Thursday, January 12, 2012

Beef, That's What's For Dinner

Strip-loin...a little past it "freshness" date...

God, I love a good piece of red meat. I know from a sustainability standpoint I should be shooting myself. Cows are not exactly a winner in for the planet, food security or your health.[1] Furthermore, due to the high cost of meat as well as ethical concerns, meat consumption has gone down the last 5 years.[2] But sometimes I really just want a good steak.
            To keep my conscience (and my kid and husband’s cholesterol & fat levels in check), we usually eat red meat about 2-3 times a month. (The policy in the house, is that for every meat/fish dinner, we do a vegetarian dinner. As I do 99 percent of the cooking in the house, beggars can’t be choosers.) It’s not that often. And we’ve pretty much switched to eating only organic & free-range beef. Yeah it’s hella expensive, but if you’re going eat red meat, at least do it the right way.
            I don’t just mean from an ethical standpoint. If I’m going to eat beef, I want the best damn tasting beef I can buy. Up until recently, I figured I was shit-out-of luck when it came to good tasting beef unless I was in Peter Luger[3] land.  They have access to not only the best quality beef[4], but also to industrial grills (the type that can get up to 1000°F) and experienced cooks.
            And it’s just not the grading that matters to beef connoisseurs. There are several different types of cows, from Angus[5] to Hereford to Wagyu/Kobe.[6] There are also differences in husbandry & slaughter techniques. Grass-fed, organic and free-range all describes how the cattle were raised. Butchery practices range from the crude (anyone who has read Michael Pollan’s article “Power Steer” in the New York Times will know what I mean) to the religious/ethical (Kosher or Halal).  And then there is the issue of which cut to go with….
            I can’t tell you what choice to make in terms of all these choices – that’s up to you (and isn’t that what America is all about?), but beyond getting the highest quality steak you can afford (this means either getting Choice or Prime beef), what else can you do?
            You age it. This is one of the main reasons why home cooks will never be able to replicate a steakhouse steak at home. As gross as it seems, an old steak will beat out a fresh steak any day of the week – and here’s why:
            The taste we associate with a good piece of beef – that meaty, rounded, nutty taste  – that comes from glutamates[7], specific amino acids, that give that pronounced “umami” quality to foods. Glutamates while inherent in all living cells (why you can you vegetarians/vegans are not exempt from eating, dare I call it, “meaty” foods), particularly proteins, it is only in the free, unbound form that contributes to that savory taste in delicious beef.
            And this is where aging does it’s magic. It isn’t until enzymes start to break down the proteins from bound glutamates to free glutamates. The longer the enzymes have to break down those protein compounds, the more glutamates are freed.
            But it doesn’t stop there. Aging also tenderizes meat. Meat isn’t all soft and squishy once you kill it. Just like the horror films, rigor mortis sets in.  Proteins are tough little compounds. All that stingy stuff in tough meat? That’s a combination of collagen, muscle & connective tissue – all made out of protein. If enzymes aren’t given enough time to break down all that tough tissue, you just get that…tough meat.[8]
            To a certain extent, all commercial meat is “aged.” It’s about 4-10 days from slaughter to sale, and by then some aging has occurred – but nothing to write home about. The home cook can age their beef like a pro, but there are a lot of caveats…mainly of the food safety kind. Oxygen and light contribute to meat rancidity. Bacteria seem to like meat as much as humans do. (E. coli anyone?)[9]
            But yes, you can be your own butcher and age your own meat. There are two aging methods: wet aging and dry aging. Wet aging, preferred by Morton’s Gene & Georgetti, and The Palm, is done by vacuum sealing cuts of beef (to prevent oxidation) and letting the meat sit for 3-6 weeks in a cold aging room[10]. Dry aging, done by Peter Luger, Capital Grille, Craftsteak, is exactly as it sounds. Meat is dried thoroughly (to prevent excess bacterial growth) and allowed to free-stand in an aging room for up to 4 weeks.
Piece of wet-aged strip loin
            Which is the better method? There is a serious debate amongst steak-lovers about this, and any steakhouse will give a long-list of reasons why their particular method merits consideration. Well, I prefer a dry-aged steak. I think the meat is tenderer than wet aged and the flavor is more concentrated, due to the evaporation. Which is the easier method for the home cook? Wet aging, hands down.
            To wet age a cut, all you need to do is have vacuum pack your meat (it doesn’t matter what cut you choose) and let it sit in the coldest part of your fridge for a couple of weeks, and turn it over every couple of days. Here (see picture above), I’ve wet-aged a strip-loin for 5 weeks. If you notice it, the meat is much darker in color than that of a “fresh” steak.  How did it taste? Well, you’ll have to wait to next post to find that out (and the science behind a perfectly cooked piece of beef).
            Dry aging, on the other hand, takes a bit of work. First, clear out the meat drawer of your fridge. Clean the meat drawer fastidiously – I mean the scrub, hot water, the works.[11] Take out any rack (cake racks are good) that fits into your meat drawer and also go on a sanitation spree. Why the rack? Because the more air that circulates around your meat, the quicker it will age. Then take out your meat and dry it as thoroughly as possible. The easiest way is to use sterilized cheesecloth or a kitchen towel to dry it off (do not use paper towels-you will be tweezing little pieces of paper forever).[12] Place the cake rack (fat side down if using a loin or other large cut of meat) in the empty meat drawer and place the meat as far apart as possible on the rack, without touching the sides of the drawer.
            That’s it. LEAVE IT ALONE! The longest I’ve put it in the fridge has been 10 days. But to be on the safe side, I say a week should be the threshold for the home cook.
            While dry aging, you might notice your meat looks and smells a little “off.” It’s not going to be that rosy red. In fact it’s going to look a little grayish. Do not let that deter you. Furthermore, if you find any moldy bits on the fat or meat – that’s OK – you trim off those pieces before you cook.
            And there you have it. You’ve aged your own steak. Yeah it’s a bit of work, but it’s an experiment worth doing. And you’ll never look again the plastic wrapped stuff at the grocery store….
PS Next post we’ll look at the next step, how to cook your beef. And as usual – there’s a science to it….

