A "New Cut of Beef"?

Steak

On my Twitter feed yesterday, Paul H. Ting passed along a link to a Gizmodo report, "Steak Specialists Discover a New Cut of Beef." My initial reaction was that someone used some Tetris skills to see a new way of slicing a cow so that they could pull out some kind of steak that no butcher before had seen. That's the kind of thinking that I like to see from butchers in the 21st Century. No letting previous generations dictate what makes a tasty steak, no! Go forth and think of things in new and exciting ways. That's the way to do it.

On reading the article, I was disappointed to see that they got patents on this method, which disappointed me. I mean, yay on doing new things and all, but really, a patent on a new way of slicing things? I expressed disappointment and moved along, but Ben Ostrowsky did some digging and found a meat-related patent from Tony Mata, the person mentioned in the article who, well, you can read it:

The Vegas Strip is the brainchild of Tony Mata, of industry group Mata & Associates, who approached Nelson and the FAPC for help developing the cut. "Initially, the cut was labeled as undervalued," Mata told the Drovers Cattle Network. "Whenever we can take a muscle and turn it into a steak rather than grinding it or selling it as a roast, we are adding value to the carcass."

I completely breezed over this the first time, but after seeing the patent, I re-read and wondered, "If it were just a special cut, why would you need the help of a University's agriculture department do 'develop the cut'?" The patent in question is for:

Improved restructured meat products are provided which exhibit enhanced texture, tenderness, juiciness, and flavor. The meat products are formed by mixing together brine-treated, essentially gristle free raw meat strips (e.g., beef, poultry, pork or mixtures thereof) in the form of strips and ground beef containing naturally-occurring fat, followed by forming the mixture into steak-like bodies.

In other words, it might not be a cut of beef that was found, it was assembled from bits and pieces here and there. Which, to me, is disappointing. I mean, yay to making full use of the animal and all, but we could have already ground up the meat if we just wanted to use it. All they've done is found a way to make more steak out of it which, in this day and age, is really just an engineering effort than something truly clever. If the steak had some new properties, such as tenderness of a fillet with flavor of a ribeye, then maybe. But for something which, reportedly "The taste, tenderness, and flavor are reportedly akin to a New York Strip or Flat Iron cut," then it's just some more of what we have.

It's not like there's a steak shortage in the country. If we wanted, and I know I'm going to be unpopular in some camps with this statement, but if we wanted to have more New York Strip steaks, then we could just cut smaller strip steaks. We don't always have to have the plate dominated by beef to enjoy our steak. Have, and please excuse the crazy talk, a small steak, and eat some veggies or pasta or something if you're still hungry. Maybe I'm a steak grinch, but seriously, do we need to reconstruct steaks now because we don't have enough steak?

The answer is clearly, "no". The real reason this is of interest is for people who want to raise the worth of a cow carcass by a few more dollars. More steaks equals more money, so let's find some more steaks. To me, that's the wrong reason to try these experiments on food. Make something excellent, and money will come. Make something profitable, and you get a nation of people who don't know how to regulate what they eat in a balanced and healthy manner.

Mind you, we don't know for sure that the cut of beef and the patent are related; maybe I was right the first time. I would love to hear more from the people involved. If I were a better reporter, I'd call people up and ask Particular Questions. Perhaps tomorrow. 

Internal Consistency

There’s a trait that geeks have. I’d like to think it’s an endearing one, but honestly, I know that it’s not. It even annoys other geeks if left unchecked.

Imagine you are watching a movie with a geek such as myself, and there’s a vehicle in this movie. Someone shoots the vehicle, or it wrecks, or it’s driven off a cliff. What happens? Not only does the car explode, but a note of derision escapes from the geek who is watching the movie with you.

Now, some geeks will leave it there. Some will also mention that the car exploding wouldn’t happen, and some will go into a lengthy explanation about how the gasoline vapor needs to be at a particular concentration of oxygen to gasoline in order to even catch fire, much less explode. Mythbusters may or may not be mentioned at this point.

This happens in all walks of geek life, with whatever the geek happens to know. If it’s a geek who knows the English language well, then there’ll be talk of dangling participles and indirect objects. If it’s a geek who knows physics, it might be about how space ships don’t have any atmosphere to bank on, so Babylon 5 is clearly the most realistic of the space television shows of the 90’s. If it’s a Food Geek, it might be about how searing steak doesn’t seal in the juices.

And that’s where the difficulty comes in. This is not a surface attribute that happens to be common of geeks. It’s fundamental to our nature. Also, it’s really useful, perhaps vital, to the way we explore, explain, and change the world around us.

Any movie, book, sentence, mathematical equation, physics experiment, programming language, or life has a set of rules and conditions. The way the geek mind tries to deal with any of those is to understand what those rules and conditions are and to try to work within them to get them to do what we want.

So if geeks do this, what do non-geeks do? The same sort of thing, but to a lesser extent, and with less reliance on explicitly stated rules. Think about catching a ball that’s been thrown to you. Relatively easy to do, under the right circumstances. Now think about solving the equations necessary to predict the location of a thrown ball. Do we do all that math, some of which wasn’t even invented until a couple of hundred years ago, whenever we catch a ball or throw a spear at a moving target?

