”Whatever has become of the great American steak house, not to mention the great New York steak house?"
Vogue Food Critic
What comes to mind when you enter a steakhouse? Old-fashioned decor, perhaps: wooden tables, clean walls. Plain sides: mashed potatoes, shoestring fries, creamed spinach; the fancy is scorned. Massive wine lists, pages and pages long, but the beer's always good. Waiters who don't take "well-done" as an answer. (And those at Peter Lugers still don't; their brows draw down in puzzlement if you should utter such sacrilege to them, and will gently - but firmly - tell you that it is not the right answer.) But most importantly? Dry-aged, USDA Prime, beautifully done steaks. Now that is what makes a steakhouse.
The Perfect Steak
Steak meat comes from young cows: the steer (young unsexed male) and the heifer (female kept away from bulls). The primary source of meat comes from the back, and can be separated in these categories:
Shell: A side of meat past the ribs that is connected to the filet by a thin bone. The shell is sliced into strips typically known as "shell steak", or the "New York Strip."
Filet: A side of meat past the ribs, connected to the shell by a thin bone. When sliced into steaks, make up the filet mignon. (While especially tender, filet mignon isn't really the best part of the steak.)
Filet and Shell: When the shell and the filet are left on the bone and sliced accordingly, the resulting steaks are the T-bones and porterhouses. (Peter Lugers serves these. Mm.)
Ribs 6-12: The ribs 6-12 (starting the count from the shoulder going toward the rump) make up the rib steaks (known as "rib-eyes") and rib roasts.
Loin: The loin is from the section between the 12th and the 13th (and final) rib. From this area is the sirloin steak.
Steaks of Yesteryear
However, the steaks are today are not the same as the steaks of yesteryear, and not entirely for the better.
USDA's Beef Grading Practices
The United States Department of Agriculture first developed a rudimentary set of classes to grade beef in the early 20th century, and were established in practice by 1927. 12 degrees of marbling (lines of fat) were determined initially: "extremely abundant", "very abundant", "abundant", "moderately abundant", "slightly abundant", "moderate", "modest", "small", "slight", "traces", "practically devoid", and "devoid." Nowadays, only 6 of the 12 still exist, with the outer 6 extremes dropped ("extremely abundant", "very abundant", "abundant", "traces", "practically devoid", and "devoid"). At this moment, only Japan still currently keeps most of the grading guidelines, including that of the highest 3.
The 1950s saw the change in the definition of USDA "Prime" beef to what we know today: the categories "Prime" and "Choice" combined. Today, the majority of Prime grade beef (1-2% of all beef graded) is shipped to Japan and South Korea, who are willing to pay top dollar for good beef; the rest go to various assorted restaurants. (Having been to South Korea, I can assure you that beef of any sort is prohibitively expensive and meant for special occasions; I wouldn't imagine Japan to be any different.)
In 1987, the term "Good" was changed to "Select", which is quite lean beef. Most "USDA Certified" items today are beef selected from the "Select" class, right beneath Prime, as part of a larger marketing directive to support the beef market.
Currently, today's "Kobe" beef, which is considered rather sinful with its exorbitant prices (Kobe hot dogs are $19 in New York City), has marbling that resembles that of USDA Prime from several decades ago.
Aside from USDA's changes in grading scale to support the meat market, cattle breeding according to market preference has changed the face of beef today:
"The beef industry has started feeding cattle differently in order to produce leaner beef. . .as a result, the production of USDA Prime is down. The grading system has also been changed. The highest level of USDA Prime isn't even produced anymore. American beef is 27 percent leaner today than it was 20 years ago."
As a result, USDA "Prime" meat today is not quite as good as "Prime" of 20-30 years ago, and not entirely because the grading practice has changed. Considering that extremist diets like Atkins are on the rise, perhaps leaner beef might be a better idea for today's society, though it is a pity for those who want a good steak.
Beef Aging Practices
Aging steaks is a common practice before bringing them to the potential diner’s plate; meat from a cow freshly slaughtered tends not to have much of a taste to it beyond a “bloody,” "gummy" taste. The time it takes to bring the meat to the market ages the beef enough to make it marketable, but properly aging it allows flavor to develop.
Dry-aging beef was the common practice before the 1970s, though nowadays it is a rarity. There are very few steakhouses today that still employ the process, and only two at the moment currently dry age beef for more than five weeks: Peter Lugers in New York and Berns in Florida. Why does this matter? Because dry-aged steaks taste wonderful. There is a “beefy,” chewy, buttery taste to it that steaks these days, traditionally wet-aged, don’t quite have.
