Ready for Spring: A lesson in steak

I get the feeling steak has a certain tag of excess on it. I know there are folks that avoid it because pound for pound, it costs significantly more than other cuts of beef and more than chicken or pork. Well that makes some sense and in these tougher times, we all need that bargain, to be sure. Getting a lesser cut and stretching that dollar is something all of us are thinking about at the meat counter. Still, I think steak, and good steak, has its place. Cooked properly, it needs no other ingredients except salt and pepper. So if I am planning an entrée, steak can be a consideration because I don't have to assemble numerous other ingredients. Often, if I do a dollar for dollar comparison, a nice piece of beef will come out even or maybe even on top (especially if I look for the cut of steak that's on sale). And what about your time? Does that have any value attached to it? If it does, throwing a great chunk of beef on a grill is about as time conscious as it gets.So knowing that you want to make a steak, what's next? Well, I think knowing your cut and what to expect is important. Flank steak, Skirt steak, London Broil, Hangar steak are all terrific but require extra attention for those cuts to be tender. Marinating, slow smoking and/or against-the-grain cutting are all techniques to make these parts of the animal as enjoyable as their more expensive "cousin" cuts. I cook these often and if you'd like to see a great Asian skirt steak recipe, look here.

Since it is spring and the grills are all fired, let's focus on those cuts whose individual price tags are at the top of the scale. Of course there's the Filet Mignon. This comes from the tenderloin which is the muscle that runs along either side of the spine. It does very little work on the animal so it stays tender. If not cut into the Filets and left whole, it is called chateaubriand. In either case, this cut grills really well and is so buttery and rich in flavor that smaller portion sizes (maybe 6 ounces) are often filling. That's good news since it is often the most expensive cut by weight. Many purists will say do nothing but salt and pepper this perfect little beauty (actually these purists will say that about all of the higher cuts) and while I love it that way too, I have taken many delicious liberties with filet over the years. Half a teaspoon of pesto on the finished steak then topped with some toasted goat cheese is exquisite and decadent.

NY strip has become the common name for the strip loin. Also found at the top rear of animal, this hearty, beefy cut is often well marbled. That means these small veins of fat that run through the meat contribute to tenderness, juiciness and overall flavor as the steak cooks and the fat melts into the meat. Strip is still pretty high on the pricelist but again, needs little accoutrement. It is beefy and hearty and is the cut I turn to for the best wine pairings.

Rib eye comes from the side along the ribs and can be cooked bone in or bone off. Many people say that bone on lends more flavor and as "food snobby" as I try to be, I can't taste any difference. Bone on just looks cooler. Now if you do choose bone on, make sure you're paying less per pound. Otherwise you're paying the same for the bone as you are for the meat. That's just silly. The taste is more delicate than strip and is slightly more marbled. It is my favorite cut to look at on the plate.

If size is your issue (still talking about steak), a T-Bone or Porterhouse is for the hearty steak lover. I have 2 20 Oz. T-Bones in the freezer and they will grace my grill with beefy goodness in the very near future. We've actually already described the T-Bone because it is a filet AND NY Strip separated by a center bone. That would be 2 of the highest cuts on one pricey bone. It is steak nirvana, I assure you. Depending on your appetite, one of these can generally feed two people.

Now that we've mastered a few favorite cuts, grading the beef is critical. While a bit misunderstood it's really quite basic. Grading is a step beyond the mandatory pass/fail inspection required for the USDA. Meat companies voluntarily pay for this service. The higher the grade, the more "anticipated" flavor, tenderness and juiciness the meat will possess. While there are generally 8 accepted grades, we stick to the top 3 for steak consumption. Prime, choice and select (in that order) are what we get from restaurants and grocery stores with prime being the top dog. Anecdotally, I find a much more significant price jump from choice to prime than I do from select to choice. Prime is also pretty difficult to get at the grocery store. You will need a relationship with a butcher and a fairly fat wallet. Making things more confusing, prime rib doesn't necessarily (or even usually) come from Prime beef. It is a roast including the 7 ribs from the shoulder to the loin, hence the term standing rib roast. It is cooked differently than steak but the discussion of steak vs. roast is for another time. Cut into individual ribs, these are your rib eye steaks and perfectly suited for grilling.

I hope you take complete advantage of this great time of year, our beautiful weather and your grill. Please grill up sausages and burgers, chicken and ribs, but don't overlook the one meat that is truly an American icon: The tender, delicious and gorgeous steak.

I don't know about your neighborhood but if you drive through mine at dinner time, you'll know its spring. The smell of grills fired up is a constant and it will be for a while. Even though we Floridians are proud that we grill year ‘round, something about late march through Memorial Day fills the air with the smoke that brings flavor to so many special meats. If it can be roasted or pan seared, it goes perfect on the Barbie. No matter what you choose to cook outdoors, you'll get the added dimension of smokiness. At my house, I am always looking for something original to do on the grill but this time of year, I like to revisit the basics and the quintessential grill meat is Steak.

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