For a brief period in the late ’80s, fine dining meant small portions of meat surrounded by an esoteric arrangement of a few impeccably sliced vegetables, with brightly colored pureed sauces and herb oils squiggled around the edges of the plate. A grim period for ranchers and food lovers alike. Those were the days when less meant more and a hearty steak on a refined menu was just about out of the question. But this couldn’t possibly last for long! And now, while the pendulum hasn’t quite swung all the way back to red meat and potatoes five to seven nights a week, the decadent steak is certainly back in style, showing up in home kitchens and restaurants in all of its robust glory.
With a strong economy and a growing taste for luxury items, including fine wines, cigars, and martinis, it didn’t take Americans too long to miss the silky texture and hearty flavor of our long-lost juicy cuts of beef. Rich and indulgent, the naturally salty sweet flavors washed down by a robust cabernet pamper the palates while feeding the soul. With a mere sprinkle of salt and black pepper, a perfectly cooked medium-rare steak–its reddish pink center gradually becoming more opaque as it nears the crispy seared edges–turns a modest meal into a culinary carnival. Home on the ranch or at a white tablecloth restaurant, beef is back in fashion, especially when prepared properly.
While few food lovers would debate the merits of a perfectly cooked steak, chefs from professional kitchens to backyard barbecues passionately ponder the ultimate techniques and treatments used to achieve that meaty masterpiece. For the perfect presentation of a crispy charred exterior with soft, tender pink meat inside, direct high heat is the only way to go. Over hot coals or wood, in a cast-iron skillet or under the broiler, the idea is to sear each side and bring out the meat’s naturally sweet flavors as they caramelize on the exterior, holding the wonderful juices inside. Great steaks, especially those that have been dry aged, need little seasoning beyond salt and pepper when they are prepared successfully. A sprinkling of herbs or a dash of marinade can be a pleasant addition, but saucing too generously beyond the natural jus often covers up the inherent sumptuous flavors, creating nothing but a culinary crime.
As the cooking discussion continues, so does the controversy over the optimum cut. For some the T-bone has it all, while others say the tenderloin is prime, and yet still others champion the New York strip. Is anyone really right? For the most part, the best cuts for steak are from the loin and rib sections of the beef, where the meat is tender and flavorful from marbleized fat. Among the prized cuts, those with extensive marbling like the scrumptious rib-eye are extremely flavorful, while a filet mignon–which has less fat overall–is often the most tender. Both of these cuts, along with the T-bone, New York strip, hanger steak, and skirt steaks, are most commonly seen on restaurant menus, a testament to their high performance when the heat’s up high. Classically served with a mound of crispy fries, with an ear of corn or with some green beans, a simple side dish is all you need to make the menu complete when indulging in one of these fabulous cuts.
From a double-cut T-bone to a center rib-eye, everyone seems to favor a different cut, yet the fact remains that steak is here to stay. Around the backyard grill with family or at a fine restaurant with friends, say “Welcome back!” to the meat that luxury with every juicy morsel. So get out those steak knives and enjoy: once again it’s hip to eat heartily.