Great grilling with 3 tricks to tender, tasty beef

Associated Press

You don’t have to go to some high-end steakhouse or shell out $200 a pound for ultramarbled Wagyu beef from Japan to get flavorful, tender beef for your next barbecue. Just keep three crucial factors in mind: the grade, the grain and the aging. A well-informed purchase and a couple of easy prep steps can make the difference between a so-so steak and one that sends your eyeballs skyward.

Step No. 1: buy the best meat that fits your budget. To do that, you need to know a bit about how beef is graded in the U.S. The system is based mostly on the age of the animal and the amount of marbling in the meat.

“USDA prime” is the highest grade. Only about 3 percent of cattle meet the criteria, so most prime-grade meat is snatched up by fancy restaurants and specialty butchers before it makes it to supermarkets. Below that is “choice,” followed by “select.” Anything below these is best avoided for steaks, ribs and roasts. In Canada, the equivalent grades are called “Canada prime,” “AAA,” and “AA.”

Though the visible fat content of red meat is easy to measure, researchers have found that it accounts for only about 5 percent of the variation in meat tenderness. The Australian government uses a much more reliable grading system that takes into account other important factors, including what the animal ate, how it was treated, and the pH of its muscles, which reflects how humanely it was slaughtered.

If cattle are exhausted, shivering, injured or highly stressed at the time they are killed, their muscles deplete their natural fuel store of glycogen, and the pH of the meat is abnormal as a result. Beef that is unusually dark, firm and dry often is a product of poor slaughterhouse practices.

A grade stamped on the package is one useful piece of information about the quality of the meat, but it isn’t the end of the story. Some of the best beef is not graded at all; it is sold by small producers who can’t afford to pay the high costs of having a USDA grader on site. In other cases, official-sounding labels — such as Certified Angus Beef — are not grades, but rather brand names used by loose associations of ranchers to make their meat appear distinctive.

Step No. 2: Whether you spring for a prime tenderloin or a select flat-iron steak, you can get the most tenderness out of the cut if you pay attention to the grain. Just like wood, meat is a collection of long, skinny fibers. If you cut the meat along the fibers, it’s like sawing boards out of a tree trunk: the resulting pieces are very strong and hard to chew. Instead, slice across the fibers; the tougher the cut, the thinner the slices should be. Each bite will then fall apart more easily and release more of its juices and flavor.

Step No. 3: For a real steakhouse experience, try aging your meat before you cook it. The best steakhouses use special humidity-controlled rooms to dry-age beef for a month or more. The drying process concentrates sugars, protein fragments, and other flavorful molecules to yield unparalleled taste. But because the steaks shrink as they dry and much of the exterior has to be trimmed off before cooking, this is typically an expensive step.

Here’s a shortcut: brush Asian fish sauce onto the steak (use about 3 grams of sauce for every 100 grams of meat). Put the coated steak in a zip-closure bag, then remove the air by submerging the bag in water while holding the open end just above the surface (the water forces the air out of the bag). Seal the bag, then lift it out of the water. Refrigerate the sealed meat for three days before you cook it. You may be surprised by how much tenderer the steak becomes and by the depth of its meaty, umami flavor.


Photo credit: Nathan Myhrvold / Modernist Cuisine, LLC

For a Great Summer Feast, Cook Ahead, and Bring Extra Fat

Holding time is the key to pasteurization and safe eating.

Summer feasting can be great fun, but it poses a number of challenges for the cook. You may find yourself in an unfamiliar kitchen or even cooking at a park, on the beach, at a campsite in the woods, or in a friend’s backyard. The grill at hand may lack some of the features of your own, and you may have to share it with other cooks. Cookouts often involve making lots of portions and feeding impatient children.

The best way to ensure fast, delicious results despite all these hurdles is to prep and precook your food at home so that all you have to do at your destination is to warm it up and put on the final touches.

Cook chicken, steak, and other proteins sous vide before you leave the house. Allow the bags of food to cool while still sealed, and then pack them into your cooler with ice. To reheat the food, simply unbag it onto a hot grill and sear it quickly. (Our new book, Modernist Cuisine at Home, also reveals some tricks for improvising sous vide setups while tailgating or picnicking.)

Precooking the food sous vide is convenient, and it shortens the wait for those kiddies. More important, the precision of temperature that sous vide cooking offers allows you to safely cook every portion safely and to exactly the degree of doneness you want. Never again will you have to serve rubbery chicken or tough steak just to be certain it is safe to eat.

Eating Safely in the Great Outdoors

The key to safety is knowing how long to cook at a given temperature to achieve full pasteurization. If you are cooking chicken breasts, for example, you can heat them to a core temperature of as little as 55 °C / 131 °F. Once the center of the thickest part hits that target temperature, hold the chicken at that temperature for 40 minutes to pasteurize the meat. That temperature is not as high as many people are used to, and some prefer their chicken closer to medium-well than medium-rare. That’s easy to accommodate: just choose a higher cooking temperature. The greater the core temperature, the shorter the pasteurization time; see the table for some suggested holding times for chicken breasts and thighs.

Whenever you cook food sous vide in advance, it is crucial to chill it soon after cooking and to keep it chilled until you reheat and serve it. The food should never spend more than four hours total in the “danger zone” of 4 °C to 60 °C / 40 °F to 140 °F. So bring plenty of ice if you are going on a long car ride, or if you won’t be grilling for a while. And don’t forget to bring a bottle of hand sanitizer along; even pasteurized food can become unsafe if you touch it with dirty hands.

Capture That Grilled Goodness

Generations of grillers have been trained to fear flare-ups, but that is misplaced. Certainly you don’t want flames charring your food, but most of the flavor from grilling actually comes from fat drippings, which ignite into flames and then travel back to the food as smoke. If you are quickly reheating precooked food, slow-cooking over coals in tin foil packets, or grilling veggies or other low-fat foods, it’s hard to capture much of this characteristic grilled flavor. An easy work-around is to season your meat and veggies with pressure-rendered fat. You can find a recipe at the bottom of the page.

Pressure-rendered chicken fat adds flavor as it drips into your heat source and rises back up as smoke.

You can use pressure-rendered fat when cooking on gas or charcoal grills, grill pans, or even in tinfoil packets. Just remove the food from the sous vide bag and brush it generously with the fat. Grill meats first, typically for about one minute per side. Then add vegetables and fruit as desired. Leave fruits, such as peaches or pineapple, on the heat long enough that the sugars in them caramelize. Remember, don’t panick when you see small flames flare-up and lick at the food: you want the smoke they generate to carry its flavor onto the food. But do keep a spray bottle on hand in case the flames get too high.

Leave Only Your Footprints…

Remember to never leave a grill, fire, or coals unattended. Spread the coals out and cover them with sand if necessary before leaving. Gather up all the plastic bags and other waste from your meal, and take it with you.