A Hamburger Today

Steakcraft: Lessons and Observations From a Year in Steak

[Photographs: Nick Solares]

It seems like only yesterday that I was sitting around the Serious Eats office talking with Ed, Kenji, and Max about column ideas. One year into this series, Steakcraft, I've picked up some lessons and observations, first and foremost:

There is No Single Right Way to Cook a Steak

The back of the broiler

Got that? Good. Now let's dig deeper.

The restaurants featured on Steakcraft fall into two distinct categories: those that serve 60 steaks an hour and those that serve 60 steaks a week. Broadly speaking, that means steakhouses versus restaurants that serve steak.

Steakhouses use commercial grade-broilers to efficiently cook hundreds of steaks in a night. In restaurants, especially where the chef is classically trained, steaks tend to be cooked in a pan (cast iron or Swiss steel are the most popular) or on a plancha. These direct contact methods tend to produce a more even crust, and because a steak is being tended to by a single cook (as opposed to the numerous steaks a broiler man can cook all at once), generally a more diligently cooked product.

Strip meets pan

That is not a knock on the steakhouse—that's just how they keep their kitchen moving. A steakhouse is designed to feed every seat in the house a steak at the same time and with the same level of expertise. That is certainly the case with the pure steakhouses we featured such as Smith & Wollensky, Delmonico's, Porter House NY, and S Prime, which all feature broilers.

There were of course a variety of different methods employed to cook the steaks. John Parlatore of Preseve24 sears his steak in a Swiss steel pan and then finishes it in a wood-fired oven, Harold Moore at Commerce cooks his porterhouse sous vide before finishing it on a plancha, and Mario Carbone alternates his porterhouse between coal- and gas-fired grills to achieve the right level of smokiness (while also paying homage to his ancestors). At Michael White's Costata, surely the year's biggest opening in steakhouse terms, the steaks are cooked in a special oven that combines a flattop and a broiler: the steaks are seared on top and then finished in the broiler down below.

Let's Talk Price

Quality Meats's 64 oz. Double Rib

The double rib at Quality Meats.

Prime beef is expensive, and dry aged prime beef, which loses 25% to 30% of its weight depending on the aging period, is even more so. None of the steak that I wrote about this year can be considered a bargain, but relatively speaking the cheapest steak per ounce is also the largest: the massive 64 oz. double rib from Quality Meats ($110) that comes in at $1.72 per ounce. But perhaps the best bargain over all is from Le Rivage that offers a complete steak dinner for two for $99.

Osteria Morini's 120 Day Dry Aged Ribeye

The 120-day dry aged steak at Osteria Morini.

At the other end of the scale is the Australian wagyu culotte at the The Marrow that sells for $4.15 per ounce. Le Cirque's ultra premium 7X New York strip clocks in at $6.80 per ounce. But by far the most expensive is BLT Steak's $8.10 per ounce Snakeriver Farms top cap steak. Hold on to your wallets though, I will be featuring a $25 per ounce steak next year!

Rib Steaks, Rib Steaks Everywhere

Rib steak on the flip side

If you're like me and a great many other steak lovers, you prize a rib steak above all other cuts. Short loin steaks are more iconic, and the porterhouse is really the cut that defined the New York steakhouse for decades, but the rib steak, with its glorious cap (the spinalis dorsi muscle), provides a more compelling experience for many.

While generally present on steakhouse menus, it tends to play second fiddle to the short loin steaks—the "Colarado" rib steak at Smith & Wollensky became the restaurant's signature item but didn't even appear on the menu until just a few years ago. Peter Luger Steakhouse, famed for their porterhouse steaks, didn't offer the cut for most of its existence, only adding it in around 2008 when there was an extreme shortage of prime beef.

Rib steak innards

The rib steak has arguably surpassed the porterhouse as the most popular steak for for two in New York restaurants beyond the steakhouse, which tends to still sell the cut for one. This makes sense since a rib primal will yield seven rib steaks, compared to the two to three porterhouses that a short loin yields. A restaurant can order a whole rib for rib steaks and not have much left over. But a short loin will also leave the chef with T bones and New York strips in addition to the porterhouses—not a problem at a steakhouse, but difficult to handle at other types of restaurants.

40 Is the New 28

The Butter Rib Steak

The rib steak at Butter.

While the industry standard for dry aging is typically 28 days, more restaurants are going for older meat. Big name chefs seem to be embracing these longer aging periods—35, 40 days, or longer—which result in a more pronounced flavor and increased tenderness. Alex Guarnaschelli, Harold Dieterle, Seamus Mullen, and Michael White all serve a 40-day dry aged steak as their standard cut.

In the case of White, every steak he serves at Costata is aged for that long; I don't know of another steakhouse that offers this. White also serves a 50-day dry aged New York strip steak at Marea. Other outliers: Mario Carbone serves a 60-day dry aged porterhouse at Carbone and Joel Reiss a 65-day dry aged rib steak at S Prime, but by far the longest age is the 120-dayer at Osteria Morini.

The Creekstone/LaFrieda Effect

Chef and Butcher

A large number of the steaks featured during the year came from Creekstone Farms cattle, which is exclusively distributed in New York by Pat LaFrieda. Creekstone isn't, as its logo might imply, a bucolic little ranch situated on a rolling Midwestern hill, but rather a meat company that purchases high quality Black Angus cattle from across Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and Oklahoma, and processes it with more diligence and care than a commercial feed lot. I happen to believe that they put out an excellent product, and they employ excellent marketing, no small thanks to LaFrida and his especially loquacious chief operating officer Mark Pastore. It should be noted that there are plenty of other sources of prime beef, but the Creekstone / LaFrieda partnership has undeniably increased the availability of prime beef to restaurants beyond the steakhouse in New York.

Steakhouses generally buy their beef from numerous distributors to ensure a competitive price and a steady supply, but a broader restaurant is far more likely to only get beef from a single source as they only need a few cuts. Steakhouses continue to thrive and sell a massive amount of steak, but what we have seen in recent years is an explosion of prime dry aged beef offered in restaurants that traditionally might not have been able to even find it. When I visited LaFrieda for A Hamburger Today back in 2008, their dry aging room was the size of my apartment. These days the company has moved to a massive facility in New Jersey and the dry aging facility is the size of an apartment building.

Top Posts of the Year

Forgione and the Tomahawk

Marc Forgione and his tomahawk.

If you're curious, here are the most popular Steakcraft posts of the year in order of popularity:

  1. Marc Forgione's Tomahawk
  2. Christina Lecki and April Bloomfield's Rib Steak at The Breslin
  3. Alex Guarnaschelli's Tomahawk

As Max noted, "star power carries the day." Coincidently they were the three steaks that impressed me the most.

For all the steaks featured in 2013, and plenty of steak porn along the way, check out the slideshow.

About the author: Nick Solares is a NYC-based food writer and photographer. He has published Beef Aficionado since 2007, with the stated purpose of exploring American exceptionalism through the consumption of hamburgers and steak. He has written over 350 restaurant reviews for Serious Eats since 2008 and served as the creative director for the award-winning iPad app Pat LaFrieda's Big App for Meat. You can follow him on Instagram (@nicksolares) and Twitter (@beefaficionado).

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