Sunday, September 9, 2007

Getting a good steak at home

I enjoy a good steak. The best steak I've ever had was at Cabaña las Lilas in Buenos Aires (I took the waitress's advice and got the ribeye). So I enjoyed reading and learned a lot from a Journal article (free WSJ Digg link) and accompanying podcast about how to get steakhouse quality steaks at home.

Americans have grown accustomed to the taste of top-drawer steak since the steakhouse industry began to boom in the early 1990s. But for years, there was a still a difference between the beef served up at these pricey restaurants and the best cuts sold in most stores. That began to change toward the end of the '90s, when more retailers started carrying USDA prime, sometimes dry-aged. The "prime" label is the highest grade assigned to beef by the Agriculture Department based on the amount of marbling, or lines of fat, it contains. Lesser grades, such as choice and select, have less marbling.

... I started buying USDA choice beef at Costco for biweekly steak dinners.

As it happens, that's exactly where the pros told me to shop to find great beef -- the first step in my steak-cooking quest. Elias Iglesias, the 14-year veteran executive chef at the New York branch of Morton's, says though he uses prime at the restaurant, he happily cooks choice meat at home, often buying whole loins at big-box stores such as BJ's or Costco. If you like filet mignon, look for a cut labeled "beef tenderloin"; for strip steaks, buy "strip loin."

Mr. Iglesias then cuts them into even, 1½- to 2-inch steaks himself (filet should be cut 2½ inches thick). The 33-year-old recommends examining packages of precut steaks closely for the degree of marbling. In my experience, well-marbled choice steaks can taste as good as prime if they are properly aged and cooked.


At Peter Luger, where the tin ceilings and beer-hall-style decor hark back to its 120-year history, they go a step further and dry age the meat. There, several tons of beef sit on wooden racks in a huge dry-aging room that has a distinctly pungent, nutty, somewhat sour odor. This arcane and expensive technique -- what one beef expert described to me as "a process of controlled rotting" -- is what gives Peter Luger beef its signature flavor. To my mind, dry-aged beef is the best there is because it's not only tenderized, but much of the liquid evaporates, leaving behind a smaller, but more intensely flavored piece of meat.

Trolling through meat threads on food Web sites Chowhound and eGullet, I discovered a whole subculture of people who forgo buying dry-aged beef and prefer to do it themselves, despite warnings from health experts. Cook's Illustrated, the cooking magazine that rigorously tests recipes, and the Food Network's Alton Brown have also both published recipes for home-aging beef.

Jack Bishop, editorial director of America's Test Kitchen, which owns Cook's Illustrated, says "if safety is your No. 1 concern, you probably don't want to go down the road of aging your beef," but that he believes it is fairly safe if cooks observe strict hygiene and limit the aging to four days. Alton Brown also says aging can be safe if properly done.
Err, I think I'll stick to buying the aged meat instead of trying to do it myself.