by Danica Waters, photo courtesy of Esquire.com
I remember one romantically snowy winter evening, when I was a really, really little girl, my father took my mother out for a special dinner at a brand-new steakhouse that had just opened to rave reviews in the big city closest to our home. I still to this day remember my parents excitedly telling friends about how they’d never before eaten a “steak like that”, and how it was aged at special temperatures for days and days and cooked a special way that made the steak “melt like butter in your mouth”. Afterwards, I remember sitting on the living room floor, contemplating the concept of “aging” meat. Memories of the slightly green, incredibly nasty uncooked hamburger my mother had to throw away because she forgot to cook it loomed in my head, and I couldn’t fathom why on earth anyone would want to eat something like that. One thing was certain: either my parents were crazy or the chefs at that particular restaurant were a whole lot smarter than the rest of us, to render something like “old” meat to the equivalent of butter.
Years later, I was introduced to the Executive Chef at the Palm Restaurant in San Diego, CA. He was kind enough to give me a few pointers on the magic and mystique behind selecting and cooking the perfect steak/chop vs. spending your hard-earned money on something that tastes like the equivalent of shoe leather.
Why you want to eat “old” meat:
In a few words: Enhanced Flavor and Tenderness. Here’s the real, totally biological “scoop”, folks. After a steer is slaughtered, rigor mortis causes its muscle fibers to seize up. Not so tender. But the folks at the slaughterhouse figured out that by allowing the meat to sit for a bit, the enzymes that were already present in the muscle cells would start to break down all the connective tissues, automatically and efficiently tenderizing the meat without any additives. While the “tenderization” process takes anywhere from 10 – 16 days, the meat actually becomes more flavorful if it’s left to sit another few days after that. Strange, but true.
The aging process can be achieved in two ways:
“Wet-aging”: After slaughter, the “prime cuts” of meat are sealed in a Cryovac bag for around 21 days; because the bag is airtight and will prevent not only loss of moisture but bacterial growth, the process produces a good result that is, according to a study by the Journal of Food Science, considered better tasting than dry-aged beef or than meat which has not been aged at all. “Wet-Aged” beef is usually less expensive than dry-aged beef because the aging process can be successfully achieved while the meat is in transport, thus accelerating the timelines of getting the product to market. Additionally, because it is vacuum-sealed, the juices are intact and most of the original weight is retained due to the ultimate retardation of the evaporation process.
“Dry-aging”: After slaughter, an entire side of beef is hung in open air at temperatures ranging from 30 – 32 degrees F. Although the aging room is kept at 85% humidity, much of the natural moisture is lost through evaporation. Beef that is aged this way tends to have a richer, “gamier” flavor because the water content has been so drastically reduced. This process is usually reserved for only the most high-quality, “USDA Prime” specimens because it is so expensive. The jury’s still out regarding whether this process renders a flavor that’s worth the additional expense – even among the experts.
During the cooking process, how do you know when the meat is done – and not OVERDONE?
Here’s the legendary “Touch Test” used by the finest restaurants in the world:
Bring your left hand down to your side and let it hang there, “loose” and relaxed. Take the index finger (your pointer finger) of your right hand and press firmly on the left hand in the area between the thumb and forefinger; the softness/springiness of the texture there is what a blood-rare steak should feel like if pressed with the same amount of pressure. Now, if you make a loose fist with your left hand and press in the same area with the same amount of pressure, you should be experiencing what a medium-rare steak should feel like. Lastly, using the same amount of touch-pressure in the same area once your left hand has been formed into a tight fist, you will experience the feel of a “well-done” steak. (One Palm Executive Chef likens the “well-done” experience to the spring-back of a trampoline…)
What else do you need to know?
- World renowned chefs take care to select USDA Prime steaks. Wet or dry-aged, the better the cut, the better the results. Note that most supermarket cuts will be aged between 5-7 days vs. the optimal 16 – 21 days for full texture and flavor development.
- For superior meat, it’s best to go to a small boutique/Kosher butcher, gourmet market, or source your steaks by mail-order. Be sure to remember the thickness recommended for the specific recipe you wish to try – it will affect the overall cooking time required!
- Meat should be allowed to rest, uncovered, at room temperature for 1- 1-1/2 hours prior to cooking.
- Meat should be handled as little as possible throughout the cooking process. Don’t stab it 50 times trying to make sure it’s thoroughly cooked – you’ll end up draining the steak of its juices and absolutely ruin the final product. Palm Executive Chef Tony Tammero says, “If I had to choose one piece of advice that will make the biggest difference in results for the home chef, it would be ‘Don’t touch that steak.’ Once it hits the heat, leave it alone until you’re ready to turn it, and do that as gently as you’d pat a baby’s bottom.” (The Palm Restaurant Cookbook)
- The best chefs keep it simple: they rub steaks in olive oil, lightly season them and sear them at high temperatures. They follow this by an essential “resting period’ of at least thirty minutes prior to finishing them – IN THE OVEN. Yep, folks. It’s all about temperature. And FYI. an electric home-broiler does not cut the mustard with the pros; they’d rather see you pan-sear that steak than render it an anemic version of its formerly lusty self under a home broiler. Grills, on the other hand (where the heat is coming from below), are fine as long as they are set to HIGH heat. Please refer to the New York Strip recipe here.
- Resting time is essential for perfect results, unless, of course, your personal tastes dictate that your meat must be piping-hot when served. If a steak is cut just after coming off the heat, all the juices will run out, which is fine if that’s the way you like it. But if you’re after “meltingly tender” meat full of juice and flavor, “the steaks should rest, uncovered, on a rack so that air can freely circulate around them, for about half the total cooking time.” Serving the steak on a hot plate will make up for some of the lost heat, but ultimately, the gain in flavor and texture more than makes up for any heat loss.
- The same principles apply to chops, as well. Follow your recipe to the letter, noting the thickness of the piece of meat being called for. Leaving chops – or steaks – under the flame for even half a minute too long will ruin them.(Photo courtesy of Esquire.com)