Thursday, February 9, 2012

Cooking For That Special Someone in Your Life: Steak

Chateaubriand from Drewe's Brothers Meats
To start, it's best simply to think of steak as a delicious vehicle to a well-seasoned cast iron pan.

There is only one kind of cast iron pan worth mentioning or buying, and that’s Lodge. It’s made in America, and there is nothing more American than taking a nice big hunk of American grass-fed beef and slapping it on a hot plate of metal forged in America and taking a manly chug of Petit Syrah grown in Oregon, which is not really America but some kind of lush, green, Endor-looking otherworld populated by gun-toting, pot-growing libertarians.

Or you could drink a beer, like a nice Lagunitas IPA made, again, by ammo-loving, weed-cloning, post-apocalyptic hippy farmers.

Metal

If you are using a cast iron for the first time, you want to rinse it off with soap and water to remove any industrial agents used in the manufacturing process. This is the one an only time you will ever use soap on a cast iron. In the future, if it is dirty, you must cleanse it with fire. Otherwise, it will become angry.

Dry it and give it a thin coating of vegetable oil using a paper towel and place in the center of an oven at 300f for at least three hours. The oil will bind with the iron and become the base of that nice black carbon coating.

After this initial seasoning, cook only red meat in the pan for the first two or three months until you develop a nice, black coating all over.

Meat

Whole Foods in Cleveland Heights, OH
Dry aging is a process wherein a primal or sub-primal cut of an animal is aged in a cool, dry location for weeks or months. Actually, if you think about it, the process of making ham, prosciutto, pancetta, bacon, or any cured meat is simply dry aging taken to its extreme with the addition of curing agents like salt, salt-peter, herbs, and spices (and sometimes smoking). The flavors become concentrated and the meat becomes dense yet soft. The fat melts on your tongue.

Dry aging is controlled rotting of meat. Meats that are dry aged for a long time have their flavors enhanced by microbial action of friendly bacteria or fungus. The dried and often moldy rind is trimmed from the final product, but it is part and parcel of the process. Dry aging, and curing, is controlled rotting.

In the shorter term, you can get some of the benefits of dry aging (without the cost associated) in one or two weeks' time using nothing but a prime rib roast and your own refrigerator. This will not involve microbial action but instead relies on enzymes that perform autolysis on the tissues, plus the action of dehydration on the meat. Enzymes weaken the tougher proteins in the meat, dehydration concentrates flavors; this also contributes to a better “crust” forming on the steak during cooking.

There are many schools of thought, but two main ones, in home dry aging: to salt or not to salt.

Briefly, the former method requires salting the outside of the meat generously prior to dry aging. The salt, enzymatic action and dehydration work in tandem and the meat lightly cures. The resulting product is very meaty, almost gamy.

The latter simply dries and rots the meat; salting just prior to cooking will bring out a little surface fluid containing interstitial fluid and other proteins, which when allowed to briefly air dry help form a better crust. That is the method I prefer when making steaks. If making a prime rib roast, I prefer the former.

For our purposes, let’s assume we have shelled out $90 for a prime rib roast, 3 or 4 bone. From the butcher, this is 8 or 9 pounds at $10-11 a pound. After a week in your fridge, this will lose 10% of its weight, after two weeks, maybe 15%. After 21 days up to 20%. A pound of 21-day aged rib-eye will cost $20-30 or more. I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to calculate the savings.

21 day rib roast from Drewe's Brothers Meats, SF, CA
[Editor's note: in researching this, we found a page insisting that you do not dry age pork. In practice, this is probably a good idea, but I'm not sure it's impossible if you have a good source of pork and dry age the rib-roasts. But please let us do the experimenting: we wouldn't want for anyone to get trichinosis.]

The key is to have airflow over every surface of the meat for the duration of aging, so we should place it, bone side down, on a wire rack over a pan that will collect any drippings.

I have a spare refrigerator in my garage (where I park my bike). I like to dial up the temperature to the highest the refrigerator will go, usually somewhere in the mid to high 40s, because cold hampers enzymatic reactions (remember, an enzyme is simply a catalytic protein that triggers some chemical reaction in another compound). If you can go 21 days, great, but you will see a profound difference between no aging and a mere seven days of aging. Individual steaks, aged for 72 hours, are profoundly better than those aged not at all. And if you lack time, even a 24 hour stint in the dry, cool environs of the standard refrigerator is better than nothing.

After the aging period, trim the leathery dry bits, but do not trim the fat: you will need that.
Fat, you see, is flavor.

Trim the roast into steaks, incorporating one rib bone each. Each steak should be at least an inch if not an inch and a half thick.

Cooking the Meat

Follow a few simple rules and you will wonder what possesses people go out and blow $50 on a steak in a restaurant.

Clearly, this is money better spent on that bottle of Grgich Hills Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Grgich is a dirty old man of Dalmatian origin, like the humble Zinfandel varietal that is a good second choice if the cab is too rich for your blood ($65 for the Cabernet, $40 for the Zinfandel depending on the year).

