Picking Perfect Steaks

By Candy Sagon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Diet trends come and go -- this month it's low-fat that's taking a beating -- but one thing remains certain: Americans still love their red meat. We eat an average of 67 pounds of beef a year and that hasn't changed for a decade, according to the newest government figures.

What has changed are some of the choices we have at the supermarket when we want to cut into a juicy steak for dinner.

Randy Irion, director of retail marketing for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, says the industry is putting more effort in marketing beef to consumers. That means more beef with fancy "branded" names such as Rancher's Reserve and Certified Angus and Natural Beef, plus more of those full-service glass cases, where customers can pick out a specific steak.

Unfortunately, say some meat industry experts, the guy behind that glass case might not know much about the meat he's selling. Most of the meat-cutting has already been done at a centralized location and then shipped "case-ready" to supermarket and super-center chains across the country, says Joseph Cordray, a professor of animal science at Iowa State University who works closely with retail meat departments.

"A market may have one guy who knows how to cut meat, but most of the others [in the meat department] are not highly trained," Cordray says. "Real butchers are a dying breed."

The exceptions are some upscale or specialty chains, such as Whole Foods, Balducci's or Wegmans, or at the scattering of traditional butcher shops (see "Meat Markets" on this page). There, it's easier to find someone to give you expert advice about the different types of steak, how to cook them, even recipes.

We asked some of those butchers, as well as other meat experts, what you need to know when choosing the perfect steak. Here are their 11 top tips:

· Pick out your steak like you pick out your clothes. Would you grab just any old pair of pants off the rack? Of course not. Same with a steak. Look at each one carefully. If you want it to be juicy and tender for cooking on the grill, you want lots of little white flecks of fat in the meaty part (it's called marbling). The flecks melt away during cooking, adding to the meat's flavor. You also want it to be an even thickness (if it's thinner in some parts, it will cook unevenly). If you're buying more than one steak, try to find cuts that are all close in size so they finish cooking at about the same time.

· Look for thick cuts. Avoid steaks that are less than an inch thick, says Bruce Aidells, co-author of "The Complete Meat Cookbook" (Houghton Mifflin, 1998), because they're too easy to overcook. Be careful when buying steaks in packs -- it's often difficult to get a side view to see just how thick they are.

· Don't trim that fat. Yeah, yeah, we know. It's hard to break years of being admonished otherwise. But father-and-son butchers Bill and Aaron Fuchs of Wagshal's Market in Northwest Washington tell customers to leave most of the fat on the outside edge of the steak before cooking. The fat helps to keep the steak moist and hold its shape during cooking. It also enhances the meat's flavor. Once the steak is cooked, you can trim off any excess fat before serving.

· Behind the glass or on the shelf? Sometimes it's the same meat. Markets tend to put a higher grade of meat in the full-service glass case, but not always, Irion says. Sometimes it's the same meat as in the plastic-wrapped packages on the self-service shelves -- the only difference is you might have more of certain cuts to choose from in the full-service case. If you're unsure, ask a meat department employee to explain the difference -- especially if the steak in the case is priced higher than the ones on the shelf.

· Chuck and Round are tough guys, Rib and Loin are not. If the words "chuck" or "round" are in the name of the steak, it will need to be marinated and then slowly cooked in liquid to be tender. These are generally very lean cuts with lots of muscle fiber that need to be broken down with slow, long, moist heat. Don't even think of throwing a chuck steak on the grill.

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