Affordable Steaks That Make the Cut

This is the summer for affordable grilling, but that doesn't mean backyard barbecuers have to give up steak. Food writer Tony Rosenfeld offers tips on how to grill a tougher variety.
By Tony Rosenfeld
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 20, 2009

This is the summer for affordable grilling, and that does not mean steak eaters are out of luck. They just need to bone up on cuts that can impress a crowd without straining the budget.

There are bargains to be had in the meat case, for $5 to $7 per pound. Affordable cuts of beef tend to fall into three groups: hanger and flatiron steaks, long prized by chefs; flank, flap, tri-tip and skirt steaks, which used to be even cheaper when they were less popular; and gems such as chuck eye, chuck shoulder and top sirloin steaks, which are, for the moment, the least expensive of the lot (less than $5 per pound).

One thing they all have in common is their tough texture. They come from well-exercised muscles of the animal, which tend to be the most flavorful. There are other cheap cuts to consider, but they suffer from a lack of beefy flavor or from lots of gristle and bones. Attentive prep work, intense marinades and closely watched grill time can do wonders for the bargain cuts we're focusing on here.

First, the marinades: Conventional culinary wisdom holds that these liquid mixtures flavor and tenderize tough cuts. Recently, food scientists have begun to question not only whether marinades tenderize meat, but also just how far the marinades actually are able to infuse flavor.

In the face of what science may or may not show, experience and many generations of cooks have proved that a good marinade can dress up ordinary meat. Even if the effect is only skin-deep and non-tenderizing, flavors such as soy-ginger and rosemary-red wine give affordable cuts a richer color and an intense, savory crust.

Grilling's the way to go for this kind of beef, and that merely demands organization and attention to detail. Little things make a difference, such as pulling the steaks out of the refrigerator while the grill heats up so the meat is not chilled when it hits the grate. That helps achieve the ultimate goal: steaks cooked to a uniform doneness. When the meat goes straight from the fridge to the grill, it takes longer for its center to reach medium-rare or medium, during which time the outside starts to char and the interior can go gray.

The fire itself can guide the grilling process. Create two zones: a hotter one that affords a controlled-sear option and a medium-heat area that will cook, but not burn, the meat. On a gas grill, it's a matter of turning knobs. For a charcoal fire, bank about two-thirds of the coals on one side of the grill and scatter the remaining third on the other side.

Before the steaks go on, follow the usual pre-grill protocol: Brush the grates to remove any grime, then grease them, using an oiled wad of paper towels. This two-step drill helps ensure the steaks won't stick to the grate or pick up any off-flavors.

Once the meat is onboard, patience is a virtue. For the steaks to release easily and get good grill marks, they need to cook undisturbed for two to three minutes. Once the first side is uniformly browned, flip and cook until done. An instant-read meat thermometer is a smart investment.

Patience also guides the final step of the grilling method. Let the meat rest for five to 10 minutes after cooking and before slicing. As Harold McGee explains in "On Food and Cooking" (Scribner, 2004), that cooling period allows the meat to firm up, which, in turn, causes its water-retention capacity to increase. Stated simply, a couple of minutes of cooling helps the steaks hold on to their juices. If you were to get antsy and slice the meat the moment it came off the grill, all of those wonderful juices would run onto the cutting board. That's often the difference between a juicy and a not-so-juicy steak.

Marinated, grilled steaks are plenty tasty on their own, but it doesn't take much to throw together a quick sauce to complement such fine work. A tangy caper aioli or chipotle-lime butter would go nicely with steaks treated to the rosemary-red wine marinade, while a mango-grilled red onion chutney or spicy Korean steak sauce would match the profile of steaks that have spent time in the soy-ginger marinade.

Check this chart for more information about affordable cuts and for a foolproof method for cooking them. Then head out to the patio, where the classic summer pairing of steaks and the grill is still well within reach.

Freelance food writer Tony Rosenfeld is working on a cookbook about high-heat weeknight cooking.

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