In a word: no. In three words: not a chance. No, what we do is we watch a lot of balls being thrown, and we recognize the pattern of the flight of a ball. If we do that enough, we get a feel for how balls work when thrown, and, with just a small section of their flight path viewed, we can do anything from a pretty good job to an amazing job predicting where it will land.

The same thing goes on for just about everything. We are really good at recognizing patterns. We see something happen, we internalize the circumstances, and we make predictions whenever we see those circumstances repeated. It doesn’t matter if those circumstances are realistic, as long as they are familiar. Which brings us back to the exploding car.

Cars have exploded in movies for as long as there have been cars and movies. Probably the first move with a car in it featured the car hitting a tree and exploding, destroying the world. (This is a lie.) So we understand, when watching a movie, that when we see a car take a lot of damage, it’s probably going to blow up. When we get into a wreck in real life, though, we don’t run from the crash as quickly as we can to escape the inevitable explosion. The circumstances are different, and we recognize and adapt to those different circumstances.

So why does the car exploding bother the geek mind? Because, as a general rule, we are always trying to solve problems. When we’re watching a movie, we don’t just wait for the ending to happen, we try to predict the ending. We want to know, before we’re told, how the heroine is going to solve the problem and defeat the antagonist to save the world. In order to do that, we have to know what the rules of the world are.

Of course, it’s nice to be able to use a bunch of extra knowledge as well. If you are a geek who knows physics, then there’s a huge amount of knowledge that could be applied to the movie that will let you figure out how to get out of the cell or stop the train or neutralize the acid blood of the aliens, or whatever. But if the car explodes because it hits a brick wall, then real world physics doesn’t work, and that means that a good portion of your potential solutions might not work, either. And that’s annoying.

Still, it’s a common problem with movies, and one that can be worked around. The big problem is if the rules of the world change from one moment to the next. One moment, a car that gets shot in the fuel tank explodes in a fiery ball of death. A few scenes later, there’s a shootout, and the goons are hiding behind a car, which provides complete immunity from all bullets. The solution is simple: shoot the gas tank, and you will have goon-barbecue before they can even realize what their mistake was. Unfortunately, what ends up happening is that the car, in this instance, is not only completely bullet-proof, but it’s non-explody as well.  So a problem that should have been solved isn’t because the rules of the world don’t make sense.

So, finally, let’s get to why this is important for cooking. Jump back up to the end of paragraph 4 where I talk about steak. For the longest time, people seared a steak because, they thought, it sealed in the juices. You would have a juicer, and thus tastier, steak by searing, because none of the juices would escape. That was the rule, we lived by it, and all was good.

The problem is that we know, now, that it’s a lie. Searing a steak does the opposite of sealing in the juices. Searing a steak lets juices escape. Once you know that, it may drive you crazy when people who should know better teach that to others, perhaps on the television or in a book. It’s maddening.

Does it matter? We know that searing is a great idea for meat, because it causes maillard reactions which bring out flavor, and honestly, losing some juices concentrates flavors. Besides, beef has plenty of juice in it. It takes a lot of effort to dry out beef. Some might say that anything that gets people to remember to sear their steaks is worthwhile, even if it’s not entirely for the proper reasons. Those people would be wrong.

Cooking is a set of rules. We don’t know all the rules, but we are trying our best. A lot of cooking instruction boils down to “do this a lot, and you’ll eventually get really good at it,” for the same reason that you eventually get good at catching a thrown ball when you practice enough. Still, you form a picture in your mind of what’s going on in the food when you’re cooking it, and whatever explanation you have can probably be applied to other aspects of cooking as well.

If you know that searing steak seals in juices, and steak is a meat product, then you would be tempted to think that searing pork, chicken, or fish would likewise seal in juices. Those are all meat products, so searing must be great for them. You would be wrong. Trying to sear the fish to keep it moist is like trying to shoot the car that the bad guys are hiding behind; the car should explode, and the fish should be sealed, you just end up with a dry fish and an unexploded car.

In a very large nutshell, this is what I’m trying to do with my food geekery. I’m trying to give people the understanding they need in order to visualize how food and cooking works. To give them the ability to make predictions when they encounter new foods or cooking techniques that they’ve never used, and to have some idea of what will happen when they use them. Having this knowledge doesn’t replace the need for practice and experience, but it should make your practice and experience go a lot farther than if you didn’t have it at all. More importantly, it will hopefully give you the courage to try things that you’ve never tried before, since you’ll have some idea of what’s going to happen and how you’ll deal with it.

