How to make a $30 steak for $6

_MG_3868.jpg

The problem of "OR"

The problem with beef is the problem of OR. Standing in front of the glass at the butcher counter, a person has to choose between a full flavored cuts OR tender steaks. And when that issue is averted (by a dry aged ribeye, for example), the problem then becomes whether to choose something economically priced OR extremely expensive. It's nearly impossible to have a great tasting, tender, inexpensive steak.

For this we have both biology and economics to blame. Muscles that are regularly used by the animal tend to develop greater depth of flavor, but with that comes chewy, tough connective tissue. Less critical muscles—like the lightly used and appropriately named, tenderloin—stand out for their extreme tenderness, but are comparatively insipid when tasted next to their tougher neighbors. Thus the first problematic OR.

Economics gets mixed into your next steak dinner too, because it turns out that there are far fewer tender than tough cuts. Tenderness often wins out when it comes to what makes a steak desirable (they're far easier to cook correctly), and that higher demand coupled with a dramatically lower supply is the reason behind why quality dry aged steaks run upwards of $30 per pound while tougher cuts are often one fifth that. 

I encountered this very issue a few months back when making dinner for my grandfather's 93rd birthday. I really wanted to make a classic Beef Wellington, a dish that calls for tenderloin because of its convenient shape and delicate chew, but feeding 20+ people the most expensive cut of steak seemed like an ill conceived idea. The meat alone would have cost upwards of $250, about the budget for the entire dinner. This is why Wellington is special occasion, intimate dinner kind of food. It's not usual for big, casual, backyard birthdays.

Despite that, I still wanted to make it. I was stuck on Wellington, and often times it's easier for me to figure out an answer than to forget about the problem entirely.

Eventually I figured out how to make a $6 filet with only a sharp knife, a powder, and a tub of warm water.


Buy tools that pay for themselves

Ok, more specifically, you need a knife, meat glue, and an immersion circulator. Before you click away because you only have one of those things, click here and let me make my case first for making some smart purchases.

One of the many benefits of immersion circulators is their ability to turn a tough cut of steak into a tender one over a long cooking time. Prior to circulators, the only option a cook had with tough cuts was to grind it or braise it, both of which dramatically changed the muscle, turning it from steak to sausage or stew. A circulator brings the ability to tenderize while preserving the chew of a medium rare steak.

This is $6 per pound grass fed chuck steak after a little glue and a night in a bath

This is $6 per pound grass fed chuck steak after a little glue and a night in a bath

I've long loved the texture of beef chuck cooked for 18 hours at 55C. The problem is that chuck is incredibly fatty, and most of that fat doesn't render at such a low temperature, meaning that sitting down to a meal of 18 hour chuck was a lesson in eating around the inedibles.

What saved me was applying the Chefsteps idea for a reconstructed roast, where the cook removes the larger chunks of fat from a nice cut of steak and then uses meat glue to put it back together, resulting in a perfect cut with no unwanted bits. It's smart and a wonderfully practical use of meat glue. 

When I applied the Chefsteps reconstruction technique to chuck, it resulted in a cut of steak that consisted entirely of delicious, tender meat with no inedible scraps left on the plate. Tightly rolling the meat back up after a dusting of glue resulted in a cylindrical steak, effectively turning my cheap cut of beef shoulder into a round, delicate tenderloin fake. It worked perfectly in Beef Wellington and is my new go-to steak. 

If you eat steak even semi-regularly, this technique will save you enough money in a year that you'll more than pay for the cost of a circulator. Hell, it saved me enough in one single party to recoup the cost of mine.


And now we cook

I use chuck because it's cheap, full flavored, has a decent amount of marbled fat after you remove the larger pieces, and I know how long to cook it. If you don't want to use chuck feel free to grab another tough cut and experiment with it.

Using a sharp knife, remove the larger chunks of fat and connective tissue from the meat. You still want to keep the great marbling that the steak has so don't go overboard. The pile on the far left is solid fat which I have saved in the freezer for an upcoming decadent burger night. The center pile is sinew and connective tissue and goes in the garbage. Everything else is delicious steak.

Now it's time to play a little meat Tetris. Stack everything up in different arrangements until you have an even, consistent pile. Feel free to cut a few larger pieces up if it makes it easier. Though we will be cooking this long enough to get it nice and tender, it's not a bad idea to try and align the grain of the meat to be running lengthwise as much as possible. Eventually you'll be cutting across that, and it's a good idea to get into the habit of always cutting steak across the grain (which will make it less chewy). Arrange the meat on your cutting board in order of how they will be stacked together, then get out your meat glue.

I use a fine mesh skimmer spoon to evenly apply the meat glue. If you pour it into the spoon over a piece of parchment paper, you can catch all the unused powder, pour it back into a ziplock bag, and save it in the freezer for another time. Meat glue keeps in the freezer for about a year before losing some of its effectiveness. 

Give everything a good dusting on all soon to be glued sides.

I've got stacks on stacks on stacks.

Roll it up nice and tight like this. The tighter you roll it up, the more consistent the shape will be and less likely you'll have holes in the center of the steak.

_MG_3816.jpg

As the meat cooks it will lose some of its juices, and even if you've rolled it up super tight, there's a good chance some of that liquid will escape and make a mess of your circulator. So it's a good idea to place it in a bag of sorts, be it vacuum, Food Saver, or zip top.

Throw it in the food hot tub, and then go do something else for 18 hours (or as many as 24). Immersion circulators are the ultimate in Set It And Forget It technology. 

If you want to check for doneness along the way, place a reserved piece of meat in a separate bag in the water, and pull it out from time to time to test for tenderness. 

After cooking, take the steak out of the water and let it rest for 20 minutes at room temperature to let the juices re-absorb into the meat. If you're eating it right away, cut it into thick disks, salt it liberally, then sear the sides quickly and enjoy. If you plan on eating it later, leave it wrapped up and put it in a bowl of ice water for another 20 minutes, then transfer it to the fridge. Before eating, re-therm each piece (or the whole log) in a bag in a 50C water bath for 30 minutes to an hour before searing in a very hot pan or grill. 

Bam. Perfectly cooked steak. 

Note that there are a few small gaps in there. That's from where I didn't quite line everything up perfectly. It's not a big deal and something that you'll see less and less of the better you get at stacking and rolling everything.

I seared this piece in a super hot pan in enough oil as to ensure that all of the surface cooked evenly for about 30 seconds per side. With all sous vide meat, you still need to cook a nice browned crust on the outside as to get a deeper flavor from it.

At 18 hours the meat is as tender as a high quality steak, in that you still have to chew it, but it yields easily. I was able to gently pull that bottom piece apart and could cut it up with a butter knife. This, of course, isn't a one to one trade off for filet. Even when slow cooked and tender, the texture of chuck is more coarse and not as buttery as filet. The upside is there is greater depth of flavor and it's a hell of a lot cheaper. In the end, I'd much rather pay $6 for a great tasting "tenderloin" than $30 for the mild filet any day.

Buy useful cooking tools and eat better steak.