Friday, February 10, 2012

Where's the Beef? (Part II of Aging & Cooking Your Own Steak)

“Did you ever see the customers in health-food stores? They are pale, skinny people who look half dead. In a steak house, you see robust, ruddy people. They're dying, of course, but they look terrific.”           
-Bill Cosby, American Comedian
            What’s the point of having good quality beef if you can’t cook it? You’d be surprised how something that seems as intuitive as cooking a steak can be so puzzling to many. If you think that Fred Flintstone is the your model of cooking steaks, then you have a lot to learn (all anachronisms aside, Fred Flintstone probably was aging his meat because he didn’t have a proper meat locker in prehistoric Bedrock).
            In Part I of eating better beef, we went through the steps of aging your own meat. That was the easy part. The difficult part is yet to come – how to cook your meat.
You would think there is some universal rule to grilling a steak, but beyond getting your grill at an eyebrow burning 800F, there seems to be little consensus on the grilling debate. I was always taught to use a hot pan, room temperature steaks, and ALWAYS tongs, lest any precious juices come pouring out.
Apparently, Peter Luger, steakhouse extradoniaire, doesn’t play by those rules: They take a cold steak, stick it on the hot grill rack, sprinkle some salt on the steak. They apparently take it out when it’s still raw inside, cut into it, and then place it back into the broiler to finish cooking.
Morton’s, another well-known steakhouse, does it completely differently. Steaks are taken out an hour before grilling to warm up the steak’s interior so there isn’t a temperature differential when the steaks are being cooked. They are salted with the mysterious “Morton’s secret salt.” Then they are blasted in an 800F broiler to sear and finished off in a 400F oven.  And they must be rested – to insure the juices are reabsorbed into the meat.
And then there’s the Modernist Cuisine[1] way.[2] First, you sous vide[3] your steak for 45 minutes in a 130F water bath (for medium-rare). Then you go and sear your steaks in a super-hot cast iron pan, broiler, grill or torch. This seems very simple, until you realize that to do this properly, you need a proper vacuum sealer – which will cost you a couple of hundred dollars, and then a commercial sous vide machine that makes sure that the temperature of your water stays consistent – that piece of equipment will cost you around $1200 on the low end (a gazillion dollars on the high end). Add the price of a professional foodservice broiler/grill, that will set you back another 5000 bucks, and then…well you get the idea.[4]
 Ideally, we want a crusty outside and a juicy, tender inside. Well, biochemically, it’s actually really difficulty to get that steak.[5]  Why? Let me count the ways.
First, let’s start with the steak itself. While raw meat is delicious (steak tartare?), browning a steak[6] allows steak to really shine. When a steak is browned at high temperatures, the browning reaction – called the Maillard[7] reaction – sets in. At high temperatures, 250F plus, a carbohydrate molecule and amino acid molecule react with each other producing an unstable intermediate structure – a glycosalmine. This in turn forms more reactions that result in browning and “meaty” aromas. Because the amino acids contain sulfur and nitrogen, a multitude of compounds can be made that we associate with savory meats.
But those reactions, as mentioned above, only come about under specific conditions. If a pan is too cool, it will not have enough heat (energy) to trigger the Maillard reaction. In real terms, your meat will be cooked, but it won’t brown. Also, have you ever tried browning meat straight out of a marinade? It doesn’t brown well and instead you end up with steamed meat. That is because the Maillard reaction is requires enough heat to dry the surface area. Unless you have a commercial grill that can be heated to high heat, your meat never had a chance.
And then there is the undercooking-overcooking problem. Beyond browning, the most difficult aspect of getting a perfect steak is getting the inside cooked as well as the outside. The problem is that by the time the outside is seared and crusty, the inside could be either dry as a bone or caveman raw. The problem is due to the properties of meat when cooked. The temperature range in which meat is firm yet juicy is about 30F, between 120-150F.  In the earlier stages of cooking (around 120F), protein fibers coagulate and push out water molecules resulting in a firm and juicy steak done “rare” or “bleu.” In later stages of cooking, around 140F, the collagen in meat begins to denature, pushing out more liquid and becoming denser, resulting in a firm/chewy yet somewhat-juicy steak at medium.  But when you have a super-hot cooking surface, it takes just 3 minutes to exceed that range of temperatures, often resulting in overcooked steak.
How to avoid this? Look to the masters. By initially browning the outside at a high temperature and then cooking the rest at a lower temperature, one decreases the risk of either having char-raw meat or rubber boot by slowing down the cooking process. By giving meat more time to cook thoroughly to the proper internal temperature, one reduces the risk of overcooking.
This all sounds fine and good, but what is the home cook to do? Here’s the deal. You can do this at home, but it will take some thoughtfulness to get it just right. Here are the steps to do steakhouse at home:
Pre-trimmed aged steaks
1.                    Take your nicely aged steak (see post on meat aging) out and trim if needed off any off-colored pieces and shriveled bits (see picture below) about 2 hours before cooking. This allows the temperature at the middle of the steak to rise a bit so the steak is not ice cold when it hits the grill (this avoids char-raw steaks).
Post-trimed aged steak. Notice it's a bit smaller than above.

