washingtonpost.com
Picking Perfect Steaks
How to Make the Most Of the Beef You Cook at Home

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.

If the word "loin" is on the label, or the butcher tells you that a steak is cut from the loin (a strip steak, porterhouse or T-bone), these will be the most tender. Same goes for the word "rib," as in rib-eye or rib steak. These can be cooked quickly -- on a grill, in the oven or on the stove in a pan.

· Know your grades. The lower the grade, the leaner and tougher the beef. Prime is the top grade, in terms of flavor, marbling and tenderness, but very little prime beef ends up in mainstream markets. As far as consumers are concerned, there are really only two grades: choice and select. Those two make up almost all the meat being sold at the supermarket. Choice is the higher grade, although it can encompass a wide range of quality ranging from close-to-prime to close-to-select. The leanest, least expensive meat is generally graded select and it makes up the lion's share of meat in the self-service case, according to the cattlemen's association.

Keep in mind that grading is voluntary. All meat must be inspected for wholesomeness by the U.S. Department of Agriculture before it's sold, but grading for quality is done at the request -- and cost -- of the packer. Because grade dictates price, many packers pay for it to be done.

· Be wary of fancy brand names. To help promote beef, the industry has introduced what it calls "branded beef" -- often special names that don't mention the meat's grade. Some of those names are developed for marketing purposes or to give certain cuts a cachet. Safeway recently introduced Rancher's Reserve, a specially tenderized line of leaner beef that falls into the lower end of choice or upper end of select. Some brands are breed-specific, such as Certified Angus Beef, which means the beef is prime or choice and had to meet other specific qualifications.

· Enhanced? Natural? Organic? Know the difference. "Enhanced" beef means meat that has been injected with additives (such as flavoring, tenderizer or a salt solution to increase moisture). Look at the label. It must indicate what percent of the meat's weight is from an injected solution.

"Natural" beef means it's been minimally processed without additives, colors or preservatives. That description fits most of the beef being sold; it has nothing to do, however, with what the animal was fed or whether it was given antibiotics or growth hormones.

If how the animal was raised is important to you, look for "certified organic" on the label. Certified organic beef must meet the USDA's 2002 national organic program standards, meaning cattle must be fed entirely with organic feed, must not be given growth hormones or antibiotics and must have access to pasture.

· Want a perfectly cooked steak? Buy a thermometer. Butchers and meat experts might quibble about which is the best cut of steak, but there's one thing they all agree on: There's nothing better than an instant-read thermometer for making sure that steak is perfectly cooked. Don Roden, owner of the new Organic Butcher in McLean, says the secret to a perfect steak is 125 degrees on the thermometer (for rare). "Doesn't matter how you cook the darn thing -- grilled or in a pan -- use a thermometer to measure the internal temperature," he says. "It does away with all the guesswork about timing."

· Try this two-step trick for cooking steaks. This is an old restaurant method and a practically foolproof way to make sure your steak is not overcooked. It works particularly well with a two-inch thick, boneless steak such as filet mignon. Sear the steak on one side in a hot, oiled pan on the stovetop over fairly high heat. This creates a nice brown crust. Flip the steak over, then place the pan in a 425-degree oven to finish the cooking. Roast to desired doneness (about 5 minutes for rare, 7 minutes for medium rare, 9 minutes for medium), depending on the thickness of the meat. Let the meat rest for 5 minutes to redistribute juices before serving.

· And the award for Best Steak goes to . . . the rib-eye. Ask a butcher what his favorite cut of steak is, and the boneless rib-eye gets the nod. In terms of juicy flavor and tenderness, the rib-eye has it all, says Bill Fuchs of Wagshal's. "It's not quite as tender as the loin, but it has a richer flavor. It's my favorite," Fuchs says. Adds Irion: "When they grade the beef carcass, it's the rib-eye they look at to determine the quality of the meat. You won't go wrong choosing a rib-eye."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company