Read an Excerpt
How to Use This Book
Ideas, as much as instruction, are the currency of good cookbooks. I hope reading my recipes will get you excited about cooking steak. Use the book to gather ideas about how to put together a menu on your own. That means combining the steaks and side dishes in a way that appeals to you. The same goes for choosing the cuts of meat for a recipe. I hope you'll explore unfamiliar cuts and try some of the things I suggest for putting a plate together, but I realize many people already have strong ideas about what they like.
Please don't meticulously measure every little item I call for. Who measures chopped herbs? I don't. I've given the quantities, because there are people who like to know exactly what the recipe calls for. Writing "1 shallot, chopped" is simply too general for many people's comfort. Okay. After all, a large shallot can produce 4 tablespoons while a small one can be barely 2 tablespoons. But would it matter a great deal if you ended up putting in 2 or 4 tablespoons? The sauce would certainly taste a little different, but it wouldn't be bad in either case. So if you tend to measure and worry, the quantities are here. But I hope you'll at least consider using your own good sense. Rather than awkwardly stuffing 2 tablespoons of cilantro into a measuring spoon, just chop up what looks to be about that much and be done with it.
In my recipes I generally call for 8 ounces of meat per person. This is a loose guide; your steaks will always be a little over or under that amount. Plenty of thick-cut steaks weigh in at 12 ounces each. Don't worry. However much you buy, there will be people who eat more than that 8 ounces (big, hungry adults and teenagers), and others who consume a lot less. To my mind, half a pound of meat is about right--but then, I love steak and I also like to have leftovers for steak tacos the next day.
If you're concerned about the increasingly high price of buying top-quality sustainably raised steak as well as about the ethics of eating meat, given how much energy and fuel goes into producing each pound of meat, consider cutting the portion size in half while doubling one or both of the side dishes. This is a way of thinking of the steak as equal in importance to the side dishes. Eating a little less really great meat is a smart approach to ethical consumption. Rather than buying 2 pounds of cheap supermarket sirloin, splurge on 1 pound of locally raised porterhouse or, if you can find it, a pound of grass-fed, dry-aged sirloin. Take the time to make a sauce and savor every bite.
Matching the Steak to the Recipe
Almost every recipe in this book can be made with any of the steaks listed below. If that isn't the case, I'll make note of it. Just because a recipe is called Porterhouse with Black Mexican Chocolate Sauce doesn't mean you can't use strip steak. Sure, if you're cutting up meat for fajitas or doing a wok stir-fry, it doesn't make sense to buy an expensive bone-in rib steak. Even if you did, the meat would be excellent after you cut it off the bone. Some cuts are leaner, some are thinner, and some have more flavor than others. I make it clear what my favorites are--your tastes may tend in another direction. Use what you like.
Know Your Cuts
It's hard not to be stumped by the endless litany of names that butchers, grocers, and cookbooks use for the same cuts of meat. We're a big country, with regional distinctions, and while a strip steak is sometimes just a strip steak, it's not always. Sometimes it's a shell steak, or an ambassador steak, or something else again.
Stepping back a bit, it helps to understand that American butchers (and the USDA) uniformly divide the cow's anatomy into eight regions. These are the primal cuts, and they matter; if you remember the names of the key primal cuts, they can guide you through the maze of marketing and gimmicks that show up in the butcher case. Usually, there is some indication of the primal cut on that package somewhere. You've probably heard the names or seen them on packages of steak or ground beef: short loin, sirloin, rib, round, chuck, flank, plate, and shank and brisket. You don't need to remember all this; just remember that the best steaks, and the most expensive steaks, are cut from the cow's loin or rib section. They include the T-bone, strip steak, porterhouse, rib eye, rib steak, and filet. If you remember these names, along with the hidden greats--skirt steak, hangar steak, flank steak, and flat iron steak--you'll have it just about covered. Where's the ubiquitous sirloin? I left it for last because, while sirloin can be very good, most people already know about it. I find the range of cuts from the sirloin tricky. If you're buying top sirloin at the supermarket, it can be wan, lean, and flavorless, while grass-fed sirloin ranges from very good to a little tough. So while you will find sirloin called for in the recipes here, be aware that you need to hunt around a little to find worthy steaks from this part of the cow.
