Great Steaks–Part 2 Tenderizing your steak and breed-specific programs

Great Steaks–Part 2 Tenderizing your steak and breed-specific programs

By Mike Leifheit

By Mike Leifheit

Restaurant Critic

Owner of the Irish Rose (Rockford) and Irish Rose North (Rockton) restaurants, Mike Leifheit’s “Dining Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants.” These reviews are also available on his website: IrishRoseRockford.com and will soon be featured on the Chris Bowman Show, WNTA talk radio AM 1330.

After you have selected a good primal cut, it is necessary to age the meat. The bacteria that live in the meat at 34 to 36 degrees are quite harmless to the human condition. We only get sick from bacteria that develop rapidly around our body temperature—say 90 degrees or so. The friendly bacteria that live at colder temperatures develop enzymes that actually predigest the meat, breaking down the connective tissue and making it what we call tender. Aging is a process of time and temperature. The warmer the cooler, the shorter amount of time is necessary for the aging process to take place. Sometimes restaurants will hurry this process through use of a chemical tenderizer like Papain or MSG. Papain is a natural product derived from papaya and sold in health food stores as an aid to digestion.

I have no particular disdain for Papain. It can be useful in tenderizing and is perfectly good for you. It tends to be overused, however, and results in mushy meat with less flavor and juice. MSG should never be used. It is loaded with sodium and leaves the meat very salty. If your steak is very salty right out of the kitchen, this is almost always a dead giveaway of an inferior cut of meat that has been treated to make it palatable. Natural aging will accomplish the same thing, and it is tastier and better for you.

There are two ways to age in the modern era: dry aging and the so-called wet aging. Dry is what you would expect. The primal cut is left out in the cooler. It is intentionally let dry out. This evaporates the moisture and reduces the size of the muscle, thereby intensifying the flavor, in much the same way a sundried tomato is made stronger in flavor than a tomato off the vine. In a market like ours where people like their meat cooked to a greater degree (more well done), this is not a viable option. The meat is already reduced in water content. Cooking the steak beyond medium-rare renders it unpalatable. The other method, aging in the cryovac, results in a higher moisture product, and a more market-friendly steak.

In the past few years, programs like Certified Angus have sprung up in the industry. These programs have little or no value when it comes to determining the quality of meat. These are simply designer-label programs to seduce the unwary consumer. They make about as much sense as putting labels on fruit. Your government does not differentiate between breeds. Your government is, for the most part, correct in not doing so. Certified Angus only means that half the animal’s lineage is Angus. The other half can be any breed at all. The government does not certify lineage. This is only the word of a loose-knit association trying to shake a few extra shekels out of your pocket. Your chances of getting black Angus are just about as good if you just buy government-graded choice beef as if you buy from a supplier who certifies breed specific.

There are three steak producers in Chicago that have received worldwide recognition: Allan Brothers, James H. Calvetti and Chicago Stockyards. If you eat at any of the top restaurants in the city, chances are your steak came from one of these houses. These operations have built their reputations as the finest steak purveyors in perhaps the number one steak city in the world. They do not specify breed, only government grading. Their New York strips are exclusively cut from 10 and down strip loins. You could balance a basketball on these strips and not make a dent.

Now, if you like a huge amount of low-fat meat (and if you do, God forbid, you probably even like it well done), I probably haven’t made a dent in how you think about your meat. I just want to say one last thing. It isn’t subjective. Just as there are violin virtuosos in the world, there are great chefs. Not everyone can play the violin. The same type of heightened sensory awareness that contributes to someone being a great musician plays a similar part in someone being a world-class chef. Jacques Pepin, Paul Bocuse and Julia Child agree with me on this subject. Give it a chance. Find a restaurant that serves a high-quality steak (prime if possible), order it medium-rare, and dig in.

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