When sorting through the slew of supermarket bovine-based proteins, one is often faced with an overwhelmingly high number of packaged goods. Unfortunately, quality is notoriously difficult to locate in the cornucopia of select (AA) and choice (AAA) grade offerings; our options are simply the amount of marbling at their given price tags. Degradation in the product begins in the animal’s diet & housing conditions, the stressful slaughter (see previous post on rigor mortis), and lack of proper aging. The end result is encased in MAP – modified atmosphere packaging; this gives the otherwise grey looking meat an appealing red exterior by blooming the surrounding myoglobin. If you were to bring up these woes to your local food enthusiast, you would be directed to a nearby butcher shop. Although I visit my local butcher every few weeks for some reasonably priced thick-cut bacon or tough cuts of flank, it is hardly an option I would recommend to most of my friends for their favourite tender cuts. Let’s face it; many of us are in a bad place in a bad economy. Without a handsome paycheque, we’re not able to afford the $20/lb aged rib-eye. Given the amount of work that goes into this cut of meat, and the net loss of moisture, this price is not the least bit farfetched. But to the average Joe’s wallet, it is definitely a luxury. So what is the middle-class meat-eater to do? Here are my two recommendations:
1) Find a local farmer (if possible). Eliminating the need for a physical shop and buying reasonably sized packages takes down the cost quite a bit.
2) Dry-age your meat.
There are two forms of aging in practice: wet-aging and dry-aging. Both forms call for extended holding periods in controlled environments, with a few notable differences between the two. After rigor mortis sets in, muscles begin aging and enzymatic action takes place; Calpains and Cathepsins are two particularly responsible for snipping away protein strands, and thus tenderizing the muscle. After 21 days, this progression comes to a halt. Either method of aging will allow this process to occur, but the benefits of wet-aging is limited to this task. Beyond this period, there is no advantage to wet-aging.
Dry-aging can be extended for quite a bit longer for other added effects, in some cases for up to three months. The exposure to open-air oxidizes the fats in the meat. This is particularly favourable for the saturated fats in beef; they can stand up to the effects of oxidation and develop nutty aromas, as well as those resembling blue-cheese. On the opposite end of the spectrum, monounsaturated and particularly polyunsaturated fats degrade and go rancid. This is why red-meat stews often taste better the next day whereas chicken has a warmed-over flavour. Try switching out duck-fat for corn oil next time you do a confit, and the taste you identify as ‘stale’ should be strikingly apparent within a much shorter refrigeration period .
Beyond oxidation, dry-aging also causes a good deal of moisture loss. While this may seem to be detrimental, it has the benefit of concentrating the steak’s ‘beefy’ flavour, and counter-intuitively also increases the muscle’s ability to retain moisture. So while you may lose some not-so-tasty water content from your steak, you can rest assured that the cooked product will be quite savoury.
PICKING AND AGING YOUR STEAK:
My favourite cut is a rib-eye. To me, it has the best compromise between flavour and tenderness. Pick out your favourite tender cut, but try to avoid filet if you can. While it is extremely tender, it doesn’t have a whole lot of flavour, and it doesn’t take very well to aging. While Prime (AAAA) grade is the highest tier in North American beef grading, it is both expensive and difficult to locate (unless you work at a quality steakhouse). Choice (AAA) is a much more affordable compromise. By the time your steak has made the trek from its point of origin, it will already have wet-aged in its juices for several days. This is generally decent progress. Although there are ways to greatly condense more tenderization in a couple hours, it is not without potential consequences; increasing food-borne pathogens. Since most people do not have the means to hold their food at specific temperatures long enough to pasteurize them, it is not a viable method. Instead, you can opt to keep the steak in its package longer, but keep a good eye on it. Leaving it in a wet environment for too long considerably increases the chances of mould growth. When you’re ready to start dry-aging, take it out of the package, throw it on a cake rack over any plating vessel of your choice (to pool the shed moisture) and place it in your refrigerator for a couple days.
During these two days, enzymatic action will continue to tenderize the steak and the aforementioned advantages to dry-aging will being taking place. Although you can dry-age meat for a much longer period of time, you don’t want to with a piece of steak, and especially not in your refrigerator. Long periods of exposure will cause the fats to absorb undesirable aromas from other items in the fridge, and your steak will form a thick leathery crust. Traditionally, large muscles are aged this way, and trimmed thereafter. However, trimming your steak will leave practically nothing to eat. Two days is just the right amount of time to gain that flavour concentration, and start developing some oxidation without creating a leathery exterior. (Note: If you want to experiment with long periods of dry-aging, it’s best to start with a large joint, and a wine refrigerator that controls humidity and provides a convection fan).
