The Best of Both Worlds
FOOD FOR THOUGHT - May 28, 2008 - Mark R. Vogel - [email protected] - Mark’s Article Archive
Ask the average layman what’s the best cut of beef and they’re likely to reply “fillet mignon.” Even people who don’t cook have heard of fillet mignon. Coupled with its high price, the combination of its popularity and notable cost shroud it in an illusion of superiority. Much like oenophilic amateurs assume that Dom Perignon is the best champagne simply because the name is so commonplace in our culture, (and again, the price tag adds to the mystique). Well there’s much more to steak than fillet mignon (and much more to champagne than Dom Perignon but that’s another story).
Let’s begin with what fillet mignon is. Fillet mignon is merely the slices, (individual steaks) of a larger cut of meat known as the tenderloin. The tenderloin in turn, is part of an even larger section called the short loin. Adjacent to the tenderloin is a cut known as the top loin. The top loin, in conjunction with the tenderloin forms the short loin. If you examine a T-bone or porterhouse steak, the large side is the top loin and the small side is the tenderloin. The tenderloin is so popular because, as its name implies, it is tender. Indeed, the tenderloin is the most tender cut on the animal. But everything in life has its cost, although this one is not a monetary one. This exchange costs flavor. The more tenderness you get, the more it’ll cost you in taste.
Just like a human being, muscles that are not regularly exercised become soft. In steak-land we call that tender. On a cow, the muscles in the center of the animal, specifically the upper mid-center, do the least work. The muscles nearest the front and back of the animal have a busier agenda. Comprising the legs and adjacent structures like the hips and shoulders, these muscles are responsible for walking. Even at rest they must bare the weight of the animal. Thus, they are in a nearly constant state of tension. Similarly, so are the muscles of the lower center surrounding the diaphragm. Incessant breathing causes these muscles to be in perpetual motion.
The cuts from the mid-center up include the rib, the aforementioned short loin, and the sirloin. These are the least exercised muscles and therefore produce the tenderest steaks. But back to the catch: The more tender the cut, generally speaking, the less flavor. Highly worked muscles receive more nutrients. Moreover, the exercise develops more complex flavor. Conversely, stagnation breeds banality. This is particularly true of the tenderloin and hence the fillet mignon.
But there’s always a way to beat the system and beef connoisseurs figured out a long time ago how to get the best of both worlds: the rib. The rib, or rib-eye is the steak of choice for beef purists, (a rib-eye is simply a rib steak without the bone). The rib is almost as tender as the fillet mignon, but the difference in suppleness is more than compensated by a disproportionally increased flavor and succulence. But wait a minute. I just finished telling you that tender cuts are low in flavor. So how is the rib so tasty? Health freakers won’t like this but the answer is the fat baby! Fat is what saves the day. (If you’re starting to get chest pain, stop reading and go eat some broccoli). The rib meat has far more intramuscular fat than the tenderloin which is virtually barren of unctuousness. Indeed, intramuscular fat is the primary criteria differentiating the highest grades of beef. The more fat, the higher the grade. Why? Because fat tastes good baby! Fat makes the meat juicier and more succulent. The bone also helps. If you want to push the taste curve to the max, enjoy your rib steak on the bone.
If you have three or more ribs together in one mass you have a rib roast, also called a standing rib roast. After roasting it in the oven, slice individual steaks by cutting between the bones. These are then called rib steaks, and again, if the bone is removed, a rib-eye steak.
We also need to clear up the term “prime” rib. Prime rib refers to the rib meat nearest the spine. However, prime can also refer to the grade of beef. Prime is the highest grade of beef and usually not found in standard supermarkets. Prime has the highest degree of the aforementioned intramuscular fat. Most prime beef is sold to upscale restaurants and hotels. You need to go to a real butcher shop to acquire prime meat. Most of the “prime” rib out there, especially at those American chain restaurants is actually “choice,” the second highest grade of beef. If you’re rib cut was actually a prime grade you’d technically have a prime, prime rib.
GRILLED RIB-EYE STEAK
• 1 lb. rib-eye steak
• Olive oil as needed
• Onion powder to taste
• Garlic powder to taste
• Salt and pepper to taste
Brush the steak with olive oil and liberally season it with the onion powder, garlic powder, salt and pepper. Don’t bother trimming any of the fat. Much of it melts while cooking and what doesn’t helps flavor the meat. Wipe your grill grates with oil and get your grill smoking hot. Add the steak and leave it untouched, and the grill covered, until the one side is completely seared, approximately 4-5 minutes. Flip and sear the other side. For a 1-lb. steak, once each side is fully seared you should be close to medium-rare. If you must cook it longer place the steak on the rack above the grates, cover the grill and cook until the desired degree of doneness.
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