carefree mood that goes with a big evening on the town or is induced by a flourishing expense account, he isn’t apt to waste much time deciding what to order. Most male citizens of this country think only one thing tastes wonderful enough, has a sufficiently rich and mouth-watering smell, and sticks long enough to the ribs to rate as supreme festive eating—a thick, tender, juicy steak.

Unfortunately that isn’t the kind they’re likely to get. Although steak is our nearest approach to a national dish, and although the beef we raise is well up among the world’s best, our cooks aren’t very clever about it. When the Government of Alberta held a recipe contest last year, it recognized this by giving the first prize ($600 and a gold medal) to a magnificently simple and effective way of dealing with steak.

All the recipe called for, essentially, was to dip the meat in salad oil, grill under broiler or broil it in a pan, searing quickly and serve piping hot. Nevertheless the great secrets of successful steak cookery are there and if cooking were the whole story there wouldn’t be much to add.

It isn’t the whole story, though. It isn’t even the most important part. That begins at the butcher’s, because if the steak isn’t right when it leaves the store it won’t be right when it reaches the table, no matter how skilfully it’s treated in the kitchen; and this vital preliminary stage of choosing the meat is just what the average person knows least about. So let’s go into the entire succulent question from start to finish.

The King of Steaks

FIRST we’ll take up the classification of the different retail cuts. At the head of the list is the superluxurious tenderloin, which appears on menus as filet mignon. A certain amount of tenderloin comes with the less luxurious porterhouse, or T-bone, and the sirloin, as we shall see presently; but the true article has to be carved specially from the short loin, a large wholesale cut, and the consequent waste runs the price to dizzy heights. In porterhouses the tenderloin is the small oval piece of lean, well-surrounded by fat, that grows next to the bone; in sirloins it is roughly the same shape, in approximately the same position and still smaller.

Immediately after the tenderloin on the scale of preference (or anyhow generally placed there) is the porterhouse. It, too, is cut from the short loin, near the middle and is indeed an almost complete cross section. You can’t miss identifying it because of the T-shaped bone that goes across one end and down through the middle of the meat. Many authorities regard it as absolute tops in steak, not even barring the fabulous tenderloin; many other celebrated steak fanciers, and the great majority of the general public, rate it second.

Next, again by consensus, comes the club, which is also cut from the short loin (the end closest to the animal’s midriff), has no tenderloin, less bone than the porterhouse and looks not unlike a big red loin lamb chop. Mighty good eating; there isn’t a whole lot of difference in sheer satisfyingness between it and the number two cut and quite often there isn’t any. A wing steak is to all intents and purposes the same as a club, except that it tends to have slightly less fat on the under side.

Sirloins are taken from the wholesale cut called the steak piece or sirloin butt and can be recognized

by their relatively small bone, by having as a rule not quite so much solid fat as the lordly porterhouse and by having, when whole, a larger surface area.

Bracketed with the sirloin for goodness by some experts is the rib steak, in effect a thin standing rib roast. There is a school of thought which maintains that a properly aged rib is unbeatable and there’s no denying its meaty charm, but most people don’t go along with quite so lavish an estimate.

What we’ve considered so far are the high-price cuts. The thing that gives them their edge on the medium-price steaks, which we’re going into next, is that they’re taken from the upper middle part of the animal, the section least exercised and therefore least tough. The medium-price cuts are the top and bottom round and the shoulder, which come respectively from the back and front ends, used by the beast during its lifetime for walking, jumping over ditches and such. Meat prices being at an astronomical level as this is written, with every indication of further rises to come, you may find it more than usually worth while to try these cuts. They can be delicious, too, with a smacking heartiness all their own (but be especially particular about the length of time they’ve been hung) and a good top round is fit for heroes.

The eight kinds of steak listed so far pretty well cover the range most commonly sold in Canada, and although there are others, they’re really sub varieties of the ones we’ve been talking about and we’ll skip them accordingly. Continued on next page

Continued from preceding page It’s time now to come to the business of quality in the meat itself: how it is determined, how it varies and how to know it when you see it.

The Hiirest guide is the official grading of the Dominion Department of Agriculture’s Livestock Branch, which rates the topmost quality as “choice,” and the next-to-toprnoxt, only very slightly less superb, as “good.” The actual indication of grade is the ribbon brand, a long line running down the whole length of both sides of a carcass.

This line, an inch or so wide and colored red for choice grade and blue for good, is applied by the packing company once the meat has been classified by the Government man. Il consists of t he company’s trademark or name repeated over and over. The ink is special edible stuff, made of a vegetable* extract, is issued to the packers by the Department, has no taste and can’t hurt you a bit, so t here’s no need to cut it away as some timorous souls do. The ribbon brand, incidentally, shouldn’t be confused with the round stamp that says “Canada Approved,” which merely means the carcass was Government-inspected and found thoroughly fit for human consumption. Meat so stringy you couldn’t chew it can be perfectly wholesome, but nothing gets the red or blue grading unless it meets the high standards we’ll take up presently.