2.                    Pat your steak dry as thoroughly as you can. As mentioned above, the Maillard reaction needs a dry surface to do it’s magic. If it’s soggy, you’ll get steamed meat.
3.                    Preheat your oven with a rack (a cake rack works well) at 400F. If you don’t have a rack, you can use a baking sheet, but rack is better because it allows for the hot air to circulate evenly around your steak, insuring even cooking.
4.                    Heat a cast iron skillet on the highest heat possible. You know it is hot enough if the water sizzles immediately after you sprinkle it in the pan.
5.                    Coat the bottom of the pan with 1-2 tsp. of neutral vegetable oil – NOT olive oil (it’s smoking point is too low). I prefer rice bran oil because it’s neutral in taste and has a high smoking point.
6.                    Salt your steaks and place them on the pan. For steaks an inch thick, sear steaks for about 1-11/2 minutes on each side, turning once. For steaks 11/2 inch thick, do it for 2 minutes on each side. And for god sakes, use flat-sided tongs to turn the steaks, lest you pierce your meat and let precious juices run out.
Steaks after being seared. Notice the nice crust developed on top due to a hot pan.

7.                    Transfer your steaks to the oven and let them roast for about 6 minutes for 1-inch steaks or 8-9 minutes for 11/2-inch steaks for medium rare (130F internal temperature). Lessen the time by a minute or 2 for rare steaks.
8.                    Take steaks out of the oven and tent with foil for 3 minutes to let the juices re-absorb.
9.                    Eat.

There you have it. Steakhouse steak at home. You don’t need to spend too much money doing it – just a little bit of time and effort. And with steaks this good, you won’t need that red meat fix so often. You’ll eat well – and help save the earth and your health at the same time.

[1] Just in case you don’t follow 5-volume, $600, 50 pound cookbooks, Modernist Cuisine is a book by Nathan Myhrvold (with Chris Young & Maxime Billet) that is a reference book on the science of contemporary cooking. You want to know how they make those crazy foods at WD-50 and El Bulli? Here’s were you find out how they do it.
[2] I don’t have the cash to get the set, thus I am forced to suss out their technique through Amazon’s search function.  Illegal? Uh…not sure.
[3] Sous vide is a method of cooking in which foods are vacuum-sealed (think TV-infomercial Food Saver) and then cooked in a low-temperature water bath. The point is to keep food from oxidizing, losing juices and overcooking.
[4] Melissa Clark of the New York Times, has a nice piece on trying to do Modernist Cuisine at home. Her recipe for grilled rib-eye can be found here:
[5] OK – I am one of those steak eaters who likes her steak rare to just-barely medium rare with a good crust. I am not going to give a lecture to those who do the “well-done” (aka shoe leather) bit. But the advice here is relevant regardless of how you like your steak cooked.
[6] While all browning is cooking, not all cooking is browning. Yes, cooking for meats is defined by the denaturing of proteins – that is the proteins change structure due to heat. Think of it this way: if you put a steak into boiling water, the steak will  “cook” – but it won’t be tasty. It will just be a grayish lump of chewy meat. 
[7] The Maillard reaction is named after the French physician Louis Camille Maillard who discovered this process in 1912.  Maillard reactions require both a carbohydrate (either a sugar or starch) and an amino acid. In the case of steak, it would be the amino acids attached to meat proteins. Although it is often confused with caramelization, the two processes are chemically different (but not necessarily mutually exclusive). While caramelization also is a browning reaction, it only happens in sugars (technically speaking it’s the pyrolization of sugar).
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