The secret world of steak-talk
Learn the lingo so you can better understand what goes into the perfect piece of meat
I have just had one of the best steaks I have eaten in a long time. It was at a restaurant called Firedoor in Sydney and, as I was eating it, I realised why it is impossible for us to get such a terrific steak at home. Lennox Hastie, the chef at Firedoor, who cooked the steak for me, told me about its provenance.
It came from a breeder the restaurant works closely with, who raises a special kind of Angus cow that has a fat content similar to Wagyu. The steak is then dry-aged for over 200 days. Lennox then cooked it on an open charcoal fire with the flames lapping at its side.
As I listened to him talk, it occurred to me that there is a whole vocabulary out there that only butchers, breeders and chefs seem to understand. So here's a rough guide to the secret world of steak-talk.
Breed: I've written in previous columns about how devalued terms like Angus and Wagyu have become. I wouldn't pay too much attention to them. But, basically, the difference between steaks is fat or marbling In the meat. And what, you ask, is marbling? Well, read on.
Marbling: A really good steak will have little flecks of white. This is the fat within the meat and it is called marbling.
Some cows have meat with very little fat. The Chianina of Italy, from which the famous Bistecca of Florence is made, is largely fat-free, which is why Italians pour olive oil over the steak after it is cooked.
Most top Japanese breeds have lots of fat, which is what makes them so special. A good Japanese steak is valued for the complexity of its fat.
In the US, the best cuts of steak are called US Prime and have the highest level of marbling. These cuts will usually not be available at supermarkets and you can only get them at gourmet stores or at top restaurants.
What made my Firedoor steak so unusual was that the Australian breeder had (probably through cross-breeding) taken an Angus breed and created a strain that had a very high level of marbling. So the fat was rich and complex but then, so was the meat.
Why is marbling important? Two reasons. First, when you cook the steak, the fat melts and moistens the meat from the inside. And second, good fat has a wonderful flavour that it imparts to the steak.
Ageing: Contrary to what you might think, fresh meat is not necessarily the best. A good steak needs to be aged. During this process, the enzymes in the meat work on the fibres, adding tenderness and flavour.
Most steaks are wet-aged, a quick and cheap process that involves putting the meat in a vacuum packet. But good steaks are dry-aged. This is an expensive business because it involves hanging up sides of beef in a cold room, usually from a meat hook. A good steak will be dry-aged for 28 days or so, during which time the enzymes will impart rich flavours to the meat. Some chefs (say, Australia's Neil Perry) claim to use ageing processes that even impart a blue cheese flavour to the beef.
Given that 28 days of ageing yields a good steak, those who age their beef for 90 to 120 days are really pushing the process further in the hope of getting some extraordinary flavours from the beef. Firedoor's ageing process takes 221 days and is the longest I have ever come across.
Cooking: Various chefs have various ways of cooking steak, but I think Lennox Hastie's way is the best. He puts it on an iron grill just above a wood fire. After the initial cooking, with flames licking it from all sides, he raises the grill for another two minutes or so to allow the steak to finish cooking at a lower temperature. Then he rests the steak for about five minutes to give the meat fibres a chance to relax and for the juices to flow through the steak. He then sprinkles it with sea-salt.
That's it. No oil. No sauce. No fries. At the most, he serves a salad as a palate cleanser between bites, but not as an accompaniment.
There is also the American way of cooking steak. This involves charring the outside so you get a crust on the surface and very tender meat on the inside. Most steakhouses adopt this style, but serious chefs are less keen on it.
Taste: What should you look for in a good steak? Unfortunately, all that most people look for is texture. If the steak is easy to cut, then they are happy. They will use a sauce or mustard or some other accompaniment anyway, so the flavour will be masked.
But, if you ask me, the taste is even more important than the texture. One of London's hottest restaurants, Kitty Fisher, serves steaks made from aged dairy cows from Galicia in Spain. The beef is a little chewy, but it is delicious.
I don't think a steak should need a sauce. If it does, then it is either not a good steak or it has been cooked badly.
Not everyone agrees with this. Even, the Japanese will give you the option of sauces with their best Kobe beef. But this is my opinion, for what it is worth!