The art of a great steak

Good steaks are a fascinating proposition, and one likely to polarise opinion everywhere. It took us a long time to realise that the cheapest meat was not the best and that if we wanted succulence, tenderness and flavour we had to pay good money to source our meat well, and then to cook it properly (bleu or rare, never more than medium rare under any circumstances!!)

Sourcing

As a cooking and dining public have gradually become more discerning, to the extent that even supermarkets now sell steaks aged for 21 or 28 days, though still generally vacuum packed to within an inch of their lives, though I’ve seen on restaurant menus steaks dry aged anything up to 55 days!

As for eating out, we have thankfully come a long way from the bad old days of steak at a Berni Inn, where you would be served a horrible piece of meat badly-cooked and no better than eating shoe leather.  Dining out now offers a wealth of steak-eating opportunities, though still not in the same league as the USA, where steak eating is practically the national sport.  Even so, we have lots of options and lots of great steaks from around the world.  Leading the way are the Argentinian steaks, sold in Gaucho and similar places.  They say of their steaks:

All our beef comes from Argentina. Only free range, grass fed, British breeds make the Gaucho grade. This and a 35 day wet aging process ensures that our beef boasts an unparalleled leanness and richness.

Look around and you’ll find restaurants serving steaks originating in America, Australia, South Africa and doubtless many other places – even before you get to Kobe steaks from Japan (cattle massaged and fed on beer to improve the marbled texture and flavour).  Some will offer you a fine aged British Aberdeen Angus, or rare breed steaks.

Schools of thought about what produces the best beef are different: some, like a Zimbabwean friend who claims to be a connoisseur of steaks and to eat them four times a week, says you need hot dry cattle country, and feeding on grass, not grain, and not just fresh grass either – he thinks only sweet dried grass should suffice.  In fact, there are many variables in how you raise your cattle, any or all of which influence the final flavour and texture of the meat. I don’t know which is best, though all have their merits and different qualities, and it would be fun finding out at a restaurant giving the full derivation, like Smiths of Smithfield, for example.

However, I am convinced that slow maturation without injecting growth hormones would be most closely keeping to my preference for traditional methods and true flavours, though I doubt if it would be possible to find any such beef cattle on the market.  Slow-grown longhorn rare breeds seem to be favoured by many restaurants in London, with fine results.

Cuts

If you want the most tender, it has to be fillet, but unless you’ve lost your teeth and want to suck your steak up through a straw surely the optimum results are to be found in the cuts which offer maximum flavour and a good compromise for tenderness.  In this case there is no alternative but for a good marbling of fat, though cooking on the bone, as with a t-bone steak, is also desirable – but then there are some who find meat with fat and/or on-the-bone inedible.  Their loss.

Current favourite for many people, myself included, is the rib eye, which generally comes with a good reservoir of fat to keep the meat succulent during cooking, and which turns to a lovely crisp during cooking.  There are various other combinations and cuts, such as rump, sirloin, strip steak, porterhouse and so on.  Arguably the best of the lot is the t-bone, especially Florentine steak, about which I waxed lyrical in this restaurant review.

Cooking

This is all before we think about cooking the steak, though some rules I’ve learned definitely make a big difference:

  • Bring the steak to room temperature and dry it thoroughly
  • Conventional wisdom suggests seasoning before cooking dries the steak out, though that is not my experience.  I press some Maldon sea salt and cracked black pepper into both sides of the steak and leave it for 10-15 minutes first.
  • If using a pan, choose a heavy cast-iron one and rub the inside with a good quality oil without any strong flavour.  If using a BBQ or grill, oil the griddle.
  • Heat your pan to searing hot – should be smoking hot, but don’t leave it during the cooking process unless you want it burned to a crisp on the outside.
  • Put the steak in the pan and leave it – don’t turn or move in any way.
  • Depending on the thickness of the steak, leave for c1-1.5 minutes for rare/medium rare – but never overcook!
  • Turn the steak & repeat
  • Put on a warm plate and leave to rest for several minutes before serving.
  • Try serving with caramelised onions!!

Sounds simple, but you would be amazed how many places screw it up.  Here’s the Gordon Ramsey version.

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