Raising the steaks
July 19, 2006
BY LEAH A. ZELDES
Succulent steaks seared over fire mark one of the high points of summer. But will you grill dry-aged or wet? Grass-fed or grain-fed? Kobe or Angus? Flat iron or ranch? Prime or choice? Organic or conventional?
Far more than how you cook it, the meat spells success or failure with steaks.
"You get what you start with" says Chef Randy Waidner, a 15-year veteran of the Weber Grill Restaurants, who now runs the kitchen at Entourage, a new supper club at 1301 American Ln. in Schaumburg.
"It's all in the quality of the animal," says butcher Frank Bornhofen of Bornhofen's Meat Market, 6155 N. Broadway.
Many sizzling new choices are featured in the meat cases of local groceries and butcher shops, and the selection can be bewildering. Here's our guide to sorting out the new steaks.
Grass-fed beef and dry-aged steaks actually aren't new. Sixty years ago, nearly all cattle came to market straight from the pasture and all beef was aged unwrapped for flavor and tenderness. After World War II, American ranchers began to pen steers for a pre-market fattening on a corn-rich diet, which produced better marbled meat in a shorter time.
Meanwhile, meatpackers discovered that a short rest in heavy-duty plastic broke down tough meat fibers with less waste than dry aging, a process that evaporated moisture and formed a jerkylike crust that had to be trimmed and discarded. If the flavor of wet-aged beef was milder, well, folks got used it.
Now, the old-fashioned methods are reviving. Dry-aged beef rocketed to Chicago's epicurean consciousness with the opening of David Burke's Primehouse, 616 N. Rush, as critics gushed over its steaks, bred in Kentucky from the eatery's own bulls and aged 21 days in a special room walled with Himalayan salt bricks.
Dry aging is a costly process. "You need a real butcher and you need real estate," Burke says.
The meat loses up to 20 percent of its weight during dry aging. The process concentrates flavor for an intense, beefy tang, as well as creating very tender steaks.
Burke uses the Japanese term "umami" (meaning "savoriness") to describe the taste, likening it to the flavor of aged Parmesan cheese or cured charcuterie.
"It's a more flavorful and more tender piece of meat," says Allen Schaffer, meat buyer for Treasure Island, which began dry-aging its Sterling Silver brand meat early this year. The beef, sold in all the Treasure Island stores, ages in a special locker at a Lake Shore Drive location. Treasure Island's dry-aged beef is high-end USDA choice. At press time, its dry-aged boneless sirloin strip steaks were selling for $17 per pound (vs. $15 for wet-aged steaks).
"We also offer prime, but not dry-aged," Schaffer says.
Gourmet grocer Fox & Obel, 401 E. Illinois St., dry ages prime beef for 21 days. At press time, these steaks cost $29 per pound.
Steaks for grilling come in three grades. The highest quality beef is labeled prime. "Prime is only 2 percent of the animals," says Klaus Fritsch, vice chairman of Morton's of Chicago and co-author of the new Morton's Steak Bible (Clarkson Potter, $30). "Among thousands of animals, there may be only three prime."
Prime beef is heavily laced with white flecks and veins of fat. "The fat gives it the flavor and the tenderness," Bornhofen says.
The next grade, choice, offers high-quality steaks with somewhat less marbling than prime. "We're very particular with the choice that we get," says Bornhofen, who stocks both prime and choice, but for some steaks he advocates prime. "On the sirloin, it's the difference between night and day."
You'll have to visit a specialty butcher or high-end grocery to buy prime steaks -- most go to restaurants. Choice steaks are available at independent butcher shops and groceries, and most branded beef falls in this grade. Meat cases at Chicago's supermarket chains stock mainly select grade.
Leaner and less tasty, select beef takes special handling to achieve good results.
Because it has less moisture and higher density, dry-aged beef cooks more quickly than conventional meat. The color is less vibrant than wet-aged beef, a duller red, and it gives up fewer juices when you cut it.
Grass-fed beef also cooks more quickly. "It looks the same as other steak, other than there's less fat in it," says Chef Paul Katz of Harry Caray's, which serves Tallgrass Beef as well as conventional steaks. "Tallgrass cooks 30 percent faster than a corn-fed steak. It has less density."
Chicago TV journalist Bill Kurtis' Tallgrass Beef lies behind much of the local interest in grass-fed beef. "It's leaner. It doesn't have the fat inside the muscle," Kurtis says.
