1. What can be done to cattle before and after slaughter to produce the best beef steaks?
Quality begins at the ranch, as any red-blooded Texan boasts. Cattlemen are mindful of all sorts of things we don’t want to think about when we’re sitting down to dinner. They ponder stuff like low-stress handling, diet, vitamin supplementation, timing of castration, breeding, and hormones. Stockyards and meat handlers after slaughter consider things like electrical stimulation, infusing meat with calcium and chemicals, even how carcasses are hung.
2. Grain fed beef.
For our discussion, we’ll concentrate on the axioms that make for more pleasant dinner conversation. What the cows eat can make better eating for us. The prestigious purveyors in Chicago, which supply many steak houses, finish their beef by feeding the cattle grains, instead of grass, their final months of life. These grain-fed steers are noticeably more flavorful.
3. Prime Grade Beef.
When experts choose their meat, traditionally only “prime” makes the grade. A prime rating is the gold standard and given to less than 5-percent of all beef in the country. When grading meat, U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors look at the degree of marbling. That’s those tiny slivers of fat throughout the meat which give flavor and help keep it juicy when it’s cooked. More fat is better only to a point, as really thick lines of fat make for a tough steak.
Problem is, well-marbled prime isn’t as prime as it used to be. The past two decades Americans developed an aversion to fat, and cattlemen responded by breeding cattle to be leaner. Lean took precedence over quality and flavor. Old-fashioned prime beef became scarce. “Thankfully beef is trendy again, and steak-lovers’ cravings are being satisfied in more ways.”
5. Cattle Breed.
For really lean cuts, such as fillets cut from the tenderloin, prime is a moot point. So, when shopping for them or the choicest “choice” grade steaks, wise steak buyers are turning to cows with good genes. Due to great breeding, these cows—like Black Angus and Japanese Black Wagyu—have especially flavorful meat and natural superior marbling regardless of their grade.
6. Dry Aging.
For select customers, those top purveyors also expertly dry-age beef. Only a few legendary steakhouses including New York Steakhouse do their own dry-aging because it’s expensive and takes meticulous attention and expertise.
The time-honored process of dry-aging begins with top quality meat. Only a fraction of beef dry ages well: well-marbled prime grade and meat from those exceptional cattle breeds. Extremely lean beef won’t age without spoiling as it needs that protective fat coating. The meat is hung in our large sterile refrigerators with carefully controlled air flow, humidity, and temperature for two to six weeks. During this ripening period, several key things happen. Enzymes break down the muscle fibers, improving tenderness, until by the third week the meat is positively buttery. A 20 percent moisture loss concentrates the beefy flavors, leaving an intense, almost gamey, taste. The meat’s ability to hold onto moisture with cooking is improved, too, making for juicier cooked steaks. Dry-aged beef also develops a crust which has to be trimmed away, resulting in an additional loss of up to 25-percent of the meat’s original weight, adding to its cost.
Even though it’s an expensive proposition, dry-aged beef has long been considered the best among seasoned steak connoisseurs. They describe its flavor as rich and nutty, decadently tender, and “beefier” than nonaged. Its intensity requires a robust erudite palate. “If you don’t enjoy a richer well-marbled ribeye or strip steak, then dry-aged beef wouldn’t be something you would appreciate,” said Executive Chef at New York Steakhouse. He feels quality beef is of greater appeal to most Saigon diners. “Certified Angus beef or prime are the biggest draws,” he said.
Most steakhouses in South East Asia sell wet-aged beef. It has been aged, packaged in vacuum-sealed plastic bags while being shipped from the stockyards to the consumer. Although the enzymes still help tenderize the meat, the flavor remains neutral. The meat, because it has been sitting in its own juices, has been described as wet and bloody-tasting.
Whether you believe those who say that dry-aged beef is a romantic fantasy, or those who say wet-aged beef is a ruse, everyone agrees some type of aging makes for a better steak.