For tender steak, you have to be tough about fat

April 10, 1994|By DOTTY GRIFFITH | DOTTY GRIFFITH,United Press Syndicate

It takes courage to get steakhouse-quality at home.

You've got to overcome, at least temporarily, that fat and cholesterol phobia. And you've got to have the confidence to cook an expensive piece of meat over high heat.

The grade of meat is the main difference between steaks in top steakhouses and steaks served at home, experts say. The next biggest factor is the type of broiler or grill used. Restaurants cook on commercial equipment at a higher heat than home cooks, searing the juices in the meat.

But that doesn't mean you can't get a great steak at home. The key is to buy the best steak you can and to cook it correctly.

Despite America's obsession with fat and cholesterol, steakhouses are a growing segment of the restaurant industry. The beef industry says that business at upscale steakhouses grew 6 percent last year. Casual steakhouses increased 19 percent, compared to only 3 percent growth in the restaurant industry as a whole.

Beef consumption began to rise in 1991 and continued in 1992. The same is expected when figures for 1993 have been compiled, says Marlys Bielunski of the National Live Stock and Meat Board.

She and her staff have been fielding more questions about how to prepare steakhouse-quality steaks at home.

Although consumers appreciate top-quality steaks at restaurants, they don't often look for the same quality when buying meat for their home kitchens.

Beef is graded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as Prime, Choice or Select, with Prime being the top grade. The higher grades have more marbling (tiny veins of fat running through the meat) -- which makes them more tender and flavorful.

Most Prime beef goes to restaurants. Supermarkets and butcher shops usually sell Choice or Select grades; some carry Choice that has been aged to enhance flavor and tenderness.

For the closest thing to steakhouse beef, look for Choice cuts from aged beef, most often found in butcher shops and at service meat counters. A few butcher shops carry or will order Prime. But expect to pay about $14 to $15 per pound.

Wrapped beef in meat counters should be labeled with the grade; if not, ask the butcher or market manager what you're buying.

Choose the steak with the most marbling. The tiny veins of fat are what gives Prime beef its flavor, says chef Richard Chamberlain. He recalled seeing a piece of supermarket beef that looked good enough to be graded Prime. "I talked to the butcher about it, and he says he would have trouble selling it because people look for lean meat."

Craig McKnight, a meat manager, says only consumers who really know something about beef and "die-hard meat eaters" are willing to buy Prime beef.

"It's got so much internal fat it puts a guilt trip on them," he says. "Everybody that eats beef says they want the flavor of Prime but they don't want to have to look at it or make the purchase."

Lean is not the way steaks look in top steakhouses. Although exterior fat may be trimmed, steakhouse steaks are heavily marbled, and the meat is darker from aging, Mr. Chamberlain explained.

Aging -- letting a beef carcass hang in cold storage for about 21 days -- leads to natural processes that make for more flavorful, tender steaks.

But aging adds to the cost of the meat because of the need for storage and because for every day a carcass hangs in the cooler, it loses a small amount of moisture and weight, explains David Andreason, the manager of a butcher shop.

"When you sell it, you have to charge more for it," he says. Expect to pay about $8 or more per pound, depending on the cut.

Although cooking can't make a mediocre steak better, poor technique can ruin even a great piece of meat.

"The trick is to sear the steaks and keep the juices in," says Del Frisco, owner of a steakhouse.

And that takes high heat. Steakhouses use commercial grills and boilers that get much hotter than home equipment.

Home broilers and grills can't duplicate the intense heat, but you can still get a good sear if you cook at a high temperature.

Steakhouse impresarios give these cooking tips:

* Broiling: Heat the oven broiler for about 10 minutes. Be sure to cook with the oven door ajar.

* Stove top: Pan-sear the meat in a heated skillet. Cast iron works well, but be prepared for the smoke.

* Outdoors: When cooking over hot coals, watch that you don't get too much char or burned fat.

Mr. Frisco disagrees with the meat board's recommendation that steaks not be seasoned until after searing to preserve juices.

"That's an old wives' tale," he says.

Chef Adrian Jones says he pricks the steak with a fork to "penetrate the grain of the meat" for tenderness. He seasons the meat with salt and pepper, maybe a little garlic. But don't over-season: "Let the meat speak for itself."

Then, says Mr. Jones, heat a cast iron skillet. "Get it extremely hot, put a little butter (or oil) in the pan and sear the steak on both sides. Eat it real rare."

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