He and other advocates of grass-fed beef tout its sustainability since animals forage on the range. A corn-fed steer uses more resources, eating about eight pounds of grain per pound of meat. But grass feeding requires more land and labor per steer. Promoters also argue that keeping cattle out of the feedlot is more humane.
However, purported health benefits seem to be fueling the most interest in grass-fed beef. Promoters claim that this meat offers health benefits because it's higher in omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated lineolic acid and vitamin E than regular beef.
While grass-fed beef can be tough, Tallgrass seeks out cattle bred from old strains more likely to produce tender beef without a corn finish, using ultrasound to identify likely animals. In comparison, Katz says, "I've had other grass-fed beef that almost looked like select."
Katz describes the taste as "sweeter" while Kurtis says for "almost nutty."
Tallgrass Beef is sold at Fox & Obel, Foodstuffs and Sunset Foods stores.
The brand also is certified organic. Organic beef may be corn-fed or grass-fed, as long as the feed is certified organic, which means grown without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Organic cattle may not receive antibiotics or synthetic growth hormones.
Bornhofen isn't enthusiastic about organic beef. He carried some for a while, but it didn't sell. "It was all right," he says. "It's a lot more expensive. And the meat is a different quality. It's not fed the same way."
While organic cattle need not be wholly grass-fed, organic certification requires that animals being grain-fed have access to the pasture, so the meat tends to be leaner and less tender than regular beef.
As some consumers seek leaner beef, others look for even more fat, as in Japanese-style meat called Kobe or wagyu. In the Kobe region of Japan, wagyu cattle are fed a diet of beer, allowed little exercise and, supposedly, massaged daily to achieve a legendary level of tenderness and white-laced marbling, up to 90 percent of the meat's weight. These steaks, which can sell for $300 a pound, are all but unobtainable by American consumers.
Kobe beef has a succulent texture but a delicate flavor. So-called "American Kobe" refers to U.S.-raised cattle of the same wagyu breed. These steers receive a different diet and get no massages; the end steaks don't quite achieve the sublime texture but may have deeper flavor.
American wagyu is available from premium butchers such as Fox & Obel and Allen Brothers, at prices of up to $100 a pound for top grades, such steaks are best sliced thinly and cooked quickly.
Given the rising cost of beef, producers have begun to look for ways to get more out of a carcass. New "value" cuts from the shoulder or chuck resulted from recent beef industry research that discovered different ways of cutting meat, which used to be sold primarily as part of larger roasts or ground for burgers. The new cuts remove connective tissue, creating lean steaks tender enough for grilling.
These cuts include the flat iron steak, ranch steak and petite tender. They have good, beefy flavor with a somewhat grainier texture than familiar steaks. "It's not the melt-in-your-mouth texture," says Mary Bartz, spokeswoman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
Fritsch doesn't like them as well as traditional cuts, but concedes that mid-priced restaurants may find uses for them.
At the other end of the scale, Burke sells a new steak he calls a "South Side filet mignon" -- no fillet at all, but a section of tenderloin on a whopping great bone that looks like a dinosaur's dinner.
Leah A. Zeldes is a local free-lance writer.
Taste, tenderness and flavor in beef are determined largely by where on the animal the various cuts come from. Here's a look at where some of the more popular current cuts come from.
AGING: Most beef is aged at least briefly, to allow natural enzymes to break down muscle fiber, tenderizing the meat.
In wet aging, the most common method, meat is refrigerated in vacuum-sealed plastic bags for a few days. During dry aging, a premium method, unwrapped beef stands in a low-humidity cooler, typically for three weeks, allowing moisture to evaporate and concentrating meaty flavor.
ANGUS: A breed of hornless cattle originating in Scotland, with black or dark red coats.
BRANDED BEEF: Some producers market steaks with brand names, promising consistency of quality. These tend to be choice grades. Branding also may refer to the cattle breed, such as Certified Angus which identifies meat from "Angus-influenced cattle," or where it comes from such as the Kobe region of Japan.
GRAIN- OR CORN-FED BEEF: This is regular American beef, some 85 percent of the market. After a year or so at pasture, most cattle get a three- to six-month stretch confined in a feed lot, where they receive a fattening diet high in corn before going to market.
GRASS-FED BEEF: All U.S. cattle start out eating grass, but this designation refers to animals that never get a final fattening on grain. Some describe grass-fed beef as having a sweet, nutty flavor, but others call it tough and gamey, which may reflect a lack of standardization of the available meat.
