Culinaire Magazine unlocks the mysteries of quality beef
When I started my training as a butcher, it was beef that held my interest the most. Split into four large quarters, it hung majestically in the fridge - just waiting to be cut, boned and rolled into an amazing array of cuts.
Every part of the animal needs something a little different from both the butcher and the cook; a little time to age, a lot of time to cook, a certain way to slice, or simply throw it on the fiery heat of the BBQ. No matter what your preference, there is a cut of beef to suit everyone.
Grass Or Grain?
Alberta has around 18,000 beef cattle producers who raise some of the best beef worldwide. Many of the qualities we expect from quality beef are due to the animal’s diet.
When it comes to beef, you may not have heard the term “finishing”. The finishing process is critical to the distribution of fat around the body of the animal and directly affects the flavour of the meat itself.
Grain-finished beef produces wonderful marbling and tender meat with a mild flavour, whereas grass-finished beef has less marbling; this beef tends to have a stronger, gamier flavour and reduced fat cover.
When buying beef, feel free to try both grass and grain finished animals to see which you prefer.
All About The Ageing
Good beef is a labour of love starting with breed selection, finishing, processing, and the all-important ageing and hanging time. Hanging beef after slaughter improves the flavour of the meat by allowing the natural enzymes to break down the tissue through dry aging. This process also allows the water in the meat to evaporate, concentrating the flavour of the beef.
In essence, ageing creates tastier, more tender meat. The magic number of days needed to hang your beef is a very personal and ever-changing factor. Would you hang your beef for 199 days before enjoying your steak?
Some chefs are pushing those limits to the extreme, though for at home, 21 days is a good starting point. Some beef can only be hung for 10-14 days if the fat cover is not significant enough over the meat. This is why long-aged meat is usually grain finished, as there is more fat around each muscle group.
You can experiment with home ageing using an empty fridge set to between 1-3 degrees Celsius, using a small fan to constantly circulate air. Select a bone-in cut with a good fat covering, such as prime rib or sirloin. Place the beef on the centre rack of the fridge and, with the fan running, leave the beef for 10 days or more.
Although it is a fascinating process to watch as the beef changes, in my opinion it is probably advantageous to get to know your butcher and let them do the hard work for you!
Ageing is a costly process, as beef needs the correct conditions to age; it also takes up valuable space in the cooler, so you will always pay a little more for aged beef. You can easily make the most of a steak by using a very simple ageing process over a few days in your fridge.
Simply place the steak on a rack over a tray and place on an empty shelf in the fridge to enable air to circulate all around the steak. Leave the steak for at least 24 to 48 hours. The difference in flavour is quite significant and a lot friendlier to your budget than store-bought dry-aged steak.
The Fabulous Four
The perfect steak is a well-debated subject. Though the very best steak is the one you enjoy the most.
Who has time for meat snobbery or steak shaming? Every cut of beef has its individual talents and with the right cooking and preparation, each unique cut can be delicious. Your choice of beef cut will of course change with the season.
Rib Eye Steaks - Closer to the shoulder, rib eye boasts some of the best fat marbling and flavour development of the tender steak cuts on a beef. It can be cut with the bone in or out. I prefer to cook them with the bone in but please leave the tomahawk steaks to the pros, at home they look great on social media, but can be a little costly and unwieldy.
Sirloin Steak - cheaper than many of the premium cuts, with excellent flavour and robust enough to handle the heat of the BBQ. If you can get whole sirloin on the bone, they are an excellent cut for ageing with a good fat cover. The smaller steaks towards the back of the joint are the best.
Skirt Steak - A very underused cut taken from the plate of the beef. Not the most attractive looking steak, it has deep grain lines and can be tough if cooked and cut incorrectly. The perfect cut for bold marinades and strong flavours. Simply sear the steak very quickly over a high heat and slice the meat against the grain to maximize tenderness.
Bavette (Flank) Steak - My personal favourite! It is sometimes known as the Butchers Cut as this was often the steak butchers chose to take home as everyone else had overlooked its potential. Sear the steak over a high heat and cut against the grain on the angle.
Try with a South American Chimchurri sauce:
Simply blitz together a small bunch parsley, 1 tsp fresh oregano (leaves only), 2 garlic cloves, 1 peeled shallot, 1 tsp dried chili flakes, 2 Tbs (30 mL) olive oil, juice and zest of half a lemon, 2 tsp (10 mL) red wine vinegar, and a fat pinch of salt.
Cooking It Right
No matter how great your beef is, how you cook it can be the difference between great steak and wishing you had cooked sausages instead!
Choose the right cut - cuts such as tenderloin have no fat and can overcook and dry quickly. Choose forgiving cuts with good marbling.
Dry-age in the fridge - the difference 24 hours of drying in the fridge can make is quite significant and I strongly recommend trying it out.
Bring to room temperature - take the steak out of the fridge at least 20 minutes before cooking it. If the meat is cold it will cook on the outside before the middle has a chance to get hot. Room temperature meat also absorbs the seasoning better.
Smoking hot pan - get it as hot as you can and don’t oil the pan unless you want to fill your kitchen with smoke. Cooking on the BBQ is excellent for steak.
Season with salt & pepper - generously season both sides of your steak.
Perfect Doneness -
Cook the steak on each side for 2 ½ to 3 minutes before moving it to allow a caramelized crust to form - the best way to test the steak’s doneness is by touch.
Here is my quick test of what meat feels like at each stage of cooking:
Rare: Press the skin at the base of your thumb (palm side up) – hand open.
Medium: Feeling the same place (bottom of your thumb, palm side up) however place your thumb to your middle finger. You will now feel a little more resistance from the meat.
Well done: With your thumb touching your little finger feel the same area of skin at the bottom of your thumb, palm side up.
Well-done steak will give you the most resistance when you touch it. Just be aware that cooking steak until well-done will also result in a dryer steak and sometimes can cause a cut to become tough.
Let it rest – Allow your steak to rest for at least five minutes in a warm place. Resting allows the muscle fibers to relax and the moisture to redistribute.
Get to know your butcher and you will get to know your producer.
Butchers will often source their meat from many different producers. Good butchers will know where their meat was raised, finished and slaughtered. This allows the buyer to have confidence in the beef they buy and allows the butcher to ensure consistent quality year-round.
If you have the space to store frozen meat, buying part of a whole animal (such as a half or quarter animal) is more cost effective. This can also mean you are in direct contact with the producer and can see how the beef was raised. It can also allow you to have more choice for how the beef is cut and packaged.
Be prepared to pay more for good beef.
Alberta Direct Farm Suppliers:
Nature's Green Acres, Viking
Red Tail Farms, Castor
Serben Farms, Smokey Lake
Top Grass, Calgary
TK Ranch, Langdon
Elyse is a classically trained English butcher, enthusiastic baker, passionate gin drinker, and food blogger. She started work for her family as an apprentice butcher at the age of 14. Follow Elyse at lifewithoutlemons.com and @elysechatt.
This story is reproduced courtesy of Culinaire Magazine