Well, I finally grok the differences between sundry cuts of meat. Until now, the difference between New York steak and sirloin or between prime rib and ribeye was, well, a difference in price. Sure, I knew in an intellectual sort of way that some cuts of beef were better than others, but the only way I could really notice the difference was on restaurant menus. It didn't seem that inherently obvious, really. I mean, it's all the same cow, right? Okay, probably not, but why one muscle chunk should be so much better than another was kind of nebulous. And why should yummier bits cost more? I mean, I can't imagine cows are designed like opera seating or company parking, where the best parts are rare. So the different cuts were just ways to fill up the 'beef' part of the menu, as far as I was concerned.
Recently, though, I discovered this super yummy way to make steaks at home. It's a product called 'char-crust'. What you do is, you take your meat and powder it with the char-crust, then broil it. I usually put the char-crust on a plate, then press the meat into it on all sides, so I get a nice even coating. (Don't pour extra char-crust on top after all that will stick to the meat has stuck to the meat; this leads to overseasoning. No, the amount that adheres after several dousings and gentle shakings is the perfect amount.)
Then you broil the encrusted steak(s). I love the broil setting, and this is why: it involves no decision making at all. You don't have to figure out how hot to heat the oven, or how to compensate if your oven runs hot or cold, or how the coals in the barbeque grill are doing. Nope. Turn the oven to 'broil', let it warm a bit, then slide in the meat. (I'm going to avoid any licentious analogies.) Five minutes on one side, five minutes on the other, and it's ready to serve. If the steak is thicker than maybe three-quarters inch, add another two minutes on either side. The char-crust totally insulates the meat from burning.
It's great stuff, and I had been looking for something that required less planning than marinading, which was my previous meat-flavoring method. So, having decided to cook steak, I got some New York steaks at our local(ish) butcher shop up in Laurel. As a grocery store, the Laurel Meat Market is pretty sad. Wilted cabbage heads, limited chewing gum selection, no green curry paste. But, as a butcher shop, it's excellent. The freshest meat this side of roadkill. Anyways, I got these steaks, char-crusted them with the garlic & peppercorn flavor, and broiled 'em.
They were so damn good. I mean, better than restaurant steaks. In fact, this char-crust + New York steak + broil thing has really spoiled me on restaurant steaks. Get a New York steak at, say, Outback steakhouse, and it's just nowhere near the same. And although raw New York steaks are pricy ($7.99 per pound, I seem to recall), that's nothing compared to the upwards of $20 most restaurants will charge. Upwards of $40, to get a steak of comparable yumminess, because to do so requires a swanky steak-oriented restaurant like Ruth's Chris steakhouse.
That's the downside. The upside is... wow. So yummy. I'm telling you, these steaks are the bomb. We've had 'em every week since that discovery. Only once a week, tops, though, since they are pretty expensive. And that led me to the discovery I mentioned at the start.
I'd like to observe, here, that this is my wife's fault. When I find a recipe that works, I stick to it. But she's unhappy that a truly yummy steak costs about $9, so she asked me to try char-crusting the less expensive sirloin steaks. This I did. And - intellectually no surprise but experientially a first - they were less yummy. Chewier, and less flavorful. Still good, mind you, but nothing to write home about. Much less a Cant column.
We weren't done, though. Because the next week, I had purchased a London broil which I had intended to cube and turn into slow-cook chili. This did not happen, but my wife suggested char-crusting it and seeing if the bottom level steaks were any good that way. After all, the sirloin hadn't been orgasmically good but it had been tasty enough. Well, the london broil was a washout. (Kind of ironic, given that it was a london 'broil'.) If the char-crust were more expensive, it would have been a waste of char-crust. As it was, it was a waste of a perfectly good empty stomach.
But now I really grok the power of New York steaks. They are a tastier cut of meat. Sure, it's probably the fat content. I'll observe, though, that although New York steaks are visibly fattier, beef fat isn't a real selling point for me. In fact, I always trim off however much of the nasty white stuff I can, both during preparation and during eating. At restaurants I leave huge chunks of steak uneaten because they are just too fatty for me to enjoy. Both the taste and the texture of beef fat displease me. So although a New York is definitely fattier than a different cut, it's not nefariously so.
Anyhow, I highly recommend you try some of this char-crust stuff and broil a couple of New York steaks with it. I am of two minds as regards using the other cuts of meat. Mind you, this means as regards to broiling with char-crust; sirloin steaks are excellent barbequed and there's no reason to use better than a london broil for stews or chilis. But as for the really tasty stuff, it's kind of a question of how comfortable you feel about the different cuts of meat. If you already understand how different they are, stick with broiling the top shelf cuts. If not, though, it may be worth your while to cook several types of beef in exactly the same way, just to experience the difference.
And then you can get on with your life.
- Sun Ra
Columns by Sun Ra