As many of us shuffle towards eating less-but-better meat, buying a serious steak takes on special significance. Buying steak means pressure, stage fright at the front of the butchers’ queue, and wondering if you were off school the day a man in a white trilby came to class and explained the finer points of steer anatomy to everyone but you. However, the secrets to securing quality beef aren’t so difficult – you just need to take your cues from the professionals.
Buy from someone who knows beef
The Guinea Grill in Mayfair has been serving steak to Londoners since 1952. Well, officially anyway – the story goes that it grew from a speakeasy style operation that furnished the city with illicit beef through WW2 and only went legit when rationing ended. To this day, the old pub still serves some of the best cuts in town and does so with an easy panache few steakhouses can equal.
According to Landlord Oisin Rogers the Guinea’s winning formula is consistency, great staff, and working with an excellent butcher. ‘Our relationship with Frank Godfrey and Co. of Finsbury Park began in the late 50s. Godfreys have purchased and aged premium British beef specifically for The Guinea since then.
Their beef is bought from small farms in England and our animals are only grass fed. Our beef is quartered and hung and the whole top quarter is aged in one piece so the process is slow. Perfect ageing can take anything from 24 to 48 days.’ Dry aging beef will decrease water content, concentrate flavor, and break down connective tissues to make for a more tender steak. Over time in a cool, dry environment beef will also harbor bacterial growth (the good kind) that promotes nutty and mushroom-y flavours, meaning greater complexity.
Though most of us won’t be ordering whole quarters of beef the professional approach to sourcing meat offers important lessons for the home cook. ‘In terms of buying steak for home, find a specialist butcher,’ says Oisin. ‘Aged does not mean dry aged. All beef is not the same. Find someone who knows and cares like Frank Godfrey, Philip Warren, Nathan Mills or your local independent butcher who can tell you where his beasts are from and how and where they are aged and cut.’ Sound advice and the first thing to consider when buying steak.
Know what you’re looking for
There’s a lot you can tell about a piece of meat just by looking at it. For Lyle Wheeler, manager of South East London institution Flock and Herd, the first thing to consider is colour. ‘You want to be seeing ruby red – imagine a vibrant Chianti. When you see a steak on the counter that looks dried out and dull it’s a sign that it’s been there for a long time,’ he says. ‘Even a dry aged steak of 45 days when it’s cut will still shine with life.’
‘I also tend to keep an eye out for a golden colour to the fat on the beef as this shows that the animal has been reared on grass,’ Lyle adds. ‘This adds to the flavour of the steak and it also reassures the customer that the animal has lived a good life grazing on grass pastures. Secondly, you want to look at how my liquid has leached from the steak, if it is sitting in a pool of liquid then you know it’s a fresh steak and may have been wet aged. It can also be a sign that steak may have been frozen.’ Wet aged steak has typically been vacuum sealed to retain moisture (weight) and won’t necessarily deliver on the plate the way dry aged beef will.
Think about which cut is right for you
Muscle groups perform different tasks and so contain particular arrangements of fat, protein, and connective tissue. This means that flavour and texture can vary significantly from one cut of meat to the next. The cold cabinet contains numerous options but most steak you see will be one of the so-called prime cuts, the most common of which are:
- Ribeye, taken as the name would suggest from the rib of the animal, will have a good amount of fat and can be cut on the bone if you so desire, both of which make for extremely flavourful steak. A serious contender.
- Sirloin from the back should have good marbling – the intramuscular fat that permeates meat, more so as the animal ages – meaning strong, beefy flavour and a little bite, but that’s by no means a bad thing. Also available on the bone.
- Fillet will be leaner and finer textured that other prime cuts as it doesn’t do get as much of a workout as it hangs but the backbone and doesn’t do as much work as other muscle groups – traditionally thought of as a luxurious option.
- Rump steak is another story entirely, these muscles work hard and accumulate lots of flavour and texture – not the most tender to begin with but with some age to break them down, rump steaks can make fantastic eating.
There are other prime cuts of course, cows are big animals and butchers around the world have different ideas about how to dismantle them but a familiarity with these four will give you a good start. Each one has its advantages and a particular profile of texture, flavour, and fat content. It really is a matter of preference and finding out what yours is.
Don’t overlook the cheaper bits
There’s also excellent value to be found beyond the prime cuts. ‘There have been some changes in fashion when it comes to buying steak, with more affordable steaks becoming popular like the skirt group [fatty, thick grained cuts for the side and belly] ie. bavette and onglet,’ says butcher Lyle.
While a bone-in sirloin will be spectacular to look at and almost certainly delicious there’s also appeal in the iron tang and variated texture of a cheaper piece cooked quickly on a hot griddle. ‘We have cuts such as the flat iron steak taken from the feather blade [shoulder] and even one called spider steak which is taken out of the hip bone. It’s not common to see on the counter, but if you’re interested and your butcher has one to hand its worth a go in a sandwich.’ Apparently, it’s otherwise known as oyster steak – if you prefer.
Consider the cow
There’s also what type of beef you’re dealing with to consider. In recent years various grades of ultra-marbled Kobe and Wagyu beef from Japan – or at least reared in in a Japanese fashion – have become available to the adventurous and well-heeled. There’s also been a growing interest in beef from older animals, retired milking cows having made headlines a few years back. These beasts which would once have been deemed undesirable for steak are now highly sought after for their rich intramuscular fat and deep, complicated flavour. Even in the world of steak, we continue to learn.
And when it comes to cooking…
Again, your butcher will guide you on this one but there are a few shortcuts to better steak. For Oisin at the Guiena Grill the key is in good seasoning and taking the time to get your beef up to room temperature before cooking. ‘I have my steak, a rib on the bone, heavily seasoned [white and black peppercorns ground and mixed 50/50 with fine sea salt] and brought up to 25° really slowly, then seared at 400° until perfectly medium rare.’ What could be better than that?
The Guinea Grill is open seven days a week and is the sort of place that will let you punctuate your steak with a few lamb’s kidneys or a slice of liver. They also pour an excellent pint of Guinness there so you really should pay a visit.
Flock and Herd has locations in Peckham and Beckenham. Lyle Wheeler can be found on Instagram @southeastbutcher and if you ask nicely he’ll sell you a rib of Freygraad beef from Finland because he’s good like that.