The Meat of the Matter
Westchester’s Favorite Steakhouses
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A Beefeater’s Glossary
➤ Marbling is the streaks and gobs of white fat visible inside the muscle of raw steaks. For beefeaters (if not dieters) more marbling is preferable, and the visible marbling at a specific point (the 12th rib) in the rib-eye provides the standard criterion for USDA beef grading.
➤ USDA Prime is the fattiest, most desirable grading, followed by USDA Choice and USDA Select. There are actually five lesser grades (Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter, and Canner), but these are seldom seen by consumers.
➤ Heritage Breed cattle differ from common commercial breeds in that they are remnants of older traditions in animal husbandry. As beef production became standardized, traditional, regional breeds became rarer—and, in fact, some became endangered. Recent efforts to re-introduce these breeds to diners have been met with appreciation by many chefs, who value heritage breeds like Chianina or Ayrshire for their specific culinary qualities.
➤ Black Angus cattle, derived from four Highland Scottish bulls that arrived in this country in 1873, are one of the first specific breeds to be marketed at the consumer level. They’re characterized by at least 51 percent black fur, and breeders must pay certification fees to market their meat as Certified Black Angus beef.
➤ Wagyu is the name of an ultra-fatty, ultra-expensive Japanese style of beef culled from a specific mix of European and Asian cattle breeds raised in a tradition that includes beer meals and massage (nice!). The extreme marbling of this beef means that it can withstand higher cooking temperatures and still remain sweet, meltingly tender, and delicious. In the last decade, owing to its trendiness, American cattlemen have been raising Wagyu-style beef.
➤ Kobe is the best known Japanese region that produces Wagyu beef.
➤ Grain-fed Beef is the most economical and common beef on the market; grain-fed cattle are placed on vast feed lots to quickly fatten on soy, corn, and a variety of other grains.
➤ Corn-fed beef, growing quickly on this high-sugar, high-starch grain, is known to bring highly marbled beef to market fastest, though nutritionists complain that this beef is less healthy for diners, with higher fat and lower Omega-3 fatty acids.
➤ Grass-fed beef is raised as it has been for millennia, with the cattle grazing on a variety of grasses in open pastures.
➤ Grass-finished beef is strictly fed on pasturage. Owing to the leaner, often stronger-tasting beef that pasturing provides, many ranchers “finish” their beef on grain for a period before slaughter.
➤ Porterhouse, tenderloin, T-Bone, New York strip According to Bruce Aidells, whose Complete Meat Cookbook is the standard reference for home meat cookery, the best and most expensive steaks come from the short-loin group, which appear around the lower waist of the steer, and area which gets little exercise. The porterhouse is the king cut, and includes a T-shaped bone with a section of tenderloin (whence filet mignon) on one side, and New York strip steak on the other. Steaks with only a small section of tenderloin are called T-bone steaks, and steaks with no tenderloin or bone at all are called New York strip steaks. Just to make it more difficult, some restaurants serve filet mignon (tenderloin) on the bone to improve its flavor.
➤ Rib-eye steaks come from slightly harder-working muscle group around the back ribcage, but still they provide some of the most delicious beef, including prime-rib roast (which is a few ribs roasted together), bone-in rib steak (with only one rib) , and rib-eye (with the bone removed). Cowboy rib-eye is a bone-in rib steak with a long extended bone.
➤ Sirloin steaks are more economical than the short-loin or rib steaks and come from below the steer’s waist, around the top of the hip.
Age-ism: Wet vs. Dry
According to Bruce Aidells, author of Complete Meat Cookbook, the average fresh steak is about four to 10 days off the cow, and any aging that occurs during that period is purely incidental to shipping. However, true aging, whether by a meat distributor or a restaurant, occurs when the meat is intentionally held at above-freezing temperatures to allow enzymes to tenderize the beef’s proteins. Among steak fanatics, how and how long meat is aged is a hotly contested debate. The argument generally comes down to wet vs. dry.
Wet Aging is the most common (and economical) technique whereby the vacuum-sealed meat is held within its plastic packaging. According to Purdue University’s Animal Sciences Department, the wet-aged steak loses no moisture during its rest, which accounts for its juiciness, and it may even absorb some ambient package juices. Meanwhile, enzymes have had a few supplemental days to break down the muscle (think of it as a controlled sort of rot), which renders the raw muscle fibers less tough.
Dry Aging is the more expensive process, whereby steaks are hung in carefully monitored refrigerators, and exposed to dry, circulating air for as long as four weeks. Simple dehydration can account for as much as 20 percent shrinkage (which connoisseurs claim intensifies the beefy flavor), while the necessity to pare off desiccated, blackened (sometimes moldy) outer edges before service contributes to further loss of bulk. Of course, since the aged beef is drastically smaller than raw, it’s more expensive to serve equally sized steaks: diners should expect to pay more for dry-aged steaks.
Dry aging is the pick for real steak snobs, since the careful aging of beef results in a concentrated, tangy beefiness. Also, since the enzymes of decay have had as long as a month to work on the muscle, dry-aged beef is counter-intuitively tender and moist.