FOR STARTERS

Find a Good Butcher. The right butcher can make all the difference. Find one with real knowledge of retail cuts of meat, aging, and, yes, even cooking. He or she can guide you on the right cut of meat to buy for whatever you are making, and save you a lot of disappointment.

What Do You Prefer? Some people like their steaks so tender that they can be cut with a fork, while others like meat that is a little chewy. Some prefer a mild flavor, while others want their meat full of beefy richness. There are cuts of steak to satisfy every taste, but it is important to know what you want.

Understand Meat Grades. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspects meats for wholesomeness, but grading for quality is voluntary and paid for by individual packers. Steaks graded Prime are of the highest quality. Most Prime meat goes to restaurants or better meat markets. It is well worth seeking out a source for Prime meat in your area. Choice and Select grades are the most widely available. Choice meat can vary greatly, so it pays to know what to look for. Select grade meat has the least amount of marbling and tends to be dry, tough, and lacking in flavor. It is the most common grade found in retail stores.

Shop Carefully. Look over the steaks in the meat case and be selective. What you want is a thick, even cut. It won't cook evenly if the meat is thick in one part and thin in another. Except for certain cuts like hanger or flank steaks, the meat should be at least one-inch thick, and preferably two. When buying more than one, choose steaks that are of the same size so that they will cook in about the same amount of time.

Fat Is Your Friend. At least as far as steak is concerned! An even distribution of fat flecks throughout the meat will ensure good flavor, tenderness, and juiciness. Don't trim off excess fat before cooking a steak. Fat around the edge helps to keep the meat moist and adds flavor. You can always trim it away when you eat the steak.

Storage. Store meat in the coolest part of the refrigerator (at the back of one of the center shelves) or in the meat compartment (usually at the bottom). The temperature of the refrigerator should be between 35 degrees F and 40 degrees F. Use the meat within one to three days of purchase.

COOK IT JUST RIGHT

Broil it, grill it, or sauté it — done right, any of these methods will yield a good steak. The most important thing is to not overcook it. For best flavor, texture, and juiciness, cook a steak rare or medium-rare. Here are some tips for cooking steak.

Broiling: Cooking meat or other foods on a pan under direct heat is known as broiling. This method is especially good for steaks and other thin pieces of food because they acquire a crisp, brown crust. Most home ovens come equipped with broilers. Some can be set to low or high heat, while others have only one setting; I find the best method of regulating the cooking in a home broiler is to adjust the placement of the pan. The farther the steak is from the heat, the more slowly it will cook. For a thick steak, start cooking the meat close to the heat so that its surface is about two inches away, and leave it there until it is nicely browned on both sides. Then adjust the distance of the pan farther from the heat to finish the cooking. Thinner steaks can be cooked three inches from the heat and will probably be done by the time they have browned on both sides.

Grilling: Whether done on an indoor grill, a grill pan, or an outdoor barbecue, grilling is similar to broiling, except that the food is placed over, not under, the heat source and grilled foods acquire the characteristic striped markings from contact with the ridges of the grilling surface. The advantage of an outdoor grill is that you can use aromatic charcoal or wood chips to add a distinctive smoky flavor to foods. The same principles apply to grilling as to broiling, except that if you are cooking on a grill pan or grill where the distance from the heat is not adjustable, you can move the food to a cooler part of the grill to finish cooking.

Pan Roasting: When cooking thick steaks such as filet mignon, or a chateaubriand for two, the method I prefer is pan roasting. I cook the meat in a small amount of oil or butter in a skillet, then transfer the skillet to a 375 degree F oven. This way the meat gets a good brown crust on the stovetop, and cooks evenly through in the oven.

Go to the next page to see the Cooking Temperature Chart.

COOKING TEMPERATURE CHART

No matter which cooking method you use, it is best to judge the cooking of meat with an instant-read thermometer. Using this type of thermometer takes away all the guesswork. Test the temperature by inserting the tip of the thermometer into the thickest part of the meat away from the bone. Leave the thermometer in until the dial stops moving, but remove it if you continue the cooking.

Handle the meat carefully with tongs. Don't pierce it with a fork as it cooks. This will allow the juices to escape.

Always let cooked meat rest for a few minutes after cooking. Cover it loosely with a foil tent to keep it warm. Resting allows the juices to settle into the meat and the temperature to even out. You will even notice a slight increase in the temperature after the meat has rested. Thicker, larger cuts of meat need a longer resting time than smaller cuts.

MEAT: Rare

FAHRENHEIT: 120° to 125°

CELSIUS: 45° to 50°

MEAT: Medium-Rare

FAHRENHEIT: 130° to 135°

CELSIUS: 55° to 60°

MEAT: Medium

FAHRENHEIT: 140° to 145°

CELSIUS: 60° to 65°

MEAT: Medium-Well

FAHRENHEIT: 150° to 155°

CELSIUS: 65° to 70°

MEAT: Well

FAHRENHEIT: 160°

CELSIUS: +70°

UNDERSTANDING YOUR BEEF

At BLT restaurants we use two types of beef. The first is Certified Angus brand. Angus cattle are named for the region in Scotland where they originated hundreds of years ago. Only certain types of grain-fed Angus qualify for this brand because the company's standards for selecting cattle are extremely high, far exceeding the USDA's requirements for Prime beef. Only a small percentage of beef earns the Certified Angus designation.

The other beef that we use comes from the Wagyu variety of cattle, a special first raised in Japan. It is sometimes called American Kobe, named for the Japanese city. Because of the type of food they eat and the way the animals are raised, Wagyu meat has a higher fat content, so it is especially tender and flavorful.

Both Certified Angus and American Kobe beef are my top choices because they have a lot of marbling, which is really just another name for the flecks of fat in the beef. Marbling is the main contributor of juiciness, flavor, and tenderness — the attributes we all look for in beef.

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