Meanwhile, a caution. Don’t assume if you don’t find t he Government brand or its approval stamp, that the meat, isn’t okay. It may be superb. Between the two marks t hough, you have what amounts to an ironclad guarantee and without them you can’t always be sure that what you're buying is really good.

To rate top grading, beef must come from young animals, generally not more than three years old and virtually never more than four. They must have a good covering of fat, good conformation (that is, from the cattle-show {X)int of view, a nice figure) and what the inspectors call “a full lit* of meat.” Those are technicalities that needn’t concern us for the working purposes of steak buying, but what we do have to took for art* them* three main point» the thickness and color of the fat around the edges of the meat, the color of the loan and how much fat runs through it in little wavy streaks like the veins in marble. The amount and distribution of this pleasing plumpness are what chiefly determines whether lx*ef is rat«*d red or blut*.

The Black-Eye Effect

The thicker the edge of fat, the tenderer t he beef, and similarly the more it’s marbled the lw*tter. The color of the fat will be white or creamy if the animal has lx*en fattened on grain, yellowish or pale orange when it’s been on a grass diet. As a rough rule of thumb, go for the white rather than the yellow, because a beast that has been lounging indolently in its stall getting room service from the farmer will naturally lx* softer and less athletic than one that has had to forage for its victuals. However, if t he grass-induced outer fat and inner marbling are plentiful, alxnit the only distinction will bean indescribable difference in the taste, and to decide which you prefer you’ll have to try both sorts for yourself.

The remaining point of the three to watch for is the color of the lean meat, which should ideally be a bright cherryred; but here again a slight caution is advisable. Sometimes the very best quality beef in prime condition looks darkish and purplish, rather like the beginnings of a black eye, and though

this sinister hue doesn’t affect either flavor or tenderness, many people refuse point-blank to buy it. Nobody, not even the experts of the big meatpacking companies, seems to know how it gets that way.

One firm, testing the popular theory that such darkening sets in if the animal has been driven too quickly from the stockyard {x;n to the slaughterer and arrives all hot and flustered, sent 100 consecutive victims to their doom in a terrific hurry and gentled the next 100 along as slowly and restfully as possible. Every single member of the rush-hour crowd turned up on the butcher’s block a fine bright red, and it happened that about a dozen of the pampered darlings went purple. Therefore, if you trust your butcher, as you probably have every reason to do, and he tells you the empurplement is due

to this mysterious change, go ahead and buy.

The next point to think about when you’re choosing steak is the length of time it has been hung, because apart from quality it has more than any other single thing to do with the kind of result you'll get in your kitchen. Quite often, indeed, it is actually the most important factor

Small individual pieces don’t ripen properly, are apt to spoil instead, but a side of lx*ef, or a very large piece like a short loin or sirloin butt ought to hang in the cold room for at least two and preferably three weeks before they’re cut. Indeed a month or six weeks isn’t a bit too long, provided the cold room is fitted with electric fans to keep mold from forming. Even mold doesn’t matter if you don’t mind the wa3te involved in trimming it off together with a thin outer layer of meat and the consequent increase in the price.

The chances are. though, that you

won’t lx* given beef that has been hung three weeks, let alone six, and you’ll be fairly lucky if it’s been on the hook as much as two—unless the butcher is a man who has strong views on the need for proper ageing, or you’ve been able to arrange with him to save you a special piece from which to cut your steak. The importance of hanging is that while it goes on there’s a gradual breaking down of connective tissue throughout the meat. The longer the process continues, up to a reasonable point of course, the tenderer the meat will be.

An exception to the hanging rule is so-called “baby beef,” which comes from animals just too old to be veal and just too young to be plain beef. Baby-beefsteaks are ready for cooking when they’ve been hung only a few days and although leaving them longer

doesn’t hurt, it isn't really necessary. Some steak fanciers, among them many of the most celebrated connoisseurs, think this juvenile meat is too tender and bland for sheer perfection and others regard it as matchless.

This disagreement brings up the whole matter of texture, with the meltin-the-mouth school on one side of the argument and on the other those who want a steak which, while not tough, offers the teeth a mildly noticeable workout. You will even find persons who swear that an old cow, if her carcass has been well-hung, provides the most magnificent meat of all. Their attitude is distinctly uncommon and the overwhelming majority of steaks come from steers; but her** and there, as in a famous old Boston restaurant, suitable aged cuts of cow are the great specialty of the house.

Comes now the important matter of thickness. No steak ought to measure less than an inch and a half through if

you’re going to broil it, which is generally held by authorities to be the best method, and it will be still richer and more satisfying if it runs to three inches, or even a bit over. .Settle for two or two and a half, though, and you’ll have yourself a magnificent hunk of steer. You can get by fairly well with a one-inch steak for broiling, but anything much thinner is rather unlikely to be a great success (too hard to keep it from getting overdone*. The slim cuts are better for panbroiling than for treatment under or over a broiler or grill.

