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I'm a guy who likes to cook, eat, and drink, but not necessarily in that order. This blog is nothing fancy; just my random thoughts about anything that can be baked, roasted, or fried. Enjoy!

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Making the Cut

Recently, I had dinner at an upscale steak house in Scottsdale, Arizona, and their menu had a interesting addition. On the back was a chart showing all the various cuts of beef. Talk about knowing where your food comes from! If I were some kind of über-foodie-bureaucrat, I would require that all steak houses include such a chart on their menus. I would do this for several reasons. First, if you are going to be a serious consumer of steak, you need to know how the flavor and texture profiles of steak are influenced by how it's cut. Second, if you are going to be serious about cooking steak, then you need to know which cuts work best with the cooking technique involved—e.g. braising, roasting, or grilling. 

In order to understand steak, you first need to know the “primal” cuts. This is not a reference to our stone-age ancestors or what you may see in the supermarket labeled as “prime cut.” Rather, primal cuts are the large, portions of meat cut during the initial butchering. In other words, think of “primal cuts” (e.g.,  chuck, flank, or short loin) as states and the steaks that come these primal cuts (e.g., pot roast, skirt steak, or Porterhouse) as cities. 

Not all cuts of beef are the same, and this has a lot to do with biology. Don’t forget that you are consuming something that was once alive—it moved around, or at least it should have. Because an animal's legs and neck muscles do the most work in terms of walking and eating, they are the strongest and, consequently, the toughest. And the farthest one gets from the “horn” and “hoof,” the more tender the meat gets. This is where how one cooks beef starts to make sense.

Less tender cuts of meat—e.g, brisket, chuck pot roast, rump roast, or flank steak—produce the best results when cooked slowly, either braising or roasting. Personally, I think braising is an underrated way to cook meat.

The more tender cuts—e.g., sirloin, filet, rib eye—are better cooked quickly, either on the grill, pan fried or pan roasted. Of these, everyone considers the filet (a/k/a “Filet Mignon”) to be the creme-de-la-creme of steaks because of its tenderness and melt-in-your-mouth quality. But at the end of the day, the filet doesn’t pack a lot of flavor. This is why it should be marinated (more on that later) or served with a sauce, such as Béarnaise. But if you want real “steak” flavor, you can’t go wrong with the New York strip. (It was the steak my Dad got for grilling every Saturday night.) All you need is a hot grill or cast iron skillet, some salt and pepper, maybe some butter if you are using the skillet, and you’re done. The steak’s flavor does the rest. No need for a fancy sauce.

But why is it called “New York Strip”? In 1837, Delmonico's Restaurant, which proclaimed itself “America’s first fine dining restaurant,” had as one of its signature dishes, a cut from the short loin, called—you guessed it—a Delmonico steak. Because the Delmonico steak became associated with the City from whence it came, it has been referred to as a New York strip ever since.

A few paragraphs back, I talked about filets and how they need a marinade or sauce to really make it work. The best marinade for a filet is, in my humble opinion, Dale’s Steak Seasoning. Dale’s was the “house” steak sauce for an old restaurant in downtown Birmingham, Alabama, called Dale’s Cellar Restaurant, so named because it was located in the cellar of a multi-story apartment building. It was also air-conditioned, something prominently advertised, and something that was no small amenity in 1949! This marinade works with any kind of meat, but steak especially. I take a nice fillet, put it in a Ziploc bag with some Dale’s and let it marinade for at least 30 minutes; throw it on a hot grill; and instant nirvana!

Just goes to show you: you don’t need a fancy steakhouse to enjoy a good steak!

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