SKIRT STEAK: The star of my steak universe, this beats pretty much any cut for flavor and ease of cooking. Skirt steak is characterized by its long shape and open, grainy texture. It's a terrific steak favored by many great chefs, and it's always a bargain. Trim any sinew or fine membrane that the butcher has not removed. Remember to keep it rare--it gets tough if you overcook it. Always slice skirt steak against the grain, creating long, thin strips. It looks different but tastes better than most of the steaks you're used to. Skirt steak is also known as Philadelphia steak, churrasco, and fajita meat.
HANGAR STEAK: As close to skirt steak in price and flavor as you'll get, this cut is thicker and a little leaner. There's only one hangar steak per animal. If you buy a whole one (about 2 pounds from a big animal), you will need to remove the tendon that runs down the center of the steak. Most butchers will do this for you, but it's easy to do yourself even if you aren't handy with a knife. (Use a sharp filet knife to gently cut the tendon out while doing as little damage to the surrounding meat as possible. You'll end up with two pieces of steak that look like slightly uneven, lopsided filets.) The giant beefy flavor and that grainy texture make this steak one of my favorites. Hangar steak is also known as flap meat (which is a misnomer), butcher steak, hanging tender, and, in French, onglet.
FILET: This is the most tender piece of meat you can buy and one of the most expensive. Despite its exalted reputation, it isn't my favorite. Treated right, it can be outrageously good, with a light taste and a buttery texture; left to stand on its own, it can be dull and short on flavor. Experiment with it and see what you think, but always keep it rare. It sautés up nicely in a pan because it's flat and boneless, and it takes effortlessly to a rich sauce. Filet is also known as tenderloin, chateaubriand, tournedo, and filet mignon.
PORTERHOUSE, T-BONE, and STRIP STEAK: I love these steaks from the short loin, even if they do have too many names. The T-bone contains a little of the filet, while the porterhouse contains more, often with a bone to separate the strip from the filet. The porterhouse is a nice balance between the slightly looser grain and bigger flavor of the strip alongside the tender filet. These steaks should be cut thick and visibly marbled. The very tasty strip steak comes boneless or bone-in. With the bone in, this steak is known (among other things!) as a cowboy steak--a name that makes me love it more. Strip steak is also known as top loin steak, club steak, shell steak, New York strip, Kansas City strip, ambassador steak, and hotel steak. Phew!
RIB STEAK and RIB EYE: Think prime rib and you'll get the idea. Finely grained and rich, a steak from the rib has great marbling with plenty of flavor. It's hard to beat for richness and succulence. Splurge on occasion for a prime, dry-aged rib steak with the long rib bone still attached. It's one of the sexiest steaks you can serve. The boneless version of a rib eye is also known as Delmonico steak, Spencer steak, entrecôte, and market steak.
TOP SIRLOIN: Boneless top sirloin is a very common steak that many people gravitate toward because they know it so well--this is the Merlot of beef cuts. I'd encourage exploring other cuts, even though these steaks can be excellent if you seek out nicely marbled, center-cut pieces or buy a better grade. There is a wide range of other steaks from the same primal cut, including tri-tip, top and bottom butt steaks, and sirloin tip steak. One of the better steaks with a bone is called a pin-bone sirloin. Meat from the sirloin can have a dense meatiness that is very appealing if it isn't too lean.
TOP BLADE STEAK/FLAT IRON STEAK: I don't know why I turned up my nose at this cut for so long. It's very tasty and not at all expensive, and has decent marbling and good beefy flavor. Like hangar steak, you usually need to cut out the line of gristle running down its center. Not hard.All you're doing is cutting out the center tendon (which can be a little more jagged than the hangar steak's) to create two fairly tender, rectangular steaks. I like to call this flat iron steak if only to pat the marketing genius on the back for earning his money; he really came up with a great name.
FLANK STEAK: This is a lean cut from the area right behind the plate, which is where skirt steak comes from. Flank steak often gets confused with skirt steak, but it's not at all the same thing. Flank is considerably less fatty and has a dense, long grain. It's great for those who can't (or don't want to) eat more heavily marbled cuts. This cut of meat works nicely with a marinade, which is how I usually call for it here. Flank steak is also sometimes called London broil or jiffy steak.
