Like making fire, shaking a signature cocktail and changing a tyre, cooking the perfect steak is a life skill every man needs in his day-to-day arsenal. Trouble is, every alpha male alive also thinks his steak is the best.
To really back up that claim, you need the ability to wax lyrical about different types of steak, why feed affects flavour and how the ageing process works. And yes, you have to serve up a piece of meat that is better than sex. Below, some of the UK’s best butchers and steak chefs explain it all, giving you a reusable clip of dinner party ammo that will serve you well for life.
Choosing Your Cut
Selecting what’s going on your plate begins at your butcher’s door. “Take a moment to think about your shop. It should smell slightly sweet, the displays should be clean, as should the staff. A butcher who takes pride in his appearance will inevitably apply these principles to his work,” says Richard Turner, group head chef for Hawksmoor, one of the UK’s best steakhouses.
It’s all about showing a bit of interest. Butchers are convivial chaps – they’re only too happy to talk about the types of steak on offer. “Ask what breed the animal is, where was it farmed, what it ate, how old it was at slaughter, how long it has been hung and – most importantly – if he has tasted it and if can he recommend it,” says Turner. “Enter a dialogue and treat it like a first date. It’s a life-long relationship you are after.”
Steak, unlike chicken and pork, is a type of meat that you can tell a lot from, just by looking. There are plenty of visual cues to assess: “You want a deep red colour, which shows that it has been dry-aged,” says Grant Martin of boutique London butcher Parson’s Nose.
“There should be a slightly darker edge on the outside of the fat. This shows that it’s been aged properly and that the blood has passed through the meat with oxygen, causing the lactic acid build up that adds flavour to the meat. Steak that is sold too fresh after the kill is bright pink, tastes of very little and is tough to eat.”
While you’ll never get as good quality or the same level of advice in a supermarket, you can apply the same principles. Don’t feel bad about touching it through the plastic. If you poke it and it leaves a finger mark, as well as feeling wet and soft, it’s not been aged properly.
Grass-fed happy cows will taste better than those who’ve been on a grain diet. It also means they will have been reared most of their lives outdoors, enjoying sunlight. “A yellowy tinge to the fat is a good thing,” says Jonny Farrell, head butcher on Jimmy’s Farm. “It comes from the carotene the cow has digested from eating grass. The best steak I’ve had, from 18-year-old ex-dairy cows, had a stunning deep amber quality to it.”
Marbling – the tie dye-style white pattern within the meat – is key to flavour. “You want a nice even spread of marbling throughout steak,” says Martin. “Any marbling patterns towards the outside of the cut suggests that it has been fattened quickly prior to slaughter. If the meat is too dark in colour, a deep black or red, it could be a sign that the animal was stressed before the kill and then the meat will eat tough.”
The Basics Of Cooking A Steak
The most important thing when it comes to cooking a steak – or any other meat, for that matter – is to make sure it’s at room temperature before it hits the heat, a process called ‘tempering’. Leaving it out for 30 minutes pre-cooking is about right for the perfect cut, which is 350g and 4cm thick.
“It’s a common mistake to season before cooking, as this draws out moisture,” says Michael Reid, head chef of M Restaurants. “You need a pan so hot that it’s smoking and you can’t hold your hand near it. Place it into the pan and leave it – if it’s hot enough it won’t stick. Season the face-up side heavily with Maldon sea salt and fresh black pepper.
“Once you’re starting to get a nice colour, add a couple of cubes of butter to the pan and lower the temperature. Tilt the pan away from you and scoop up the melted butter with a spoon. Baste the steak with this liquid as much as you can – you’re pumping in flavour,” says Reid. “Flip it after three minutes for medium rare and repeat the process on the other side. Drop in a sprig of thyme to add flavour to the butter.”
Then to rest. Resting is vital to cooking all types of steak as it gives the cut time to redistribute moisture and give the juicy, butter-like texture you’re after. “A simple rule is to rest it for as long as you cooked it,” says Reid. “Wrap it loosely in some foil on a chopping board so it doesn’t lose too much heat.”
Types Of Steak
Aka: Culotte (literally, ‘trousers’) in France and (confusingly) sirloin in the US.
Found: On the animal’s backside.
What To Look For: You won’t see much marbling as it’s a lean cut – the rump does more work than other parts of the animal – but make sure yours has been cut against the grain. It needs plenty of hanging time to develop flavour, at least 22 days. The ideal size is about two inches thick.
Taste: The best-value, everyday type of steak. It’s packed with flavour, but as it’s a working cut, it requires extra care when cooking and isn’t one to take rare.
How To Cook It: It needs a minimum of three minutes on each side with plenty of basting. As it’s a muscular cut, you need to break down the fibres with heat and fat to make sure it’s tender. Resting is vital here, too.
Aka: Spencer in the States and generally served bone-in.
Found: On the fore rib of the cow. The ribeye section spans from ribs six through to 12.
What To Look For: A good example should be well marbled with a central layer of fat running through. A big old hunk of fat on the corner suggests skilled butchery and will aid cooking.
