Dining Out in Rockford…Great Steaks, Part 1–Choosing a good primal cut

Dining Out in Rockford…Great Steaks, Part 1–Choosing a good primal cut

By Mike Leifheit

By Mike Leifheit

Restaurant Critic

Owner of the Irish Rose (Rockford) and the Irish Rose North (Rockton) restaurants, Mike Leifheit’s “Dining Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants who make it “from scratch.”

I took a week off from writing my column because of “Four Play on Block Five.” That was the name Saturn Studios, MedicineMan, The Artery and my place, the Irish Rose, gave to our cooperative business exposition on Block Five. It was a resounding success. Perhaps 1,000 people came through on Thursday, Jan. 17. I am happy to announce that there are extremely interesting plans for restaurant visits in the coming weeks. In the meantime, I needed to come up with a column, and I had been wanting to do a column about steaks. Not about steaks at a particular restaurant, but about steaks in general.

As my friend, Lawrence, would say, “We Mens” like our fat. Women do, too. We live in a country that cuts all the visible fat from a cut of meat, and yet, downs more French fries than any nation on earth. When you hit that fat wall, nothing serves the urge like a juicy steak. The Rockford restaurateur is faced with a dilemma. A lot of Rockford people prefer a large amount of lean steak. This is what blows their whistle, jingles their chimes and jiggles their pocketbook out of their pocket. If the restaurant owner prefers to sell a high-quality steak, he risks pricing himself out of the market, unless he is willing to accept unusually low margins. The decision usually winds up between a lot of cheap quality meat, and a smaller amount of higher quality meat. I prefer to eat a smaller quantity of excellent quality, high-fat content beef. It satisfies both the fat urge and the palate, and you aren’t left feeling wanting.

Food is not just what you like. There are standards. These standards are determined partly by the United States government and their grading policies. These grades are (today) standard, choice and prime. Standard is the bright red unmarbled meat favored by a lot of the little meat markets in the Rockford area. These markets are preferred by folks who mistakenly think that meat is best when it is devoid of all fat. According to your government and most of the world’s finest chefs, pretty much exactly the opposite is true. Unfortunately, now that the chains have taken over our local supermarkets, this kind of beef (standard) is rearing its ugly head there as well.

Choice and the highest grade, prime, owe their existence to the feed lot. It is here that the steers develop the inner muscle fat that renders their flesh delicious. People always talk about tender, and fat in the meat aids in tenderness, but even more important is juiciness. This is almost impossible without corn finishing. Good steaks cost more because of this. It costs money to feed the cattle corn.

Grading is a sliding standard. Younger beef requires less marbling than older beef to receive a given grade. Older cattle naturally have more fat in the muscle than younger cattle. They also have more developed connective tissue. This connective tissue can contribute to toughness. This necessitates longer feed-loting to compensate. Cattle also develop fat in the muscle differently when they are fed corn over a long amount of time, rather than a hurried finishing in the feed lot. A short finishing results in more cover fat and a lower yield of useable meat than long-term finishing, which develops the desired fat in the meat with less cover.

Another demon out there trying to subvert great steak is called plate coverage. So much of our restaurant business in the United States revolves around covering a big part of the plate. When it comes to meat, this means a larger slice of muscle (off an older, more mature animal) covers more of the plate than a smaller slice off a younger, less developed animal. Spring lamb chops wind up costing less than mutton chops. Five and down Canadian pork loins are cheaper than five to seven (pounds). The quality of the smaller items is higher, but they just don’t cover as much plate. This is true in beef cattle also, where the 16 and up rules the roost when it comes to IBP (Iowa Beef Packers) strip loins. (The strip loin is the primal cut from whence the New York strip is derived.)

I prefer smaller strip loins. I personally specify 12 and down. Where I buy, they usually are actually 10 and down. This is a young animal. When you choose a young animal like this, and the degree of marbling is high, you are almost assured of getting a good steak. Another trick is the touch or feel. You are not looking for flesh that is soft to the touch, rather the firmer, the better. If the strip loin is stiff like a board, this is an indication of a lot of marbling. You can hold it from the ends, and it does not sag at all. Fat is firm at cooler temperatures. Meat without fat will not feel firm to the touch. Meat without fat will sag when held in this manner.

The color of the fat coating is an indication of age. Older animals tend to have yellow fat. Younger animals have firm, white fat. If the fat is not firm or it is yellow in color, it is not absolutely an indication of age or lesser quality, but the buyer certainly should be careful. All animals vary, however, and there are certainly exceptions to this general rule.

Next week, we will talk abut breed-specific programs (certified Angus) and tenderizing your steak.

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