Dry-aging is only done to sides of beef that have made the USDA Prime grade; they are sufficiently marbled enough to protect the outer shell while the steak ages.
The process is fairly simple. Whole cuts of beef - or carcasses - are hung on hooks inside giant refrigerated warehouses for several weeks. There, the natural enzymes in beef break down the muscle fibers, developing tenderness to the meat, and the protein breaks down, developing flavor. (Protein itself has no real flavor - if you taste meat from veal, or chicken, or beef without any fat, they taste virtually the same - but when broken down into its constituent amino acids, flavor is born because the acids are full of it.) As time passes, the beef carcass shrinks as it loses moisture, and mold typically forms on the outside, which must be removed after the aging is done. The carcasses can hang anywhere from a two weeks to more than five; in the 1960s, good beef was expected to be aged for around six weeks. While flavor develops most rapidly in the first three weeks, beef continues to improve as it ages; after ten, the carcass becomes "high", and the meat begins to smell unpleasantly sweet, not unlike that of something fermenting.
The complexity of the process is in the details. The temperature of the warehouse must not fluctuate too much from 32-36 Fahrenheit (0 - 2.22 Celsius); the humidity must not fall too much out of the 80-85% range; air movement must move at a constant ~3 miles per hour, or 1.5 meters per second. Fall too much out of these ranges, and disaster looms: too warm, and dangerous bacteria start breeding in plenty; too dry, and the beef carcass loses too much water and shrinks; not enough air, and water will condense on the beef and cause spoilage. It is not an easy task, keeping beef to age perfectly and with as little trouble as possible.
As it can be seen, dry-aging comes with no small amount of expense. The time involved (several weeks); the storage involved (warehouses); and the result involved (loss of up to 25% of the carcass due to mold/dehydration) adds up, and nowadays, most restaurants will prefer the newer method, wet-aging.
The traditional means of aging beef today, developed during the 1970s. Meat is vacuum-sealed in plastic ("cryovac") and stored in a refrigerator for a few weeks (not more than three, typically). The same enzymes break down the proteins and the muscle fibers in the beef, and since the water isn't lost in the process as it is during dry-aging, wet-aged steaks are much juicier than dry-aged steaks. The aging process is much faster than that of dry-aging; a perfectly fine steak will result within three weeks.
However, the taste is vastly different. Most people will find wet-aged steaks to taste "metallic" and "bloody"; wet-aged beef will taste rawer than dry-aged steak. Also, while people enjoy tender steaks (and to some extent, valued as highly or even more so than the fattiness of the steak, known as marbling, which determines the beef grade), wet-aged steaks will taste unpleasantly mushy and lack the slight resistance that a dry-aged steak will have.
However, since the carcass need only be refrigerated for a few weeks and water is not lost, there is no loss in steak quantity. The overhead for maintenance during the process is fairly low, considering that threat of bacteria and spoilage is not at issue here, since the meat is vacuum packed.
The new fashion in certain upscale restaurants that serve steak but cannot go all out for dry-aging will instead combine both processes; this is kind of the best of both worlds: the taste of dry-aging along with the cheap convenience and speed of wet-aging.
Meat is dry-aged first for about three weeks, perhaps more (though any more and the wet-aging becomes a moot issue), before being sealed in plastic and wet-aged for an additional few days. Since most of the expense comes from the storage of meat during the time it ages, the shorter duration time required for a hybrid brings down costs significantly. Also, in a shorter period of time, less shrinkage and mold will form on a dry-aged carcass, which means that the loss of meat becomes a much smaller issue.
These days, there are very few restaurants that will employ dry-aged, beautifully marbled steak, but I'd recommend everyone to try it out at least once. The famous steakhouse Peter Lugers is a given, of course, but not far behind are: Gallagher's in Las Vegas (the New York, New York casino); Berns in Florida; The Palm and Smith & Wollensky's in New York City; The Precinct, in Cincinnati; Pierpont, Post House in Kansas City; Ruth's Chris in New Orleans.
- Steingarten, Jeffrey. "High Steaks," It Must've Been Something I Ate. 2002, page 449-471, reprinted from a very old Vogue article. I actually first read this article in Vogue, that's what got me interested in the first place, but it wasn't until this year that I managed to track it down.
- Walsh, Robb. "A Matter of Fat". Houston Press, August 2, 2001.
- Walsh, Robb. "Aging With Grace (and Science)". Houston Press, August 30, 2001.
- Harris, J.J.; Cross, H.R.; Savell; J.W. "History of Meat Grading in the United States". Department of Animal Science (paper located http://meat.tamu.edu/history.html): Very useful for beef grading history.