The mysteries of the Grill

There are challenges with any style of cooking. The challenges of regular cooking, the pots-and-pans, pour-and-stir style of cooking, is mostly one of "volume of material." There are so many methods, so many different ingredients, and such obscure terminology, that it's difficult to get going. Trickier is leaning how to combine ingredients in a way that tastes good, and getting interesting combinations of textures and flavors, that it's just a matter of getting through the material and remembering it, at least to reach a certain level. Baking is a bit different. Baking has a lot more required knowledge of chemistry and biology in order to get things working at all. There are magical proportions of ingredients, certain order of adding things. If that were all, it wouldn't be so bad, but because there are so many factors that have to be just right in order to work, and there's enough variation in materials available to the home cook, that you can't usually rely just upon the numbers; instead, you have to get a feel for when things are working and when they aren't, so you can make adjustments to a recipe if, for example, your flour doesn't have as high a protein-content as it did the last time you bought it. And then there's grilling. Grilling is, in many ways, the simplest of the three styles of cooking. It's basically a single style of heat application, or maybe two styles, depending on how fancy you're getting. However, as with anything simple, this means that there are fewer steps to get wrong, so if you do mess something up, it'll be more noticeable. Add to that what would appear to be an impenetrable black box of whatever it is that you're cooking, and you have what seems like some sort of voodoo. It doesn't help that much of the grilling knowledge is passed down, father-to-son, in family bonding rituals. The side effect of this is that, if there were something that the dad didn't know, it's likely that he wouldn't ask anyone else, or look it up, he'd just make something up that sounded good and pass that information along to the next generation. Not a good scenario. Fortunately, I'm here to help, with what will hopefully be simple and useful tips on grilling techniques. First, consider that the primary method of grilling involves high amounts of radiant heat hitting the item being grilled. Your hamburgers, your steaks, your rotisserie chickens, these are all applications involving that radiant heat. The secondary method is a lower energy heat, some radiant, some convection. If you close the lid, the air inside will get very hot, though not as hot as whatever is right over the coals. The tertiary method of cooking is conduction. While the conduction cooks very little of the food percentage-wise, it's responsible for the ever-important grill marks, which are almost as vital to grilling as a pair of tongs, both in flavor and presentation. The second thing to consider is how big the critter you're grilling is. Oh, sure, you could be grilling vegetables or making some sort of crazy coal-fired bread oven, but the trick to grilling is learning to cook meat so that it's flavorful and juicy. The other applications are interesting, but not the main focus; the meat, if you will. You won't? Okay, fine: the main focus. For our grilling purposes, there are two types of meats: thick and thin. Thin meats are your steaks, your hamburgers, your pork chops, and so on. The thick meats are your chuck roasts, your legs of lamb, and the like. The thick meats, in many ways, are relatively simple to cook and know when they're ready. Generally you'll cook over indirect heat, with a searing at the beginning or the end, and you'll use a probe thermometer or an instant-read thermometer to determine their doneness. There are plenty of sources on the internet for the temperature at which any given meat is both safe to eat and tasty, so use those as necessary. Bear in mind that you'll want to cook it under temperature by 5-10 degrees, then let the meat rest for 10 minutes covered in foil to let the residual heat finish cooking the rest of the way. This gives the meat a chance to reabsorb some of its juices, for a tastier meal. For the thinner meats, this is where the voodoo comes in. To be sure, you can still use a thermometer, but it's a little trickier to hit the center of a thinner piece of meat, and besides, it's far less satisfying. No, when grilling properly, you want to learn how to feel when the meat is cooked. At the early stages of your grilling career, that means literally feeling the meat, not making an emotional connection with it. As you increase your skills, well, the sky's the limit. Hold out your right hand, as if telling oncoming traffic to stop: fingers splayed in a relaxed manner, palm out. Using your thumb and forefinger of your left hand, feel on either side (front/palm) of your right hand until you locate where the bones meet for the thumb and index finger. The muscle that comes out from that part of your hand inside the angle formed by those two bones, that's what we'll call your Steak Zone. I know, it's very appetizing, but stay with me. Do you feel how tight the muscle is just away from the bones? That's a well-done steak, or as steak lovers call it, an over-cooked steak. Don't let your steak get this firm, for that means failure. Yes, I know, that's harsh, but there are realities to grilling steaks, and one of those realities is that a well-done steak is not good to eat. Another reality is that steak sauce is not good to eat on a properly done steak either, but we'll get to that later. Back to the Steak Zone. Continue out from the over-cooked/well-done section towards the open air. Stop when you've reached the part that feels more or less like raw steak, but not as cold or wet (hopefully). That's your range of feeling. Divide that into 4-6 distinct areas, and you have all you need to know to get started on your path to zen grilling. The closer it feels to the inside muscle, the more done it is. The closer it feels to the outside, the more rare it is. Combine that with lots and lots of practice, and you'll be a grill master in no time. I know, it hurts, having to cook and eat a series of steaks just to increase your skills, but sacrifices must be made. So, back to the steak sauce. A proper cut of meat, properly cooked, needs but salt, pepper, and, if you're exceptionally decadent, a smidge of butter to reach perfection. If you feel the need to break out the steak sauce, chances are that you've just skimped on the salt, because steak sauce is generally pretty heavy with salt. Add some on, and you should be good. Try it out; if it doesn't work for you, then enjoy your steak sauce, but I think you'll be surprised by the difference. Above is about 75% of what you need to know to successfully grill meats of various descriptions. Oh, sure, details will vary, recipes and spices will be thrown in, and we've completely avoided talk of what kind of grill to use, but the important thing is that you don't have to be born to grilling; it can be learned, and you can do it.