You’re picking and cooking your steaks wrong—here’s the real deal

Beef Issue14851

Photo by Caleb Condit & Rebecca Norden

A steak is just a slab of meat. You cut it from the middle of a cow, you sear it over actual fire, and then you eat it with salt and pepper. You don’t dress it up in pigtails, and there’s no covering it over with sauce unless you’re French or ashamed. At its pinnacle, the all-American steak stands alone. It is almost foolish in its honesty. It is only what it is: naked, tender beef. Buy a flavor-free hunk of meat and there’s no real way to hide what you’ve done.

In Kansas City, the crossroads of cattle-prodding America, you’ve got hundreds of years of beef-bred civilization on your side.

To the untrained eye, a steak might appear primitive. But the lineage of each cut is vetted like English royalty. You want Angus, Wagyu and Hereford, easy-keeping cattle born to get fat. Each individual match between cow and bull has been fretted over by a breeder.

And yet, that’s just the beginning.

“Genetics alone don’t make a good steak,” says fifth-generation butcher Joe Bichelmeyer, who raises and slaughters beef at his seventy-four-year-old butcher shop, Bichelmeyer Meats, in KCK. “It matters how it’s fed from weaning, how much per day, how many days it’s fed.”

It also matters how the beef is slaughtered and how it’s been aged. If you want to know how good a cut of steak will taste before you cook it, you might as well ask for its birth certificate and seven references. Or you can ask your butcher. So that’s what we did. We asked a Missouri rancher and a pair of Kansas City’s most respected butchers what everybody’s getting wrong about how they pick out a good steak. All of them started with the same advice: Don’t buy from a supermarket if you’re out to impress anybody. Here’s the rest of what they said.

Stop Cooking All Your Steaks The Same Way

Grilling steak isn’t communism. You can’t treat all cuts the same.

“Certain people, they say, ‘I gotta have my steak rare,’” says Stuart Aldridge, who spent years as a chef at The Rieger and other restaurants before taking over the lauded Broadway Butcher Shop in Westport. “OK, if you’re cooking a filet, you want it rare, but a strip steak, you want to cook it more mid-rare. And ribeye, more pushing medium.”

A tender, lean cut like filet mignon wants to be rare. It is lazy muscle. You should leave it alone. But cuts with more fat and connective tissue do better when they’re cooked a little longer so you can properly render them out. God help you if you eat a skirt steak rare.

A ribeye is a prince among steaks, but it is also complex—maybe even a little repressed. Your job, as a proper meat steward, is to release the delicious depth buried in all those collagens and lipids. Cook it close to medium and you’re not ruining the meat: You’re trading one kind of succulence for another.

“You have to break down those fibers a little, the connective tissue,” Aldridge says. “The ribeye, if you go from the chuck side, you have that nice kernel of fat. You gotta warm that up more. If I was gonna eat from the opposite end, the leaner side? I’ll take that more mid-rare.”

Conversely, if you know you like steak rare, you might be the kind of person who likes filet.

Meat

Photo by Caleb Condit & Rebecca Norden

Don’t Trust Your Eyes

“The wrong assumption people make?” Bichelmeyer says. “They look at a steak at a meat counter that meets their eye appeal and they think it will taste good. Then they take it home and they are disappointed in the flavor or the tenderness.”

Marbling is richness and it is juiciness. The external layer of fat, on the other hand, you can mostly ignore. Bichelmeyer advises you pay attention only to the fat on the interior of the muscle, the dabs of whiteness amid the meat fibers. Some say the real flavor comes from invisible phospholipids, micro-fat you can’t see. The most common sin among supermarket meat, Bicehlmeyer says, is how it’s been treated after it’s slaughtered. That’s something you can’t see in the packaging.

“It might not be that it’s not good meat,” Bichelmeyer says. “It may not have been aged properly and been given the opportunity for the muscles to break down.”

What you want is steak that’s been dry-aged for at least two weeks, drawing moisture out of the meat to condense flavor and make it beefier than beef, Bichelmeyer says. Dry-aging also allows the beef’s own enzymes to break down the muscle and connective tissues to tenderize the meat and develop a nutty flavor.

OK, But Seriously: What Should A Good Steak Look Like?

“You want to make sure there are no rings around the meat, no discoloration anywhere,” Aldridge says. “You want the fat to be all one white uniform color—nice and white, not discolored or murky. And you want the color of the meat to be pretty vibrant.”

If the steak is grass-finished, he notes, the fat will be a creamy yellow from the beta carotene found in grass.

Marbling Isn’t Everything

Marbling is the most talked-about quality of a good steak—the intramuscular layerings of fat that denote an abundance of flavor and juice. But it’s not the only thing that matters. Aldridge doesn’t get too excited, for example, when someone shows him a picture of A5 Wagyu from Japan.

