Recession or no, Americans’ taste for steak seems to remain as strong as the Goldman Sachs’ bonus program. There’s a lot of steak out there and the good stuff isn’t cheap. A USDA Prime filet mignon can cost $50 a pound; Wagyu (the breed of cattle that produces Kobe beef) steaks can cost twice that. Though leaner grass-fed beef is cheaper, the questions remain: how do you choose the right steak, cook it properly and serve it with the right wine?
One way to select good steaks is to check for marbling, the fat within the muscle of the meat. The more fat, the more tenderness, flavor and juiciness. Another decision to make is whether the steak is wet or dry aged. Wet-aged meat is put in vacuum-sealed plastic bags and aged in its own juices (hence the name). Dry aged meat is exposed to the air as it ages for a similar period. During this process enzymes in the beef break down the muscle fibers, tenderizing the meat. The meat also loses about 20 percent of its weight, which is why dry aged steaks are more expensive.
Of course, as with any premium food, your best hedge against making the wrong buying decision is a reputable meat purveyor, such as those listed below.
With so many steak options available to consumers today, I went to the experts at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House in Manhattan to get an idea of the difference among steaks and how they match up with wines. Wine Spectator Features Editor Owen Dugan and I tasted three different steaks prepared at the restaurant: a corn-fed USDA Prime filet mignon; a Wagyu skirt steak; and a grass-fed New York strip steak. All were cooked on the rare side of medium rare.
Each steak was tasted with four wines selected by David O’Day, Director of Wine for the Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group. “What I look for in wine with red meat are acid to cut through the fat and tannins in balance,” he says. “With fattier meat you can have a younger wine with more robust tannins.”
Young Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines, whether from California, France or Australia, are good examples of wines that would go with fattier meats such as Wagyu steaks or a corn-fed rib steak. As these wines age and soften, they might be more appropriate for leaner cuts. More elegant wines such as Bordeaux or California Meritage blends harmonize better with milder steaks such as filet mignon. With earthy grass-fed beef an aged Old World wine from Italy or Spain could do the trick as could an Argentinean Malbec.
Here’s a more in-depth look at the different types of meat, how the steaks were cooked and how they fared with the wines.
Corn-fed USDA Prime Filet Mignon
The vast majority of beef Americans consume comes from cattle that are weaned off grass while young, then fattened in feedlots on grain, primarily corn. Corn-fed beef contains more marbling than grass-fed beef.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture grades beef based primarily on the amount of marbling. Prime, which comprises about two percent of all graded beef, is the highest grade. Meat graded choice comes next.
According to Anthony Cachey, sales manager for Stock Yards, the Chicago-based company that supplies Del Frisco’s, the beef is often (but not always) from the Angus breed and specially selected to Del Frisco’s standards. “We buy a lot of prime and they probably get the top one-third of that,” Cachey says.
As is the case with all but one of the steaks at the restaurant the meat was wet aged for 28 to 35 days. Though a number of high-end steak houses use predominantly dry aged meat, Dritsas prefers wet aged steaks. “Wet aged meat is more consistent than dry aged meat,” he says. “If not properly aged, dry aged beef will be mealy and livery.”
An oven broiler or outdoor grill are the two most common ways of cooking a steak such as the filet mignon we tasted. Though outdoor grills can sometimes exceed the maximum temperatures of home broilers, neither normally achieves the heat of restaurant broilers (800 degrees or more). So allow enough time (20 minutes or so) to get the broiler or grill as hot as possible. (While this happens, take the meat out of refrigeration and season it with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.)
Put the steak on the broiler pan or outdoor grill grate and sear to caramelize the surface sugars, which give color and flavor. Then the steak can be finished in a cooler part of the broiler, if large. Or cooked all the way under high heat if small or if desired rare. A variation on the broiler method is to put a cast iron skillet about five or six inches from the heat source of the broiler for 15 minutes. Add the steak to the heated skillet. Cook half way, flip the steak over, then cook the rest of the way.
As one would expect from this buttery soft cut, Del Frisco’s filet mignon was meltingly tender. But it was also more robustly flavored than most filets. The meat was beefy and sweet.
For the filet mignon O’Day selected the Peter Michael Les Pavots Knights Valley 2005 (97, $175), a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. “The leaner filet mignon requires a Bordeaux blend or Meritage that is more balanced with more elegance than power,” he says. The wine had some spice notes that married nicely with the restaurant’s pleasantly piquant seasoning blend of black and white pepper and salt that goes on all steaks
A hearty Argentinean Malbec was also a good match for the full-flavored steak, as was an Australian Shiraz. The evolved flavors of a somewhat older Italian super Tuscan also complimented the steak.
Grass-fed beef represents a tiny portion of the beef consumed in this country and an even smaller portion of meat sold in high-end restaurants. (Del Frisco’s doesn’t carry grass-fed beef but obtained Australian steaks from Stock Yards.)
“grass-fed (beef) is inconsistent. And for the amount of meat we’re buying, we have to know what we are getting,” Dritsas says. Part of that inconsistency comes from the fact that ranchers are still experimenting with breeds of cattle that best adapt to eating grass. In addition, grass-fed beef lacks the marbling of corn-fed beef. So steaks can be chewy if not cooked properly (ideally medium rare but not past medium).
