I’ve got a freezer containing of 3/8 of a massive steer. In trying to cram all this into my freezer space, I came across an artifact from way back in 2010: a lone rib steak, the last bit of W – the cow we bought in last year’s inaugural Beef Draft.
As longtime readers will know, I’m inclined to use the scientific method whenever possible. There’s been documented taste tests of beef and cupcakes, among other things, on these pages; moreover, I’d recently gone to a party at my friend Micah’s whose nominal purpose was to hold blind taste testing of water (unsurprisingly, I picked out the morally untenable Fiji from the bunch, crushing NYC tap [both Brita-ed and virgin], Poland Spring [which is just tap water from Maine – the worst], and Voss) and chocolate (Scharffen Berger, Dagoba, and a bunch of brands I’d never heard of – Feodora [my favorite of the five], Vivani, and Hoja Verde); the results are tabulated and analyzed nicely here. So when I found the 2009 vintage beef, I instinctively reached for a similar cut on Crazy Eddie, the steer we had just bought, and slowly, automatically, as though guided by an invisible hand, I began hatching a plan to cook them up and compare.
To minimize the difference in cook time and intensity I planned to cook both at the same time in the same giant pan. Each steak was cut to the same one-inch thickness.
Sizing up the two competitors, the first obvious difference was size. As you’d expect, the rib steak coming from the 880-lb Crazy Eddie dwarfed 586-lb W’s.
Next: marbling. The marbling, or evenly-dispersed intramuscular fat, on W was much more pronounced than on Eddie, whose fat was almost entirely subcutaneous (outside the muscle, just under the skin).
Finally: color. Crazy Eddie was a far more brilliant red than W; it was gorgeous, like the tuna sashimi you get a the really good joints. This was even true upon comparing pics of Crazy Eddie to year-old photos of W, eliminating any fading that might have been caused by a year in the cooler.
I can’t think of the word “cooler” without thinking of Steve McQueen, my favorite old movie actor from childhood. I’m reasonably certain that McQueen has logged the most time in solitary confinement in the history of filmed entertainment, a mach honor which was undoubtedly part of his appeal for me. The Great Escape is a must-see, and in it McQueen does three separate stints totaling several months in solitary – so much time that his character was nicknamed “The Cooler King” in the closing credits. But that was nothing compared to his masterowrk in the pokey: the based-on-a-true-story Papillon, in which McQueen logged a total of seven years in the hole in a notorious island prison.
The main things when you’re making steaks:
1. Super hot cast iron pan. Heat it for a few minutes; drops of water should make aggressive noises and disappear instantly when you put them on the surface. Then add oil, wait a few seconds and make sure the bottom’s covered, then add beef.
2. Dry beef. Pat steaks extremely dry before putting in the pan. If the meat is wet, it can’t get hot enough to sear – the temperature in the immediate vicinity of wet meat stays ataround 212 degrees F, the boiling point of water, and meat won’t sear at that temperature.
3. Rest them after cooking. That means, remove from heat – not just the pan from the flame, but the beef from the pan as well – and let it sit before cutting into it. Absolutely any steak or roast should be allowed to rest prior to eating; steaks should sit off heat for a period long equal to the amount of time the spent over the flame. In his excellent River Cottage Meat Book, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall puts the rationale perfectly:
The ability of meat tissue to hold water decreases as it heats up. So the hotter, outer layers will quickly expel hot juices, especially when cut. Resting will lessen the temperature difference between the outside of the meat and the center, increasing the water-holding capacity throughout. In layman’s terms, you could say that the moisture “settles back into the meat.”
Resting the meat helps to forgive any minor miscalculations in the overall cooking time. Slightly overcooked meat will be less dry after resting because moisture at the outside will have been drawn back into the meat. Slightly underdone meat* will be less “raw” as the warm juices are drawn back towards the middle, continuing the cooking process a little.
*Your author questions the existence of “undercooked meat,” except as it applies to the absence or presence of the Maillard reaction; otherwise, beef literally can’t be too rare for me. In a prior experiment with cooking sous vide in a beer cooler, I was unsatisfied with the result at the official”rare” designation of 120 degrees Fahrenheit, so with subsequent steaks I progressively lowered the cooking temperature until I was satisfied with the result, which was at 100 degrees F. My friend Chris let me know that my preferred level of doneness is a lower temperature than that of a healthy living cow.
I served them with a 2008 Bogle Petite Sirah, which, if you’re into the big, thick-ass California fruit-bomb kind of wines, and I am, this one’s a great buy at around 12 smackeroos. Angela’s been making a raw kale dish that’s out of this world and will be profiled soon in this space; she made some for this meal, and a half an acorn squash.
Both steaks were fantastic. I’d been told to expect more flavor out of the new steer; it wasn’t just larger but significantly older, around 27 months as opposed to 21 for W. I didn’t experience that at all – I thought both were about on the same level flavorwise. This may change with the braising meats, which bring out the flavor something fierce, but for the steaks the flavors ran a dead heat.
It was in the texture that W nosed ahead; it was a little bit more tender, and had none of the little gristly bits that you run into on most steaks (Crazy Eddie’s included), which made W a transcendent eating experience.
So if I had to choose, I’d choose W; but it’s a close race. And I’m spoiled: I’d take any of Crazy Eddie over any non-W beef I’ve had in the US, period. Other lesson learned: meat freezes exceptionally well. That a steak could come out none the worse for wear after having spent a year in cryostasis is a testament to the power of the freezer. Use yours in health.