TOP ROUND/LONDON BROIL: This is a fairly common cut from the round (yes, I know, flank gets called London broil; I told you it was a conspiracy of confusion). If you're marinating, this cut can substitute for flank steak or top blade. Turn to it for any of the wok preparations that call for soy sauce and then get thinly sliced to cook. It can be pretty tough, so choose a different cut if you're grilling or pan-frying and serving with a sauce.
FLAP MEAT: The appearance of this cut in supermarkets is a fairly recent phenomenon. Coming from the belly of the cow, these steaks are thin and nicely marbled. Technically, they are the flap of the loin. I urge you to try them. They have good flavor and do nicely when grilled or pan-fried. Keep them rare, just as you would a skirt steak or flank steak, and slice them against the grain. Sometimes flap meat is mislabeled as sirloin tips--it's neither. Look for it labeled using the French word bavette. (Beware: hangar is sometimes also called bavette, too.)
Meat eaters are responsible for seeking out--even demanding--meat that comes from cows that have led what I'll call a cow's life. I see a herd of Black Angus cows living this kind of life every day, in the pasture across the road from my house. And while they're bound for the dinner table, a cow living such a life enjoys green grass, open space, sunshine, and plenty of fresh air. The good news about ethical eating is that the best-tasting meat, with deep flavor and rich marbling, doesn't come from cattle that have been rushed to the market through the use of corn, hormones, and antibiotics. Instead, the best-tasting steaks come from cows that are at least eighteen months old; have eaten grass, weeds, and alfalfa; and have walked around, smelled the breeze, and used their legs. In short: great steaks come from cows that have lived a cow's life.
Buy the best meat you can and know where it comes from. Not only is this meat better for you, but you're also helping to support ranchers and grassy pastures. Pastureland provides more than grass--it means preserving open space and the livelihood of the people who work that land. Good steak is worthwhile on a bunch of extremely compelling levels.
Read labels and ask questions before you buy steak. I can't encourage this enough. As uncomfortable as it might make you, the ethics of how our food is produced is a growing part of the decisions we make about what we eat. Beef that is raised primarily on grass in a way that is environmentally sustainable and humane is more and more available. But there's also a lot of confusion out there about the real meaning of "natural," "grass-fed," "organic," and "local," not to mention "Certified Black Angus" and terms like "Kobe style." To help you make smart choices, I've put together a brief guide to help you find your way through the mysteries of meat labeling.
Grass-Fed and All-Natural Beef
Cows are supposed to eat grass, with perhaps a little grain thrown in for dessert. Look carefully at labels. The word natural is a pretty meaningless term in the food industry; you need to look for the words "no added growth hormones" and "no antibiotics." Since you can't easily raise cattle on grain in cramped feedlots without antibiotics, this usually means the cow was fed primarily on grass with perhaps a brief period of corn and other grains to finish before slaughter. Meat from grass-fed cows is also higher in the good fats (omega-3 fatty acids) and lower in the bad fats (saturated fat) than meat from grain-fed, intensively raised animals. That means grass-fed steaks taste better and they're better for you. Now how often does that happen?
Niman Ranch, one of the first producers of natural meat, is an industry leader. Laura's Lean Beef is another large producer. I buy most of my meat at Whole Foods, which carries only beef raised without added growth hormones or antibiotics. They're all grass-fed, but the cows' diets are supplemented by grain. Some companies claim their cattle are never fed grain in order to produce healthier, leaner meat. One such outfit, raising Black Angus cows on pure grass in Dillon, Montana, is La Cense Beef. See the Pantry at the end of the book for tips on where to purchase grass-fed meat.
Unlike the term natural, the word organic does have a legal, USDA meaning. Steak labeled organic comes from cows that have been fed certified organic grain, grass, and hay. It also means they have not been crammed full of growth hormones or regularly fed antibiotics. Grateful Harvest is one company that sells organic steaks at my grocery store. They are a little more expensive, but I feel good about eating them, and they have great flavor.