Taste: Its fat content brings the flavour. “It’s our most popular cut,” says Hawksmoor’s Turner. “It’s great on the barbecue as it benefits from a nice hit of smoke.”
How To Cook It: As it’s a little-worked cut, you can eat it as rare as you dare. Get the pan as hot as you think it can go, then give it another 30 seconds before frying. If it’s not spitting and screaming when you cook it, it’s not hot enough.
Found: From the middle-back section of the beast, covering the spine.
What To Look For: The sirloin responds brilliantly to ageing. Some butchers give up to 60 days to allow it to develop an extra beefy flavour. These types of steak will be dark red, but don’t accept anything with a green, almost slimy deposit as it means it has started to spoil.
Taste: According to legend, King James I was so impressed with this cut he anointed it ‘Sir Loin’ in 1617 and it’s stuck ever since. A great balance of fat to muscle means the melt-in-the-mouth texture is easier to achieve. “Even if you don’t like to eat the fat, make sure you cook it with it on,” says Martin of Parson’s Nose. “Allow it to do its work, then cut it off after cooking, if you really have to.”
How To Cook It: You need to properly render the fat, which means a super-hot pan. Keep cooking until the fat has taken on a golden brown colour the entire width of the steak. Take it rare, medium, or well done, just make sure it’s rested for the duration that it had in the pan.
Aka: Filet Mignon in the States and Filet du Boeuf in France.
Found: Inside the sirloin, running along the side of the animal’s spine.
What To Look For: You won’t find any marbling here – this muscle does no work at all. You’re after a deep cut of a similar width, so it cooks at an even rate.
Taste: It’s the leanest, most expensive cut and popular among gym-goers. However, its lack of fat means less flavour and it doesn’t benefit from hanging or ageing, as there’s no fat to break down. It works well with fatty sauces, like Diane or peppercorn.
How To Cook It: Cook it rare or medium rate and go for a medium heat with plenty of basting. As it’s so lean it can easily become tough as the fibres tighten, so be careful not to overcook.
Found: The lower middle of the animal. It’s part sirloin and part fillet with the two cuts divided by the ‘T’ of bone.
What To Look For: This cut takes skilled butchery, so make sure everything looks even and cleanly cut. Straight lines and good-sized portions of both steaks make a good steak.
Taste: The best of both worlds. You’ve got the leanness of the fillet contrasted with the fat of the sirloin. Ready you largest pan.
How To Cook It: The two different cuts require different cooking times, so it can be tricky. Your best bet is to have the butcher leave the bone in. Sear the whole thing in a hot pan, then transfer to a 200°C oven for 10 minutes to make sure everything is properly cooked and tender.
Aka: Flank in the States and France.
Found: The end of the inner flank, just above the liver and kidney, sitting over the belly.
What To Look For: An even, flat sheet of meat, with an almost rope-like texture and good, even marbling. You can expect superb value for these, as the UK is only just starting to adopt it.
Taste: Arguably the best-tasting cut when properly prepared. Fat and muscle tissue in perfect harmony to create a full flavoured, meaty steak that’s brilliant on the barbecue.
How To Cook It: These benefit from tenderising by marinating overnight. Try olive oil, soy sauce, lime juice, salt and coriander and leave it in a freezer bag in the fridge. Bring up room temperature and cook on a searing heat for four minutes on both sides.
Found: Next to the diaphragm, running through the centre of the animal.
What To Look For: A similar ropey texture to bavette and don’t be put off by its uneven nature. You want a thin, flat near-circle of meat.
Taste: Huge depth of flavour and a slight offally tang as it’s so close to the animal’s organs. A true meat lover’s cut and popular among anyone who holidayed to France in the nineties. Serve with French fries and a stubby glass of vin rouge for the full effect.
How To Cook It: This works well butterflied to create a thin sheet of meat that can be served super rare. Try two minutes on either side and plenty of seasoning.
Found: On the shoulder blade.
What To Look For: This should be cut with the grain with a bit of fascia membrane attached – don’t let this put you off when buying, but cut it off prior to cooking.
Taste: It will be a little tough and a little chewy, but the flavour (and its inexpensive price tag) makes up for it.
How To Cook It: Never serve it beyond medium. Because of its density, it will take slightly longer to cook – say, eight minutes. Start it in a hot pan and reduce the heat, to make sure it’s cooked all the way through.
Found: On the tail of the fillet – the most expensive cut in the butcher’s window.
What To Look For: A thick-cut cannon of steak that has even size across its length.
Taste: This is the perfect sharing steak. It’s as tender as a fillet with the flavour of a sirloin – not with huge meaty flavours and texture like butter when cooked properly.
How To Cook It: It’s extra lean, so benefits from the addition of copious butter. Heat a hot pan and sear it on all edges. As it’s cylinder shaped, use tongs to make sure each edge gets golden-brown colour. Finish it for 14 minutes in an 180C oven and slice into two-inch rounds before serving.