A bewildering array! That is exactly what leaves many of us feeling confused, standing in front of the meat aisle in the supermarket. Row upon row of different cuts, seemingly with price as the only guide to which steak we should buy. It need not be so. A simple understanding of what characteristics are important, and just a modicum of common sense, makes the choice infinitely easier.
In no particular order, consider a few factors. Firstly, if you’re going to buy for more than one person, then the steaks you choose should be of approximately uniform size and weight. Otherwise, in the cooking process, you have to allow more time for the larger pieces. Keep your life simple, and select packages of about the same weight.
The choice you make is not always based simply on cost. Certainly there are premium cuts, and then inferior cuts. If the word “loin,” as in “sirloin,” appears in any of the sometimes-confusing descriptions given, you know you are buying steak that comes from the best part of the animal. It is neither too lean, nor too fat. And at the risk of being dogmatic, the sirloin itself may be the best all-round piece of steak.
Many people assert that filet mignon represents the top of the line. Certainly it is the easiest to cut, is the most uniform in appearance, has some good marbling, and because of its round uniform thickness, is easier to control on the grill or in the pan. Yet if you were to buy both a piece of sirloin and a piece of fillet and serve them simultaneously, I think you’ll agree that the filet has the best “mouth feel” but lacks the intensity of taste of the sirloin.
So it’s easy to remember that if loin is on the label or the butcher tells you that the steak has been cut from the loin, as in the case of strip steak porterhouse or T-bone and certainly rib or rib-eye, it can be cooked quickly on the grill, in the oven or in a pan. Faux-filet is also popular, but is definitely a step down (though delicious). With this cut, make sure it is of even thickness and not a v-shaped piece that will produce an unevenly cooked result.
Also look at the colour of what you’re buying. It should appear bright red in the package, showing that it is fresh, and hopefully that it has been aged for a couple of weeks. If it is dark red, it is undoubtedly closer to the sell-by date and less enticing. If it is grey, leave it for someone else.
Often, meat is displayed with a quality designation. “Canada Grade A, AA or AAA,” indicates the quality of the beef that has been processed. The best cuts are always prime or choice.
This is not to say that lower-priced beef is not good, or cannot be delicious. In order to get the best from cuts like bavette or rump, it is a good idea to take a little time and effort to find one of dozens of marinades. Some of these cuts benefit enormously from a few hours of soaking — allowing the liquid to permeate the meat and tenderize it. These are generally very lean cuts with lots of muscle fibre, and they need to be broken down with slow moist heat. They are definitely not for super-hot cooking on the grill. The bavette served with some red wine sauce and shallots is an easy-to-prepare meal, popular everywhere, particularly in France when served with copious quantities of French fried potatoes.
Sometimes it appears that a higher grade is seen behind the service glass case and lesser grades are plastic wrapped packages on the self-service shelves. But this is definitely not always the case. The difference is one of marketing — people generally have more confidence if it comes from behind the glass case. But ask your local butcher. If you’re fortunate and he knows his business, he will tell you if there’s any difference. Often, there is money to be saved here. In Canadian supermarkets there are usually choices of only two qualities, A and AA, with the finest quality, prime (AAA), usually reserved for the specialty stores and high-end butcher counters in the big supermarkets.
Homeward-bound with your best choice in hand, the next focus is, of course, how to cook the perfect steak. The cooking surface should be very hot, because the objective is to sear the meat outside and have it cook gradually on the inside. With the meat at room temperature and salted on both sides, that indescribable sizzle when the steak hits the pan is your guarantee that the cooking process is underway properly. Often, the steak will stick to the surface for the first minute. This is not a problem, and you will see an almost-instant release once the searing process is complete. The moment you turn it over, it’s often best to reduce the heat from the very hot to medium. This will give you a little more control in the finishing.
As the meat is cooked — grilled, pan fried or barbecued — it is the many small streaks of white fat dissolving into the meat that give it a deeper flavour. When looking at steaks, look closely for these little white threads of fat that give the meat its incredible flavour. This is called marbling, and is perhaps the most important characteristic of good beef. Yes, there is a large fraternity that says that fat is bad, and that lean is good, but in this case evenly-spread marbling is going to result in good taste, and very lean meat is going to be both tough and hard to cut. Sometimes the butcher will tie either a sliver of fat or a piece of bacon around the outside of the meat. The reasoning is the same, and the melting fat will impart some of its intensity into the meat. You can cut away the fat after the cooking process, but do yourself a favour and leave it there while it is on the heat.
Do you want control over the doneness? Mundane as that sounds, spend the money once and buy an instant-read thermometer. It takes all the guesswork out of the process. But whatever you do, heat your pan or oven to at least 425˚F. At that temperature, a two-inch thick steak will be about four minutes for rare (125˚F), six for medium rare and eight or nine for medium. This, of course, varies with the thickness.
There’s one last thing to remember, and this is it: once the meat has been cooked, remove it from the pan, tent it with aluminium foil and let it rest for about five minutes. This is when the cooking process is completed — the meat relaxes and the juices are redistributed inwards rather than running out onto the plate.
Steak calls for red wine, and the joy here is that there are an almost infinite variety of choices. In summer outside at the barbecue, it’s often nice to serve the classic Beaujolais (old style), which is almost cool and enhances the outdoor picnic atmosphere. In the house, the classics are the powerful wines from Bordeaux; the choices almost unlimited. For marinated cuts like the bavette, the accompanying sauce is wonderful if made with the black wine Cahors, while an upscale evening with sirloin or filet mignon is matched perfectly with the finesse of something wonderful from Burgundy. As with any choice, budget and palate are the determining factors.
If there is a cardinal rule, I agree with David Cazaudumec, the Master Butcher from l’Entrecôte, the bespoke purveyors of fine meat in Beaulieu-sur-mer, on the French Riviera. While excellent quality is available at reasonable prices, “If you are seeking ‘quality’, you can’t afford to buy cheap.”
It is unnecessary to try to match what chefs produce in the game of one-upmanship in the great villas and the mega-yachts (which are, by definition, over 250 feet in length, helicopter optional). Nonetheless, if cost is irrelevant and you are trying to impress, then Kobe beef from Japan’s hand-massaged beef tops $1,000 per kilo. But we’ll keep our feet on the ground and enjoy quality steak, from the grocery store.