Locally Raised Beef
Local is the new organic. People are recognizing that the fossil fuels necessary to transport that organic steak to your table is as wasteful and environmentally irresponsible as the feedlots we're trying to put out of business by buying organic in the first place. Just because a local farmer hasn't had his or her land certified organic doesn't mean he or she isn't using sustainable practices. I buy locally raised steaks at my tiny farmers' market in Cold Spring, New York. It's not organic, but I know where it comes from and how flavorful the meat is. I have the added bonus of supporting local farming, eating responsibly, and enjoying the benefits of more open pasture in my community.
Certified Black Angus
This label indicates little about how a cow was raised or what it ate. Instead, the Certified Black Angus label indicates a level of marbling, the maturity of the cow, and other factors that affect the quality of the meat, as well as indicating the purity of the breed. (Cows need not be pure Black Angus to meet the qualifications.) As a consumer, I don't find this particular stamp all that useful, even if the meat is of a slightly better grade. More useful is a recent development on Certified Black Angus packaging indicating the meat is "natural" with "no added growth hormones" and "no antibiotics." Now that means something to me.
Kobe and Wagyu Beef
These are super-rich, big on flavor, tender like butter--and as expensive as a vintage Chanel suit. Just so we're clear: Kobe is a region, and Wagyu is a breed. Don't be fooled into thinking you're eating Kobe beef unless you happen to be in Nagasaki. That said, American ranchers have imported Wagyu cattle and have had excellent success raising them in the United States on a balanced diet of grass and grain. By all means get your hands on some if you can. Snake River Farms is the best-known source for American Wagyu beef (often called Kobe style), but there are others. See the list in the Pantry.
Almost all of the beef that's sold in this country is graded by the USDA according to the degree of marbling, or internal fat, in the meat. They also consider the age and condition of the animal. The top grade, "prime," is difficult to find and very expensive (only about 2 percent of American beef is graded prime). I sometimes buy prime, dry-aged beef from high-end butchers in New York City, and it's delicious. If it's any comfort to those who don't shop in a big city, this meat also costs almost as much as my watch. Most meat that makes it to stores is graded "choice," which is the next grade down. "Select" is another step down; I'd avoid it.
So there you are, shopping in the chilly aisles of the great American grocery store. You're on your own with shrink-wrapped meat, Styrofoam trays, and a confusing array of names. Whether the package is marked as USDA Choice or not, start by looking carefully at the meat itself. You want to seek out the pieces that have a deep red color and the nicest internal marbling. This doesn't mean going for the biggest chunk of white fat on the rim of the steak (you're going to trim most of this off, anyway). No. What you're looking for are streaks with fine lines of fat squiggling through the actual muscle--just like the spiderweb pattern in marble itself. This fat is a big part of what makes your steak taste good--and it signals a better grade of meat, whatever the official grade the steak has been given.
When you get your steak home, do one last thing: take it out of its package! Whether that means cutting open a vacuum-sealed package or taking it out of its Styrofoam tray, remove it and wrap it up in some butcher paper (or use parchment paper). This prevents it from soaking in its own juices and lets it breathe a little.
Really good, properly handled steaks are dry aged. Period. Problem is, it's hard to find dry-aged steaks these days because dry aging is such an expensive proposition--not only does it require time (3 to 4 weeks) and storage space, but it also diminishes the weight of the steak. As the meat air-dries, some of its moisture evaporates, giving the steak a more intense, meaty flavor. During the process, the natural enzymes in the meat also get to work tenderizing the steak. Do seek out a prime, dry-aged steak and cook it at home if you can.
Wet aging isn't really aging at all. Steaks that are wet aged are generally vacuum-packed for shipping. It's called wet aging in part because the meat can be preserved longer sealed this way than it could under normal conditions. Most people agree that wet aging doesn't do much for meat beyond preventing it from spoiling. In fact, as a general rule, soaking a steak in its own juices is the last thing you want to do to it. While dry aging removes water, concentrating the flavor of the meat, wet aging keeps the meat consistently moist, diluting the meat's flavor and inhibiting much of the busy activity of the natural enzymes. These natural enzymes are the key to dry-aged beef's intense nutty flavor and outstanding tenderness.
