Tuesday, March 24, 2009

It's Not You, It's The Steak

A lot of folks blame themselves when the steak they grill comes out bland or tough. Well guess what? Time to give yourself a break. It's not you, it's probably the steak.

Seriously, you can do everything right and still have a sorry eating experience. Here are some reasons why:

Zero aged beef. North Americans like their beef to be tender. One key to tender beef is how long and how it's been aged. Aging helps break down muscle fibers to tenderize the beef. In their quest to keep prices low, most grocers and many butchers do not age their beef at all, it goes right from the processor to the store shelf. Look for steaks that have been aged at least 14 days. More on aging in a later post.

The life it led. Most don't want to think about this but raising livestock in stressful conditions can negatively influence both flavor and texture. It's actually pretty logical. Stress hormones change the chemical balance in the meat. In the worst case it can lead to drier, tougher, darker colored meat. Well a lot of commodity (grocery) beef is raised or slaughtered in stressful conditions. A good meat purveyor will be able to tell you with confidence how livestock were handled from farm to fork. Artisan beef is by defition raised with care.

Your steak was raised on drugs. A natural cattle cycle would take up to 3 years from inception to market weight. That's a long time to wait to get paid for raising the beef. Most commodity beef is raised with the use of growth stimulants, including preventative antibiotics and growth hormones, to get it ready for market faster. Both can negatively influence taste & texture.

Bad luck. Not every apple that falls from the tree tastes exactly the same. Even the very best artisan crafted beef can be an occasional miss. If most of the beef from one producer tastes fabulous but then something's not quite right one time, try to pass on that feedback to the purveyor. You never know, they might be able to use the information to improve their program!

The crap shoot. I am not being derogatory here. There are hundreds if not thousands of potential artisan beef producers but today, their beef shows up at the processor's door and comes out the other end on the retail shelf as "Choice" or "Select" or whatever simple label. In my opinion, it would be worth keeping each producer's beef separate so that you and I could appreciate the unique taste and texture of that beef.

The wrong cut. I've certainly made this "mistake." Some muscles get more work than others and exercise = flavor but also tougher meat. The four most popular premium steak cuts, the Filet Mignon, Rib-Eye, New York Strip Loin, or Sirloin, come from the mid-section of a cattle. They can be grilled or pan friend or broiled using high heat. With few exceptions, beef cuts that come from the front or back got used a lot more frequently. It's best to cook most of these cuts, such as a tri-tip or brisket, more slowly either as a roast, smoked, or braised to help tenderize the beef.

Notice that I am not suggesting that you purchased the wrong "Grade" of meat. More on that later, but I will leave you with this thought: USDA Prime beef is not necessarily the most flavorful or most tender meat.

The key to really fabulous tasting beef? Here's the short summary of my "cheat sheet." I'm working on a downloadable version, too.

  • Specific ranch or producer group (source-verified).

  • Single breed or cross-breed.

  • No added growth hormones (steroids, yuck!).

  • No preventative antibiotics (if they can't keep healthy without 'em...)

  • All vegetable diet, no funky stuff in there like stale chewing gum.

  • Treated gently on farm, in truck, at yard (if relevant), & at slaughterhouse.

  • Dry-aged or wet-aged for at least 7 days

  • Bonus points: certified organic, humane, grass-only diet, holistic.


Zesty Cook said...

I could not agree with you more on this topic. A lot has to do with the cut and the process and actually the cut in comparison to the method of cooking.

Great post


Carrie Oliver said...

Hi there, Zesty Cook and thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment. You are dead on, the cut of meat, how the meat was cut, and whether and how it was aged make a huge difference.

When I first started my journey into Beef Geekdom, I knew different cuts (e.g. brisket steak vs. filet mignon) had different textures and that some should be cooked slowly and others quickly. What I didn't know is that two butchers with different skills or techniques could cut the meat in such a was as to actually hurt or enhance texture!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Carrie, for this post. It's a good introduction for the person just learning about grass-fed beef.

Thanks, too, for submitting it to today's Fight Back Fridays carnival.

(AKA FoodRenegade)