COOKING YOUR STEAK:
Before you expose your steak to a hot pan, think about the thermal shock you’re putting it through. Longer cooking time means more moisture loss, and therefore a dryer steak. Leave it out for an hour to come up to room temperature if you have the time. When it’s ready, give it a good rinse to wash off any surface debris. Take a heavy-bottomed pan (ideally cast iron) and put it on high heat for at least ten minutes. You want to get it as hot as possible. Make sure you have engaged your ventilation system (vent hood, windows etc.) to prevent your smoke alarm from going haywire. Next, coat your steak in your choice of cooking lubricant; I like to go with clarified butter. Season both sides with only salt. Pepper burns very easily, so it’s best to wait until you’re done cooking.
Conventional methods of cooking steak usually begin with a fairly hot pan, cooking for 4-5 min. per side, flipping once and/or utilizing your oven. In fact, many steak fanatics are strongly dogmatic about their cooking method, ready to promise you that flipping your steak more than once will make it horribly dry. Such notions are perplexingly misinformed and often compromising. Your steak is being exposed to a lot of heat, and yet they’re worried about your tongs…
Once your pan is ready, lay the steak away from you. Here’s the key part, flip every 15 seconds! While this is likely antagonistic to the way you have been taught, flipping your steak will actually yield a juicier result. You can think of it as a very hot rotisserie. Constant flipping ensures that you form a good brown crust on the outside without burning it, while allowing gentler residual heat to cycle through your steak. This produces a result that is juicier, more evenly cooked throughout, and a lot faster. You can expect to cut down your cooking time by a third. Think about why we cook roasts in the oven. You could technically throw it on a large pan and flip it once, but by the time you achieve the desirable doneness in the centre, the majority of the outside will have been massively overcooked and dry. The oven’s advantage is that it provides radiant heat from all sides exposed to the air alongside the surface conduction. Heat transfer does not discriminate. The same applies to your steak, so constantly flip it to prevent exposing either side to direct heat for too long. These bursts of temperature will provide you with more balanced heat distribution. Once it starts looking like it’s ready to come out, take out your trusty digital thermometer. It is one of the most vital and versatile kitchen tool any cook can have. You can poke and prod at your steak all you like, but even the most trained chef cannot beat the accuracy of a thermometer. Don’t take it offensively. Even the best Michelin-starred restaurants rely on PID controllers and thermometers for cooking the vast majority of their proteins.
Speaking from personal experience, I have seen men discuss the doneness of meat as if it were some sort of a contest measuring masculinity. Those consuming the rarest specimen often pride themselves on their discerning palate. Much to their demise, blind tests have revealed that even the most esteemed rare-enthusiast prefers medium-rare. This makes perfect sense if you understand the very basic science behind it. As the steak cooks, collagen (the very thing that holds us together) starts rendering and turning into gelatin around 130F (i.e. medium rare). Fat also renders more effectively and lubricates the meat. Although a rare steak theoretically has more juices than a medium-rare one, it won’t be anywhere near as juicy to your palate. As you bite down, the muscle fibres will much more readily push apart instead of bursting, providing a more slippery-soft mouthfeel. So my advice: go for medium-rare. Probe the steak and pull it out by 125F. Due to the nature of heat transfer, residual heat will continue raising the temperature around 5+ degrees. Place it on a cake rack to prevent the juices from ruining the crust, add pepper, compound butter etc. and rest it for 5 minutes. This step is very important considering how much heat the steak just went through. Resting it will allow the denatured proteins to cool down and thicken the juices (unlike the popular belief that juices need to redistribute). Think of the steak’s interior like a bottle of cream sauce. When placed in the refrigerator, it cools down and becomes more viscous making it difficult to pour. When you heat it, the liquid moves more freely, much like the steak. If you cut into it while it’s hot, a lot of those juices will escape.
There any many variations to cooking steak, with all sorts of equipment. Unless you have access to a temperature-controlled water-bath, or are willing to calibrate your beer/picnic cooler with a thermometer, this method will provide you with a much better result than the more familiar conventional standard. Happy steak eating!