I usually don't like frozen meat, but a vendor at my local farmers' market sells their steaks frozen when they aren't slaughtering that week. Properly handled, they can be quite good. I see it as a compromise for supporting my local farmer. For the best results, let the steak thaw in the refrigerator for a couple of hours. After that, unwrap it, get any excess blood or juices off, and loosely wrap it in butcher paper (parchment paper works, too). Set the bundle on a plate and refrigerate until it's fully thawed. As with any steak, be sure to salt it and let it come to room temperature before cooking.
Cooking and Handling Steak
Many people wonder why the steaks they cook at home don't taste as good as the ones they eat at their favorite steakhouse. Well, the grade and quality of the meat you buy is part of the answer. But the other factor is how you handle your meat from the refrigerator, to the counter, to the stove, to the plate. What follows are the essentials for getting your steaks right--better than the steakhouse. Because the truth is, no sauce, no matter how great, will cover up a steak that's been mishandled.
Freshness, Salt, and Temperature
Look for meat that has a nice, deep cherry-red color. A little bit of brown is okay, but avoid anything that looks very light pink, gray, or dark brown (dry-aged beef is more varied in color). Don't stop there. Since color can be faked with additives, the meat should have an appealing feel (never slimy) and a clean smell. It's simple: fresh meat smells good. Yes, good, as in clean and appetizing.
Always take your steak out of the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature before you cook it. Unwrap it, lay it on a plate, flip it, and give both sides a generous dose of kosher salt. Don't worry--it won't dry out or go bad. There is a lot of argument over the virtues and disadvantages ofearly salting, but I think the increase in flavor as that top layer absorbs some of the salt outweighs the minor drawback of a little surface moisture. (See Harold McGee's fabulously geeky book, On Food and Cooking, on the topic of salting, if you don't believe me.) If it's a scorching afternoon in August, of course, don't let a piece of raw meat sit out on the counter for hours. But under normal circumstances, letting the meat sit salted for an hour under a towel or a sheet of plastic wrap is the best thing you can do for your steak before cooking it. Will the salt bring out a little surface moisture? Sure. That's why I suggest rubbing the steak with oil before cooking.
What's not to love about grilling? It's a great excuse to stand around outside with a glass of wine or a tall icy drink of any kind, just watching the flames. In the summer, I cook outside on a large, freestanding, adjustable stone grill. This giant mortar-and-stone monster uses wood--basically, you build a campfire in it and wait for it to burn down to coals--and is big enough to handle twenty steaks at once. In the winter, I grill inside, using a Tuscan Grill that fits into my fireplace. (If you have a fireplace, you have to have one of these--see the Pantry for sources.)
I admit I'm pretty spoiled, cooking over a live wood fire all year round. But happily, there are a bunch of ways to cook a great steak, and in many of the recipes that follow, I'll leave it up to you to pick your favorite method. Charcoal and gas grills are more practical for most people, and they do the job of cooking a steak very nicely, too.
The key to good grilling is getting the heat right so you can sear your steak without blackening it. For charcoal and wood fires, this means building the fire well ahead so that by the time you're ready to cook you have glowing-hot coals but no leaping flames.
Whatever you have--from a simple Weber-style kettle grill to a $50,000behemoth that not only cooks your steaks but also holds your wine collection, dispenses crushed ice, and makes blended drinks--you can use it. I know plenty of people who swear by their gas grills because they don't require a lot of forethought--all you do is pop a beer, step out onto the patio, and flick a switch. Of course, if you have a grill built into your stove, great. You'll get that hot, seared texture on the outside of your meat, with a nice juicy inside--all without putting up with the bugs, cold, or dark. But just because you have one of these, don't miss out on the irresistible thrill of cooking outdoors.
So here are your grilling options, as I see them, and a few tips for getting the heat right.
Charcoal grills automatically impart a nice smoky grill flavor, even though they are a little more trouble than gas. If you cook over this kind of grill, buy some hardwood lump charcoal and use one of those ingenious little chimney starters to get things going. No lighter fluid is required, and the briquettes not only aren't treated, but they'll also impart a little flavor to your meat because they are, in fact, hardwood.