[1] I’ve written posts about meat-eating. As a former vegetarian, I can definitely see both sides of the meat debate. But as a flexitarian of sorts, I think it's far better to encourage LESS meat eating than to go the NO meat eating route. Not because I think it's a better moral stance, but in terms of changing food-behavior permanently, some change is better than none at all.
[3] Peter Luger is considered to be one of the best steakhouses in America. Of course there are tons of good steakhouses and good steaks (and as to which is best is the type of topic that usually ends up with fists flying), but Luger is pretty consistent in the ratings. I’m pretty partial to the place, but that is because I like the bare-bones aspect of the restaurant: there’s no cushy chairs, no Dean Martin in the background, and no Mobster or D-list celebrities hounding the place. Just meat. And some knives, to make it easier to chew.
[4] To those of you not familiar with the beef scene, there are 8 grades of beef in the US based upon intra-muscular fat levels (what’s known as ‘”marbling”) and tenderness.  US Prime is the top grade of beef, but due to it’s limited availability (only 2.9% of beef is labeled Prime), high-end restaurants usually buy the bulk of supplies. Most of us buy what is labeled “Select” or “Choice” at the grocery store.  Choice is the higher end than Select, and once again, the fat content and distribution determine the difference between the two. As for the rest of the beef grades? Think of potted beef because almost all of it goes into processed food (think your dog or cat food).
[5] Angus cattle, one particular breed (called Aberdeen Angus in Europe), have a reputation of superior beef, that reputation is not really founded upon any scientific study. The popularity of Angus beef in the US has more to do with a strategic marketing campaign by ranchers. In the UK, Aberdeen Angus is usually held to higher animal welfare rules than that of its US counterpart. Possibly due to those husbandry standards, Aberdeen Angus was the only breed that did not get Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (“BSE” or “Mad-Cow Disease”) in the last BSE epidemic in the UK.
[6] Kobe beef does not refer to a specific breed of cattle, but to the area from which the cows are raised: Kobe, Japan. All Kobe beef is raised from the Wagyu variety, but not all Wagyu (sometimes labeled “American Kobe”) is Kobe beef. The difference lies in how the cattle is raised: Kobe beef is given a diet of beer, beer mash & grains to encourage fat development as well as daily massages to prevent muscular development and stress that could lead to tough meat.
[7] Yes, these are the same glutamates that are in MSG or monosodium glutamate - the
[8] Remember all those pioneer stories with pictures of Indians hanging their deer, bear or whatever carcass in the background? This technique has been used for eons to soften meat. It just isn’t some crazy Hollywood detail.
[9] Once again, I am willing to take a food safety risk by aging my own meat, but if you have ANY reservations about food safety, don’t do it. No matter how many precautions you take, bacteria and mold happen.  Like raw eggs or raw milk, this technique is only for those who realize the risk and are willing to deal with the consequences…. e.g. like food poisoning. And for god sakes…don’t feed this to small children, elderly or anyone with a compromised immune system. It’s just not worth it.
[10] Meat lockers can control the temperature and the humidity of the environment. While all aging rooms are types of meat lockers, not all meat lockers can serve as aging rooms.
[11] While it is hard for anyone to get cooking supplies scrupulously clean, the easiest way to sterilize equipment is to place the object in boiling water for 10 minutes.
[12] Some people have used hair-dryers to speed up the drying process. I’ve also seen the hand-fan method. Does it work? Uh…my arm’s too weak to find out.
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