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Choose the perfect steak every time—advice from the experts.
Talking with steak connoisseurs is like talking with wine fanatics. There are endless variables, arguments over farming practices and even discussions around the concept of terroir, the idea that the flavour of a place can come through the finished product. But the key to a good steak is only limited by one key ingredient: knowledge.
The team at Getaway Farms’ Butcher Shop in Halifax, N.S. can help you select your steak and even show you which part of the animal it came from. Stick around long enough and you can probably watch them take the animal apart. Ben Andrews, butcher at Getaway Farms’ Butcher Shop, has been well-versed in taking apart cows, pigs and lamb for years now. You want a cut, he’ll know where it is. Just don’t walk up to the counter and ask for a steak.
“Steak is the term for a lot of different cuts,” he says. “A piece of meat is a steak.” Andrews breaks it down as easily as he breaks down a whole cow. “You’ve got grilling steaks, you’ve got stewing steaks, you’ve got off cuts like skirt steaks and stuff like that,” he explains. A flavourful steak is more than a question of names—it’s about anatomy. “If you really want to get serious about steaks, you have to know about different muscles and how they work, and the different cooking techniques that are recommended for different muscles,” he says.
Here’s where the real carnivorousness in talking about steak comes in: blood. Cuts like tenderloin (a grilling steak) have less blood flow to them, hence less flavour, Andrews says. Marinating steaks like flank or skirt get more exercise and more blood flow, so they tend to have more flavour. Keeping in that vein (pun unintended), Andrews suggests a happy medium with top sirloin steaks. “It is the tougher of the grilling steaks, but it is also the most flavourful steak because it has more blood flow going through it,” he says. “It’s not too worked so that it’s so tough you have to marinate it.”
Knowing how to cook a cut in a manner that suits it is important, as Kim Steele from East Coast Bistro in Saint John, N.B. will attest. Steele is the chef and co-owner of the bistro that serves what she calls contemporary Maritime cuisine. “I can cook a tenderloin and it will be tender, because it has tender in the name,” she jokes. When cooking one of her favourite cuts, the flatiron, Steele uses a little more finesse. “Cooking a flatiron will require a bit more technique to showcase what we can do and why we have a restaurant,” she says. “It can go tough if you overcook it or undercook it. Some of the sinews and that need a little bit more attention to break down. If you cook it properly and treat it with respect, you get this beautiful, flavourful tender cut of meat.”
Also think about where that cow is from and what it was fed. A cow’s stomach and digestive system are designed to digest and break down grass to provide sustenance for the animals. But we don’t eat cattle that sustain themselves. We eat cows that are healthy, hearty and weighty. Bringing cattle to slaughter weight on a diet of grasses takes a while. So, some farmers feed cattle grains such as corn, which fattens up or “finishes” them faster. Since cattle can only eat grass when out in the pasture, grass-fed cattle can mean a summer of sowing, seeding and harvesting a variety of grasses to feed them. Grain-fed cattle can mean fatter cows in less time than grass fed: more meat for less work.
Most commercial steak comes from feedlot cattle. Feedlots are large spaces where cattle are housed and fed a steady diet of grain. Some say feeding cattle a steady diet of grains causes painful bloating, as corn can ferment in the rumen. And E. coli bacteria are known to be more present in cattle that are fed grain instead of grass.
That’s why farmers like Getaway’s Chris de Waal stick to grass. Located in Baxter’s Harbour in the Annapolis Valley, Getaway Farms, which supplies its namesake meat shop, prides itself on being a grass-fed operation, with the cattle fed year-round on a mix of fresh grasses and dried silage. de Waal thinks the extra work is worth it. “By and large, industrial cattle are fed barley or corn, so they end up tasting like barley or corn,” he says. “Cattle that are properly grass fed, they are young and complex in their makeup. So when we seed a field of grass, we don’t just put one type in, we’ll do a mix—alfalfa, clover and rye grass—because variety is the spice of life. It does make the meat taste better.”
Mark Schatzker wrote Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef. He spent months travelling the world eating steaks from all sorts of cuts, prepared in various techniques, with varying degrees of doneness, and fed various diets. He knows what he likes. “My ultimate steak is grass fed, good grass fed,” he says. “There is also terrible grass fed, it can be dicey. I like if cattle are fed a little bit of grain, that can also produce good beef, if it’s done slowly or gently, and they’re eating a lot of hay or grass alongside.”
