An advertising slogan and campaign from 20 years ago featured a voice-over by actor Robert Mitchum: “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner.”
I remember it like it was yesterday. Sponsored by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, these fiddle “hoe-down” ads rapidly presented a series of beefy dishes, including at least one frame of a steak sizzling on a grill. Although the campaign slogan and voice-over changed from Mitchum to Sam Elliott to Matthew McConaughey, the ad still has mass appeal.
Few people get excited over tofu, but billions of mouths begin to water when they hear a thick, juicy steak is on the menu. Steak brings out our primal desire to devour huge chunks of Herefordasaurus or Angusodon flesh that’s been seared over an open fire. Over the millenniums, we added a baked spud and a bowl of green leafy stuff to balance our caveman diet.
According to About.com, two things to look for when buying a steak are grade and cut. Steaks are graded according to the amount of marbling and the age of the animal at the time it was slaughtered. These grades are prime, choice and select.
Prime steaks represent only 2 percent of beef produced in the U.S. and are primarily sold in high-end restaurants. That leaves us choice and select. Grades lower than select generally wind up in food by-products.
Marbling refers to the amount of fat. It’s also the source of most of the flavor. The more marbling, the more flavor. Marbling, however, reduces a steak’s tenderness. A good steak is one with a balance of marbling.
“Aged” beef is a process that affects both the tenderness and flavor of a steak. Wet-aged beef, the most popular aging process, allows beef to age in a vacuum-sealed bag at near-freezing temperatures for 15-28 days. Though I’ve had some excellent aged steaks, I’ve also had aged steaks that were only fit for burying.
Five popular cuts of steak include the rib-eye, New York strip, tenderloin (fillet mignon), T-bone (which is actually two steaks in one — strip and tenderloin) and top sirloin. Regardless the cut, the meat should be bright red, and the marble lines of fat should be a creamy gray and thin.
My favorite is the rib-eye, which is cut from the prime rib roast. It’s not as tender as a New York strip, but its marbling gives it more flavor. The filet mignon is super tender and flavorful when grilled with bacon wrapped around it. Still, filets are too small for me. I want more meat, which is why I also like a T-bone. Top sirloins are the steaks most likely to be purchased at a “family” chain restaurant, as they’re the least expensive.
The best steak I’ve ever had was at the Parson’s Table, a high-end restaurant on U.S. 17 North in Little River, S.C. This former Methodist church offers the best steaks and prime rib in the country, and that includes the steaks I’ve had in Texas.
Longhorn Steakhouse and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse represent both ends of the cost spectrum expected when searching for a good steak restaurant.
If you’d rather cook your own, I recommend Angus beef. Wash your steaks, then let them air dry until the coals are glowing. For seasoning, I prefer salt and pepper, but you can add a touch of garlic and onion powder (and butter).
Steaks are made or ruined by how long they cook — rare, medium rare, medium and burnt. I like to cook mine fast over and a high-reaching flame. Press down on the center of the steak with your thumb to determine when it’s done. If it’s soft and mushy, give it another minute. If it sinks in a little then springs back, it’s medium rare and ready to eat.
Don’t wrap your steak in foil, which will retain the heat and allow it to continue cooking. When steaks come off the grill, just say grace and start eating. Add a “tater” and a salad, if you like.