That beef is famous for its fatty tenderness, with meat as marbled as the Parthenon. The Kobe version has become mythical: Ranchers are falsely rumored to pamper their Wagyu cattle with back massages and feed them beer and sake. Aldridge doesn’t carry it at Broadway Butcher Shop.

“We have access to the A5 Wagyu,” Aldridge says, “but I’d be hesitant to bring it in. If you cook that stuff wrong, it’s just greasy.”

What Aldridge looks for instead is a divine balance among fattiness, firmness and flavor. He tastes all his meat blind and loved a batch of less-fatty Akaushi Wagyu from Texas.

“I’d never brought it in. It’s expensive,” he says. “And the one thing we noticed on these filets: They weren’t necessarily super marbled, but my God, were they really good. I preferred them at a lower temperature. The fat was actually more malleable and it rendered out at a lower temperature more easily.”

USDA Choice Beef Is Often Better Than Prime Beef

Prime beef is the highest grade of beef granted by the USDA, the fattiest of the fatted cattle. But for his ribeyes, Aldridge sticks to Choice, the next grade down.

“I like the marbling on my Choice,” Aldridge says. “I don’t feel the need to use a more expensive product when what I have might get better results.”

The USDA has the approximate priorities of your grandmother: They’d like to see some fat on your ribs. Specifically, beef is graded according to the amount of marbling between the twelfth and thirteenth ribs. Breed and feed, on the other hand, don’t matter. And so young beef with less character can often get sold as expensive Prime just because it’s fatty, not because it’s better. The market has responded to the USDA’s love of the fatness. Even a decade ago, Prime meat was only around two percent of beef sold. Now, it’s nine percent.

Choice beef, meanwhile, composes well over half the market and has a much bigger variance in quality. The worst is certainly worse. But the best Choice is often better than the Prime you could get at a meat market, especially after the well-connected steakhouses have taken first dibs on the prime Prime cuts.

Beef Web

Photo by Caleb Condit & Rebecca Norden

More Tender Doesn’t Necessarily Mean More Flavorful

“I think tenderness and flavor don’t always go hand in hand,” Aldridge says. “Filet mignon is very tender, but it’s not the most flavorful cut because that animal hasn’t used that muscle. Ribeye or striploin, those have good fat. They’re not as tender, but there’s a little more to them.”

As a brief anatomy lesson, the filet is the little strip of muscle along a cow’s spine, charged only with maintaining posture. It is gentle meat with excellent manners. And oh Lord, it has its merits. But it lacks the character built by hard work.

Art Ozias, a former schoolteacher who raises grass-finished beef at Breezy Hill Farm in Centerville, Missouri, has a word for beef prized only for its tenderness: mushy.

He spits out the word with distaste, eager to have it gone from his mouth.

“People want to know how mushy it is, whether they can chew it up,” Ozias says.

Ozias says his grass-finished steaks are leaner but contain more flavor. They just need some lower, slower cooking to render out the fat.

“Feedlot cows are mushier, less textured protein,” Ozias says. “Some of that is the development of the muscle protein of an animal. Think of a weightlifter: Someone who hasn’t been exercising would be mushier.”

Grass-Finished Beef Has Terroir

Grass-finished beef is like the fine wine of steaks, Ozias says. It shows not just the breed of a cow but where it’s raised.

“What you get at the grocery store, we call it McBeef,” Ozias says. “It’s the same in Warrensburg, Missouri, or Las Vegas. It’s the same Angus genetics, fed the same profile of corn and soybeans and other additives. The only difference between the steak in Warrensburg and the one from the supermarket is fifteen-hundred miles.”

Grass-finished beef, Ozias says, is leaner and full of nutrients derived from grass and soil. What it lacks in the marbling gained from corn fattening, it gains in complex taste gained from the local landscape. A cut of grass-finished beef is thick with flavor compounds.

“It’s based on what they eat,” Ozias says. “My soil profile is different from someone in Cole Camp or in Racine, Kansas. Those grasses are different from what I have. It’s called terroir in grapes and it’s based on where the grape is raised: the soil profile or the minerals. It’s the same with grass-finished beef.”

Among beef, a low-and-slow-cooked grass-fed steak is as close as beef gets to fine art.

Unfortunately, not everyone is an art lover.

Grain-finished steaks are much more popular with customers, the butchers we’ve talked to say. Especially for steaks, customers tend to prefer the reliability, the familiar flavor and the husky marbling of grain-finished beef—though with ground beef and roasts, grass-finished often fares better among the masses.

“Most commercial beef isn’t grass-finished, so people have no palate for it; it throws them for a loop,” Aldridge says. “Typically, grass-finished has a twang to it. It’ll be different from grain-finished. It’ll have a more strong beef flavor. Some people like it and some people don’t.”

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