First, temperature. Not of the pan, but the meat. It should be as close to the temperature of the air as possible, warm even, for quick cooking and better dispersion of heat throughout. Cold meat takes longer to cook, and therefore you have areas that are overcooked, areas that are too dry, and areas that are undercooked. A perfect steak has a uniform crust and when sliced reveals a uniformly rare interior.

Cowboy steak, grilled, from Drewe's Brothers Meats
If you are the type of person who eats well done meat, then do not bother with the rib roast. The rib roast is done one and only one way: rare. I repeat, if you do not like your meat rare, then forget the rib roast or ribeye steak. Grab a tri-tip and smoke it, or some stew meat and, well, make stew. If it comes from a cow and goes on a grill, it never goes higher than medium (and I'm being generous).

Put your cast iron on the stove, crank the flame up high and leave it there for several minutes.

Water dropped on the surface should try to jump back out of the pan its so hot. Even better if an ashen, smokey disc should appear in the middle of your pan. That’s hot. You will want to open all the windows in your kitchen, and be prepared to silence your fire alarm.

While the pan is heating up you should salt generously each side of your steak and pat it in. The salt will cause the meat to exude some fluid. Unlike other meat appliques we do not want to pat these dry.

That fluid is mostly protein and sugars, it will help in making a crust.

Also, preheat your oven to 275f.

Fat, remember, is flavor. We are going to render some of the fat of the steak into the pan and fry the steak in it, but we want to be able to baste the steak in fat, so we will have on standby a nice pat of butter, room temperature, and 2 tablespoons of olive oil.

When ready place the steak edge side down, with the fattiest edge hitting the pan first, using a pair of tongs to make sure only the fat contacts the pan. This will cause a great deal of smoke, but it will also render out that beef fat and create delicious crunchy fatty bits. Sear all edges of the steak and then remove it for about 30 seconds to let the pan and the fat get really, really hot.

Then put the steak down on the side you figure is the prettiest. That will be your presentation side. Now walk away. Just. Walk. Away.

After three or four minutes, you can take a peek at the forming crust. Is should be nice and dark brown, and you might notice the uncooked side of the steak starting to sweat a bit. Good: flip it and add your fat.
Baste the now exposed presentation side for two or so minutes and then put the pan in the oven. Depending on the size, time will vary, but remember you can’t fix an overcooked steak.

If my steak is about 1 and ⅓ pound bone in, 10-12 minutes at 275f should yield a perfect rare.

After 10 minutes, check the doneness with your finger. The rarer the steak, the softer it should be to the touch. If it springs back a little, but is not firm, it is probably safe to pull the steak. However, if you try to eat it right away, you will fail. You must let it rest. If you have to, make a single cut near the center of the steak to check for done-ness. If it is not done to your taste, put it back in for 3-4 minutes (why not 1 or 2? Because you have cooled off the steak by opening the door or worse removing it and it needs the extra time to come back up to temperature.)

The steak needs to be removed onto a plate and allowed to rest. Some fluid will leak out, but most of the fluid will re-disperse throughout the steak. See, the outer fluid is near boiling temp, and will run out if you breach the integrity of the “solid phase” (cut the steak). Allowing the temperatures to equalize will continue cooking the still raw center and stop the cooking on the outside of the steak.

Drain (and if me, reserve) the fat from the pan but don’t dare clean the rest of that mess out. That, friends, is your sauce.

Basic “monté au beurre”
Seared hanger steak from Olivier's Butchery, SF, CA

This is not diet food (unless you are doing Atkins, in which case I feel sorry for you, because nothing beats sopping up the juices and sauce with bread).

A monté au beurre is a pan reduction sauce thickened with butter. Thickened. With. Butter.
You may also hear this referred to as “butter mounting” or simply “mounting a sauce.” It’s not as dirty as it sounds, but it’s as sinful.

We are doing a standard wine deglaze.

Mise en place
  • 1 clove of shallot, minced (about 2 tablespoons)
  • ⅓ or ½ cup of a drinkable wine (I like Ravenswood Zinfandel Vintner’s Blend)
  • 1 tablespoon of cold butter
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Assemblage

Return your cast iron to medium heat. Toss in the shallots and sauté until translucent, about 30 seconds. Add the wine and turn the heat up so the wine comes to a boil. Using a silicon spatula, work the burnt bits from the bottom of the pan into the wine as the wine boils. The acidity of the wine will help soften the “fond” on the bottom of the pan.

When the wine reduces to almost a couple of tablespoons it will have reached a stage we call “nape” (nap-ay), which is when it coats the back of a spoon, and a finger drawn through the middle leaves a clean channel that remains there.

Remove the pan from heat and add the cold butter. Using the residual heat of the pan, slowly melt the butter into the wine reduction until you have a smooth, buttery sauce. All of this happens in the time it takes to rest your steak. The sauce is truly a la minute.

This goes under and not on top of the steak, because why ruin all that work we did to create that crust.

Serve with some vegetables because you are going to need some roughage.

Drewe's Brothers Meats:
1706 Church St.
San Francisco, Ca. 94131
Phone: 415.821.0515
Fax: 415.648.4581

Olivier's Butchery:
1074 Illinois St.
San Francisco, CA 94107
Phone: 415.558.9887
Fax: 415.558.9897