There isn’t a whole lot to look forward to in Chicago during the month of February. Unless of course you are a fan of gray skies, slushy sidewalks and cold temps. One bright spot in this otherwise dreary month is restaurant week. For those of you not familiar with the concept, several restaurants (many upscale) provide a three course dinner menu for $32. Considering that you will pay $30 or more for just an entree at many of the participating restaurants makes this quite an enticing deal. It offers a great opportunity to try some restaurants that may offer food you might not normally eat or normally would be too cost prohibitive.
My husband and I headed to David Burke’s Primehouse as our restaurant week selection. David Burke’s is an upscale steak house known for their dry aged beef and big price tags (some steaks run $60!). We went for an early dinner and the place was already pretty packed – it seems many folks are taking advantage of the special restaurant week promotion. While I felt a bit rushed and slightly claustrophobic (tables were really close together) overall we had a very enjoyable evening. Warm popovers, lobster bisque, filet mignon and white chocolate cheesecake – I mean whats not to like!
There is something special about a good restaurant steak. I feel like I am a good cook and can make restaurant caliber food but I have never been able to capture the utter goodness of a perfectly cooked restaurant steak. This got to me thinking about why that might be so I did a little research and here is what I learned.
- USDA Beef Grades – The USDA grading system for beef was actually conceived by cattlemen in the 1920′s (not the government) and was based on the amount of visible fat marbling in the beef. However, it was later found that heavy marbling does not guarantee either tender or flavorful beef. Yet, the prestige of “prime” beef still persists. Which leads to the next point….
- Beef Quality - Meat and flavor scientists have actually found that fat marbling accounts for no more than one third of the variation in beef quality. Other important factors include breed, how the animal is cared for (feed and exercise), age of animal, slaughter conditions and storage conditions. You may notice more stores (particularly places like Whole Foods) that will indicate how the animal was raised and fed because these are all factors in choosing high quality beef. It is still difficult for most consumers to know the full extent of the quality of beef they are buying. However, the more consumers ask questions about where our beef is coming from, the more likely stores will continue to provide us with the information we demand.
- Aging – Beef benefits from aging (similar to wine and cheese) – it allows the flavor and texture of the meat to improve over time. Dry aging usually means that whole, unwrapped sides of beef are kept at a cool temperature (34 – 38F) at a relative humidity of 70 – 80%. The cool temperature limits the growth of microbes, while the humidity causes the meat to slowly lose moisture, allowing the flavor to develop and become more concentrated. Wet aging is when beef is vacuum sealed in plastic and allowed to sit under refrigeration for a certain period of time. Wet aging allows the beef to become more tender but does not allow the flavor to develop since there is no moisture loss as is done in dry aging. Wet aging is much more common these days because the beef does not shrink (no moisture loss) therefore there is less loss to the company producing the beef. Dry aging is one of the key elements in getting really high quality beef and is often only served in very high quality steak houses (i.e. – David Burke’s) or sold at gourmet butcher shops. If you really want a special cut of meat, you will need to do some investigating in your area to see where dry aged beef is sold.
- Cooking – It’s easy to overcook meat, beef in particular. This is why I like to use the two-stage cooking method with most meat. This simply means that you sear or brown your meat on a high temperature surface and then move to the oven where you complete your cooking at a lower, more even temperature. The lower temperature means the meat cooks more slowly, giving you a larger window to avoid making a mistake. It also keeps you from burning the outside of your meat, while ending up with a raw center. It is very easy to overshoot medium rare when cooking a steak. And to be honest, if you are eating a good steak I don’t know why you would bother cooking it beyond medium rare/medium. Your best tools when cooking a steak are a good meat thermometer and your eyes. A meat thermometer should read between 130-140F for a medium rare to medium steak. The meat will still have some “give” to it and the juices will still be red. FYI – red juices are not blood, it’s just the juice/moisture from the beef. If you do want your beef more well done the temperature should read between 150-160F and there will be less free flowing juices that will be light pink to gray in color. Yuck.
If you are lucky enough to get a lovely, dry-aged piece of beef, just remember that less is more. Season with some salt and pepper and sear on a HOT pan just until the outside is browned. Place a pat of butter on the beef if you want a little more flavor and stick in the oven for a few minutes paying close attention to your meat thermometer until you reach your desired level of doneness. Enjoy!
Well, hope you learned a little something about beef ( I know I did!) I also want to acknowledge the book “On Food and Cooking – the science and lore of the kitchen” by Harold McGee as an excellent resource. I will be reviewing this book in a later post but wanted to acknowledge a key resource to my more “scientific” questions.