Get the hardwood charcoal ready to light by stuffing some loosely crumpled paper in the bottom of the chimney starter and filling the top with the charcoal. Light the paper and set on a fireproof surface (I usually set it on the grill; air circulating around it is key). After 10 minutes or so, the coals will be glowing from top to bottom. At this point, you can transfer the coals to your grill and add some new charcoal on top of them. Let any new charcoal burn down to brightly glowing coals. You never want to cook over leaping flames. To test whether your grill is hot enough, use the 3-second rule: if you can comfortably hold your hand 2 inches above the grate you'll be cooking on for 3 seconds before you have to pull it away, your fire is just right. I'm a fan of a hot fire for steak; the coals should be glowing brightly with just a hint of white ash.
Gas is very convenient and will give your steak a nice sear and even a bit of that grill-like flavor. Preheat the grill with the cover down, aiming for a reading between 400°F and 450°F. The higher BTU gas grills will make your life easy because they get really hot--35,000 BTUs and up is solid. The cheaper, weaker models will take longer. Sear the steaks over the hottest part of the grill. Don't close the lid on them! Once you've seared both sides, turn down the heat or move them to a cooler spot to finish cooking the interior of thicker steaks. If you have a very thick steak and a weak grill, you might consider moving things along by closing the lid at this point. In general, I prefer to see the steak as it cooks. I suggest keeping the lid open as you let the steak finish cooking over moderate heat.
I love cooking over wood and, to be honest, it's the best way to cook most steaks. Wood gives you high heat and great flavor. With the right grill and a big wood fire burnt down to hot embers, you can control your heat by scooting the coals together or by spreading them out, as you might do to finish cooking a thick steak without burning it.
Build your fire as you would build one in your fireplace, using old newspapers, kindling, and wood. Always use hardwood--pine and fir are not suitable for cooking. Fruit and nut woods, maple, hickory, mesquite--even vine clippings from vineyards--are great and will impart their own distinctive flavor to the meat. Ask around. Whatever you use, light the wood and enjoy the fire for at least an hour before you cook over it. How long it takes to get past the flames and smoke stage to the very hot coal stage depends entirely on how big your pieces of wood are, what kind it is, how well cured it is, and even on the weather. So relax and enjoy the fire. If, when you're ready to cook, you've still got one log that's flaming and smoking, just shove it aside with some tongs and settle the rest of your fire toward the back of the grill to cook your steak.
Cooking Meat on a Grill
Start with salted meat at room temperature. Check that your grill is clean and oiled--if you trim any big chunks of fat from your steak, you can use tongs to run one of these over the grill. Or use a brush with some bacon fat or peanut oil. Second, double-check your grill temperature using the 3-second rule: it's ready if you can comfortably hold your hand 2 inches above the grate--but for no more than 3 seconds. If you can do this, but only just, you've got good heat for cooking. When you put your steak on the hottest part of the fire, you should hear it sizzle. What you want to achieve now is the brown, crispy exterior that's crucial to the meat's taste, even if you like it very rare (there's serious science behind caramelized meat, but I won't bore you with it). Skirt steak, flank steak, or any steak less than 3/4 inch thick doesn't take long before it's done. The browning of the steak is the cooking. For these thin cuts, cook for 3 minutes or so on the first side, flip, go another 2 to 3 minutes, and then it's off to the warming oven (170°F to rest for 5 minutes). For thicker steaks, I like to sear each side and then move the meat to a slightly cooler spot on the grill to finish it up. If you have a smaller grill, you can scoot the coals aside, and for a gas grill, turn the heat way down and let the steak cook the rest of the way on the residual heat. Don't blacken your meat!
To achieve this, aim for between 120° and 125°F on an instant-read thermometer and for no more than a hot char on each side for thinner cuts like skirt steak and flank steak. I've certainly taken steaks off the heat and rested them when they're 115°F, but sometimes they're even a little too rare for me--blue, that is. If your steak comes off the grill and turns out like this, there's nothing wrong with putting it back on the heat or in a hot oven to finish it up. Of course, there's no going back once you've overcooked a lovely piece of meat.