Happiness is steak
A great steak requires diligent cooking.
You want that supercharged caramelisation called the Maillard reaction. This is when sugars and amino acids combine and recombine forming complex assortments of nutty, fruity, savoury, floral and earthy flavour compounds in a delicious crispy crust. The fat brings even more flavours to the party. So far, 340 different flavour compounds have been identified in grilled beef. As the surface is browning, the meat beneath the crust is changing. Enzymes weaken fibres. Proteins are unfolded. Connective tissue starts tightening, squeezing juices into the pan. This juice (or protein-bound water) adds the elusive savouriness or umami, especially to a dry-aged steak from a mature animal.
The application of heat makes meat juicier and easier to chew. Too much heat and all the juice is lost, leaving the steak dry and bland. At medium rare, some juice has been released to help form the crust but not too much has escaped. It goes without saying, you rest the meat after cooking—for about as long as it was cooked. Resting evens out the temperature of the meat, preventing a cold core, and increases the water retention of meat. This means more juice makes its way into your mouth and isn’t lost on the plate.
The Maillard crust increases our perception of juiciness because its intense flavour stimulates the flow of saliva. Chewing away, our tongues detect an orgasmic amalgamation of sugars, salts, umami amino acids and fat, sparking the pleasure sensation in our orbitofrontal cortex. Quite literally eating steak makes us happy.
A steak can only be as good as the quality of meat.
We’re often guided by colour when choosing beef. Darker meat suggests an older animal and longer ageing. That’s good. But well-aged meat can be bright red once trimmed while vacuum-packing or prolonged stress before slaughter can both make meat appear darker. The best approach is to ask your butcher about breed and feed, and age and ageing. So go make friends.
Once upon a time British cattle was exported all over the world. Their descendants constitute most of the beef herd in America and Argentina. Even the Japanese crossed their revered Wagyu cattle with British breeds to improve flavour. This was back in the 19th century. In the 20th century the priority to produce large quantities of cheap beef killed flavour. To this day certain modern farming methods cut corners and costs while some farmers are pressured to produce leaner meat to satisfy the fat-phobia of British consumers. Bye bye flavour again.
It costs money to produce quality beef. There’s no getting around it. An animal’s life and death, and everything that happens to its meat from slaughter to the plate affects how it will taste. Thankfully there’s British beef out there that will make you drool with delight. Rare and traditional British breeds are likely to have great flavour because they’re slow-growing and have significantly more slow-twitch muscle fibres.
In the 18th century, when Robert Bakewell put his fattest long horned bulls with his fattest long horned cows, it sparked a revolution. His Dishley Longhorn is recognised as the first official breed of cattle. What had taken centuries of evolution was now achieved over a few generations. Regional cattle were improved by mating animals with desirable traits, like the black and red beasties of Aberdeen and Angus, which quickly became the biggest brand in the beef world. Farmers learned they could introduce characteristics from one breed to another. To increase profit they crossed flavoursome, slow-growing British breeds with larger, faster-growing continental breeds.
Shoppers still commonly believe Aberdeen-Angus to be the best around. And it can be really, really good. But it’s worth knowing that, these days, what’s classified as Aberdeen-Angus in the UK can contain as little as 50% Aberdeen-Angus genes. Whereas in America, beef certified as Aberdeen-Angus doesn’t have to have any Aberdeen-Angus genes. It just has to be at least 50% black. WTF!
I eat at Hawksmoor a lot where they serve Longhorn beef available from Ginger Pig. It’s their favourite and it’s fantastic—even better than the Welsh Black which predates Roman times. Heston Blumenthal chose the majestic Longhorn in his quest to produce the perfect steak. The meat has an open texture with a deep flavour and, honestly, it’s the most delicious British beef I’ve tasted so far.
Mark Schatzker went on his One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef and concluded grass-fed beef tastes best.
Imagine cattle roaming freely, nonchalantly grazing grass and daydreaming the day away.
Contrast this with American cattle huddled together on feedlots gorging on flaked, genetically-modified corn mixed with high-protein supplements and laced with growth hormones and beta-antagonists. Their rapid supersize weight gain produces the marbling graded by the USDA. But the bovine digestive systems can’t deal with corn. The animals would die from the quantities fed to them if they weren’t given massive amounts of antibiotics to prevent their guts and livers failing.
And guess what? Marbling doesn’t contribute a huge amount to taste. Controversial, huh?
Scientist Harold McGee, and author of the book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, confirms that less marbled meat of grass-fed cattle has more flavour than the more marbled meat of grain-fed cattle. Grass-fed beef has a rounded and complex flavour. Corn-fed beef tastes one dimensional. Grass is a living leafy plant high in odorous substances. Dry corn is an empty carbohydrate. Grass is high in Vitamin B, antioxidants Vitamin E and beta-carotene, plus a surprising amount of Omega 3 fatty acids. That’s right—the fishy good stuff. Grass-fed beef is therefore better for us.
Rearing animals on grass is more expensive because it takes longer for them to grow to a good size. Grass is subject to nature and its nutritional value varies massively so a grass-fed animal isn’t guaranteed to taste great. Bought-in grain on the other hand is cheap, consistent and consistently produces commodity beef.
In my opinion good animal welfare, my health and great taste are worth the price.
Sir Henry Thompson in 1880 said, “very young meat, from animals forced to a large size in a very short time, is neither agreeable in taste, nor easily digested.”
Supermarkets sell their cherry-red, shrink-wrapped steaks from animals less than 20 months old. Hawkmoor’s Longhorns munch on grass and clover for 30 months while their American counterparts are sent for slaughter at 12 to 14 months. Meat is muscle, and flavour is directly linked to the amount of work that muscle has done. “Life intensifies flavour”, so the older the cow, the more work it has done and the better its flavour.
For me, the steaks at Hawkmoor are beaten only by Spanish Old Cow available from Turner & George. These Galician and Basque cows graze and forage naturally until they are at least 10 years old. Franck Ribière and butcher Yves-Marie Le Bourdonnec in their film Steak (R)evolution concluded much the same.
Buy dry-aged beef. Why? Because it’s a flavour extravaganza and plastic-free.
Dry ageing promotes the growth of certain moulds on the surface of the meat, which produce enzymes that tenderise and boost flavour. The mould is trimmed away when the meat is ready to eat—after at least 28 days. In that time water evaporation intensifies the flavour even further. Improved flavour and texture comes at the cost of weight. Some producers don’t like this because they have less meat to sell. Enter wet ageing; it even sounds wrong. The meat is vacuum-sealed in plastic, refrigerated, then shipped to the market. Ageing happens in the 4 to 10 days between slaughter and sale while the meat is in transit. Sure, there’s zero weight loss but frankly there’s not much flavour either.
Dry-aged beef tastes better and, counter-intuitively, tastes juicier than wet-aged beef.
It’s possible to get a bad steak from a pure, native breed and an excellent steak from a careful cross. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, beef that comes from a slow growing animal, which has lived life stress-free, has eaten a natural diet of grass and hay, and whose carcass has been dry-aged after slaughter, is almost certain to be really good meat.