Still, grass-fed beef has ecological and health benefits. cattle fed on grass don’t need antibiotics given to feedlot cattle because the grain (typically corn) they eat is not their natural food. The manure from grass-fed cattle naturally fertilizes grass rather than petrochemical fertilizers needed for grain. Grass-fed beef has about half the fat of grain-fed beef and provides heart-healthful Omega 3 fatty acids not found in grain-fed beef. Grass-fed cattle also produce less potentially harmful E. coli bacteria.
Cooking grass-fed steaks at home requires some care. “With grass-fed (steaks) you have to use combination cooking, searing then roasting,” Dritsas says. For the searing part put the steak over moderate heat on a grill, under a broiler or in a cast iron skillet over medium heat. “The meat gets too chewy if you sear at too high a temperature,” Dritsas says. Once the steak is seared, it can be finished in low to moderate oven. “maybe 300 degrees,” Dritsas says.
Except for a gristly portion at the end of each slice, the grass-fed New York strip steak was moist and juicy with a subtle minerality. However, it lacked that fatty flavor many like in their steaks.
O’Day initially selected three wines for our tasting, all from French varietals. However, from my experience Italian Chianti Classicos and super Tuscans also worked well with red meats. So O’Day plucked from the wine cellar an Antinori Toscana Tignanello 2003 (91, $70), a blend of 80% Sangiovese, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 5% Cabernet Franc. Bingo! The Tignanello hit the jackpot. The old world flavors and style of this wine combined with its age (it tasted older than a 2003 but not in a bad way) were just right for the lean strip steak.
While the California Meritage got lost in this match, the earthiness of the Malbec worked well with a similar component in the meat. And the wine’s lush blueberry fruit nicely encircled the entire taste experience. The leathery, earthy qualities of the Shiraz kept it in the game but this wine cried out for more fat.
The Wagyu steer was developed in the late 19th century in Japan by crossbreeding a variety of imported European cattle along with one from Korea. Wagyu became popularized in the United States as Kobe, the Japanese county or prefecture that developed animals with the highest marbling.
That marbling, which contributes to the meat’s legendary tenderness and flavor, is so pervasive that it is hard to know where the meat stops and the fat begins. In the Japanese beef grading system, USDA prime meat would grade somewhere between 4 and 6 points, about half that of top Wagyu beef.
Because the cost of full-blooded Wagyu meat would be prohibitive for many consumers, most Wagyu meat sold in the United States—including at Del Frisco’s—actually comes from crossbreeding Wagyu with another breed, usually Angus.
We chose a skirt steak because this coarsely textured cut offers a different taste experience from more common steaks. The skirt, which achieved enormous popularity with the Mexican dish called fajitas, looks like a long, wide belt (fajita in Spanish). Because the meat is so thin, high heat is important to get the outside seared and caramelized before the meat is fully cooked, especially when medium rare.
At the restaurant, the meat was cooked on a flat top grill because the broiler would be too intense for such a thin piece of meat. At home, you can simulate this with a cast iron skillet over medium to medium-high heat. Figure two to three minutes on each side.
The Wagyu skirt at Del Frisco’s was sweet and fatty with a pleasant chewiness that is more a factor of the cut than the breed of cattle. The flavor and texture of the meat hung in there longer than the Bordeaux blend did, though the match was perfectly respectable. The earthiness of the Malbec as well as its rich fruitiness and th
ick texture combined to create a positive experience with the steak.
O’Day’s pick for this steak was Mollydooker’s Shiraz McLaren Vale Carnival of Love 2007 (95, $90). “The Shiraz has a good balance of tannin and acid,” he said. “You could also go with a California C .
ab.” The leathery, meaty notes in Shiraz took it up a notch (or two) from the Malbec, making this the best match. The nutty, earthy qualities of the Super Tuscan held it in good stead with the Wagyu. While not a bad choice, the finish of California Meritage didn’t hang in there long enough to balance out the chewy texture of the meat
There are many more steak (rib eye, flat iron, sirloin) and wine (Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, Grenache and other Rhone varietals and blends) possibilities, whether dining in a restaurant or at home. Give yourself a bonus and enjoy them.
How to Get It
Allen Brothers, Chicago, ILL, 800-957-0111, www.allenbrothers.com (Prime, Wagyu)
DeBragga and Spitler, New York, NY, (212) 924-1311 www.DeBragga.com (Prime, Wagyu, grass-fed)
D’Artagnan, Newark, NJ, 800-327-8246, www.dartagnan.com (Australian grass-fed and Wagyu)
Hardwick Beef, Hardwick, Mass. 413-477-6200, www.hardwickbeef.com (American grass-fed)
Lobel’s Prime Meats, New York, NY, 877-783-4512, www.lobels.com (Prime, Wagyu, and Humanely raised)
Niman Ranch Inc., Oakland, Calif., 866-808-0340, www.nimanranch.com (Humanely raised)
Stock Yards, Chicago, IL, 877-785-9273, www.stockyards.com (Prime, Wagyu)
(This article first appeared in November 15, 2009 issue of Wine Spectator magazine.)