KOBE BEEF: Costly beef from the Kobe region of Japan, where cattle are fed a diet of beer, allowed little exercise and, supposedly, massaged daily to achieve a legendary level of white-laced marbling and tenderness. So-called "American Kobe" refers to unmassaged U.S.-raised cattle of the same wagyu breed.
MARINADE: A seasoned liquid that adds flavor and, in some cases, tenderizes.
MARBLING: Flecks and streaks of fat integrated in the meat, which give it flavor and contribute to tenderness.
NATURAL BEEF: Beef with no additives, such as preservatives or marinades.
ORGANIC BEEF: To be certified organic, cattle must eat only organic feed and may not be given hormones or antibiotics. This meat, often leaner than regular beef, comes at premium prices from natural-foods stores such as Whole Foods and Wild Oats.
RUB: A blend of seasonings, such as herbs and spices, that adds flavor and is applied to the surface of raw steaks.
Leah A. Zeldes
Here are a few more recommendations for great grilling:
Leah A. Zeldes
CHIPOTLE MARINADE AND SAUCE
MAKES ENOUGH FOR 2 (20-OUNCE) STEAKS
1 cup beef stock
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
1 bottle dark beer
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon chipotle powder
or to taste
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon molasses
1-1/2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons Red Hot sauce or to taste
Combine all ingredients. Place in a heavy-duty zipper-type plastic bag with the steaks and refrigerate for at least one hour.
To make sauce, place half the marinade in a saucepan, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer over medium heat till reduced by half.
When cooking the steaks, cook over medium direct heat for 2 minutes per side, and then move to indirect heat until they reach the desired doneness.
Note: Lomprez uses this recipe with "cowboy steak," bone-in rib steak, as well as less tender cuts like short ribs. It would also work well for flat iron steaks and skirt steaks.
Nutrition facts per serving: 166 calories, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 24 g carbohydrates, 3 g protein, 1593 mg sodium, 1 g fiber
From Chef Brent Lomprez, Indian Lakes Resort, Bloomingdale
GRILLED STEAK AND FENNEL PASTA SALAD
MAKES 4 SERVINGS
2 medium red bell peppers, halved and seeded
8 ounces fresh asparagus
Nonstick cooking spray
2 cups uncooked spiral pasta
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 large fennel bulb, trimmed, stalks discarded (save tops for garnish)
1 cup thinly sliced red onion
1 pound boneless grilled steak, such as top loin strip, sirloin or flat iron
Start a medium hot fire in a barbecue grill. Spray the peppers and asparagus with nonstick cooking spray. Grill over indirect heat for 20 to 25 minutes or until crisp-tender. (Alternatively, preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Place the peppers and asparagus in a metal baking pan; spray with nonstick cooking spray. Roast for 20 to 25 minutes or until crisp-tender.) Set aside; let cool. Cut into 1- to 2-inch pieces.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil; cook the pasta according to package directions, omitting oil; rinse in cold water and drain.
In a small bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, oil, vinegar, oregano, garlic, salt and crushed red pepper until blended. Toss with the pasta and roasted vegetables in a large bowl, cover and refrigerate till serving time.
Cut the fennel bulb lengthwise into quarters; remove and discard the core. Thinly slice fennel quarters lengthwise. Carve the steak into thin slices. Combine the sliced fennel, steak and onion with the pasta mixture. Garnish with the reserved fennel tops.
Note: Throw a couple of extra steaks on the fire so you can enjoy this salad a day or two later.
Nutrition facts per serving: 403 calories, 14 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 65 mg cholesterol, 28 g carbohydrates, 40 g protein, 254 mg sodium, 5 g fiber
From National Cattlemen's Beef Association on behalf of The Beef Checkoff
THAI GRILLED STEAK SALAD
MAKES 4 SERVINGS
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
1 teaspoon chopped jalapenos
3 tablespoons Thai fish sauce
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tablespoon sugar
1 pound boneless grilled steak, such as ribeye, top loin strip, sirloin or flat iron, sliced 1/4-inch thick
1/2 cucumber, peeled, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
1/2 medium red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
2 large tomatoes, cored, halved and thinly sliced
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
Mix together the chopped garlic, jalapenos, fish sauce, lime juice and sugar in a large bowl.
Add the sliced steak, cucumber, onion and tomato. Toss well. Sprinkle with chopped cilantro.
Nutrition facts per serving: 273 calories, 10 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 70 mg cholesterol, 11 g carbohydrates, 33 g protein, 1136 mg sodium, 1 g fiber
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