Nowto Cook It

Having chosen your steak on the buying principles outlined, and had it cut as thick as your purse will allow, you’re all set to get on with the cookery and if you make a bobble of that it won’t be because the meat wasn’t right.. It will probably be the result of ignoring the cooking principles which follow.

The first and most important is searing—that is to say a swift preliminary browning of the steak to seal in the juices. Searing is absolutely essential, either with broiling or panbroiling, and the swiftness must be really swift and the browning really brown—dark almost to the point of being black. To make sure of it, you’ll have to preheat your broiler until it fairly glows, or your pan until a drop of water spilled on it explodes into steam with a sudden sharp hiss. The thicker the metal of the pan, whether cast iron or aluminum, the better.

Then, having wiped the steak with u damp cloth and done to it one or more of the other things which will be suggested presently, put it under the broiler (about three inches below the flame or element) or on the pan. The instant one side is dark-browned, turn the steak over and let the other side come to the same state. After that reduce the heat from fierce to middling and finish the process, turning a couple of times more if the steak is decidedly thick and once if it’s not so thick.

The length of time for the searing stage depends simply on when correct brownness is reached, which should be in a very few minutes. The remaining time depends on whether you like your meat rare, medium or well-done. Assuming you’re using a broiler and that the steak is one and a half to two inches thick, the total cooking period should add up to 15, 18-20, or 25-30 minutes, approximately. There are no hard-and-fast rules that pin you down to precise timing, but those given can generally be counted upon for a fine effect. If you’re pan-broiling, reckon your total time on a rough basis of 10-12 minutes a pound for rare and tack on a minute or two a pound for medium and another minute or two similarly for well-done. Go easy, though, whichever method you employ; and if you err, let it be through shortness of time rather than length. This is the second and lesser of the principles.

Pan-broiling, as we have seen, is the lx*st way to cook steaks less than an inch thick, because with a broiler it’s too difficult to avoid overdoing them; but the pan can do a superb job on thick steaks, too, and if you take care it will hardly be possible for the eater to tell which of the two methods you used. The pan should be rubbed lightly with a piece of fat or suet just before you put the steak in it, to prevent the meat from sticking, and sprinkling the pan with salt helps to keep the kitchen from filling with smoke. But smoke and good pan-broiling go together and avoiding

Continued on page 26

Continued from page 24

it entirely, while at the same time

achieving a triumph, is as impossible as making an omelet without breaking eggs.

Now we’ll take up the things you can do to your steak after you’ve wiped it with a damp cloth and before it goes on the fire. One of them is simple salting and peppering; yet eminent steak cooks mostly leave this until the last minute and you could do a lot worse than follow their example. Try it both ways, on successive steaks, and see which you prefer. It is, whatever the enthusiasts may say, a matter of personal taste and not a law of nature.

Another precooking thing is to rub your steak with salad oil or dip the meat in it. According to some wizards of the skillet, this makes the browning more even and maybe hastens it a little; according to others it is a sort of outrage. There is no doubt that it has an influence on the flavor and once more whether you care for the influence or not is up to you.

As long as we’re being broad-minded about, steak, and not paying too much attention to the purists, we may as well touch on the subject of garlic, which they regard with unconcealed horror. Try peeling a clove of it, splitting it lengthwise down the middle and rubbing one side of your about-to-bebroiled steak with one half and the other side with the other. It won’t make itself drastically obvious, but it will give the meat a faint, delicate, wonderfully savory overtone and you’ll find it a stimulating and quite possibly habit-forming experiment.

Less faint and no less wonderful is the effect of dusting the steak thoroughly with dry mustard beforehand, and the combination of the mustard and garlic treatments is to the taste what a minor chord is to music. Just be sure the mustard isn’t in tiny lumps here and there on the meat and don’t rub with the garlic until a full minute after you’ve split the clove (the brief wait allows the essential oil to seep out onto the freshly cut surface).

Generally speaking, though, the great point of eating steak is to eat steak and not a piece of meat which has been disguised by means of any seasoning or condiment other than salt and pepper. That is the keynote of steak cookery; that and attention to the principles of proper searing and of underestimating rather than overestimating the length of time on the fire.

Finally, to end on a note of anguished appeal, do not smother any steak under a blanket of fried onions. If you do, you might as well have saved your money by substituting the soles of an old pair of sneakers for the steak, because its special flavor will be almost completely ruined.

No one has ever successfully contradicted the legend that this fearful idea was dreamed up five centuries ago by a wicked sorcerer with beady eyes and a small pointed head, in a fit of spite directed against the whole human race. His evil spell still works on people here and there and for these there is only one suitable punishment.

They should be taken quietly away and smothered in onions themselves. ^