Schatzker views steak as a perfect vehicle for expressing “you are what you eat,” or rather, what the cow eats. “I would argue that steak is a better expression of terroir than wine, because we keep moderating the terroir by adding oak and stuff like that,” he says.
He believes that, like wine, consumers should have access to information. “It’s right there on the label, you know the grape, you know where it’s from,” he says. “With beef, you don’t know where it’s from, how old it was or what it ate. Although there is a pretty good bet that the beef you’re buying [from] the supermarket was fed a tremendous amount of grain in a feedlot.”
But we don’t just look at wine bottles or steaks and imagine what they taste like. We enjoy them on a much more primal basis: through cooking and eating. Back in Saint John, Steele is a fan of cooking her steaks in a hot skillet. It helps her achieve a nice sear on both sides. Then she finishes it off in an oven.
Steele has simplified cooking steak to one simple mantra: repetition. “I use the same pan, I get it to the same heat. It’s just going through the same motions each and every time,” she says. “It becomes a routine.” If repetition is her mantra, the goal to reaching steak nirvana is to bend to its will. “You have to learn to function around when your meat is ready, not when you’re ready for your meat to be ready,” she says. “You’ll be able to hear them calling to you, ‘I’m medium-rare right now.’” That’s sound advice.
So, after feeding the animal, breaking it down into cuts and knowing how to put it on the plate, steak as a culinary object is more than the sum of its parts. As Schatzker wrote in his book on the subject, “Steak remains a mystery. Its greatness is, at best,
only dimly understood.”
The right cut
Choosing a steak is not only a question of what to cook, but how to cook. Ben Andrews of Getaway Farms’ Butcher Shop reminds his customers “cows aren’t just made up of tenderloin and T-bones.”
Andrews gave a primer on steak cuts to East Coast Living. “Definitely the easier ones to cook or start with are grilling steaks,” he says. “You have tenderloin, the most tender, but it also has the least blood flow, which also means least flavour. So ribeye, my recommendation, may come second in terms of tenderness, but it has more marbling and a lot more flavour because there is more blood flow through it around the neck and shoulder area. After that, you can go to striploin, which is on par and the same price point.”
“After grilling, you can call them marinating steaks,” he says. “Things like skirt, flank, round steaks, or sirloin tips. They work a bit more, so if you don’t marinate it you can be chewing on it for a while. Thin skirt steaks are used for fajitas because it marinates very quickly and you can cut it very thinly.”
He also mentions what he calls “off cuts,” such as spider steak as well as hanger steak and flatiron. These cuts are often forgotten or neglected, or sometimes kept for my savvy butchers who know how to get the best out of a less attractive cut. Hangers have large amounts of blood flow but very little fat on them. Spider steak is one of Andrews’ favourites. “Within the muscle itself are strands of fat running through it, so as you grill it and cut it, you’re getting delicious bits of fatty juiciness within it,” he says.
When in doubt, ask. “Engage the butcher straight away,” says Andrews. “What that shows me is that they trust my opinion as a butcher. If you go to a sustainable butcher, they have to work their way through the entire animal. You as a consumer can help them in succeeding in their business by trusting them and what their opinion is.”
How old is your steak?
As meat ages, natural enzymes break down the proteins that give the animal’s muscles structure. The longer they break it down, the more tender it gets. “Aging is a non-negotiable,” says Chris de Waal of Getaway Farms. “You have to hang it up.”
Butchery schools recommend you hang the front quarter for two weeks, and the hind quarter, which gets more exercise, for an extra week. But you can go much longer. Dry-aged beef is beef that is left to age under specific humidity controls and often viewed as being very desirable, especially the longer it’s allowed to age. “When it comes to steak, the more moisture you lose, the more flavour and enjoyable it is because the enzymes are breaking down on the palate,” says deWaal. “The concentration of flavours per square inch has increased because the steak is shrinking.”
Certain butcher shops and steak houses will dry age their beef anywhere from 14 to even 60 days. But Mark Schatzker thinks that sometimes dry-aged beef isn’t always worth the wait. “A lot of so-called aficionados think that the key to a great steak is dry-aging it for 60 days or something like that,” he says. “I find that after a while, beef starts to taste rancid if you hang it for too long. People talk about this kind of cheesy funk that it gets. I just don’t think beef is supposed to taste that way.”
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try aged beef. “You don’t have to age it for very long for it to have those aged qualities,” says Schatzker. “I think people on the whole make too much of a fuss about aging.”