Recipe for a Perfect Cookoff

What makes for a great steak? Is it grade, aging, type of feed, breed of cow? After personally visiting twenty steakhouses and trying more than fifty steaks for my portion of our December 2007 cover story, “Meat Your Maker,” I still couldn’t decide.

Often the expensive ones were the best, but I had one fabulous steak that was undoubtedly low Choice, it was so cheap, and I had one labeled Prime that had about as much flavor as grocery store hamburger meat. Maybe it would help to ask some experts for their opinion. I decided to hold a blind tasting and see if we could discern any patterns.

I went looking for steaks, and I found that the Austin Whole Foods Market had two of the things I was most interested in: grass-fed beef and dry-aged beef (they age it in-house). The store agreed to supply some ribeyes. I also asked Lamberts Downtown Barbecue, where I had enjoyed excellent grain-fed steaks (Lamberts was not a contender in our steakhouse sweepstakes, so no conflict of interest was involved). Finally, I lined up five Austin chef-judges (lucky devils) and seven different steaks.

Our procedure was simple: We would evaluate the seven steaks for a range of factors, including breed, types and lengths of aging, grade, and feeding, namely grass or grain. Given the constraints of time, this would not be in any way scientific or comprehensive. But if a general consensus emerged, that would be informative.

We gathered at Lamberts October 4 at 3 o’clock. The judges were Lou Lambert, the restaurant’s main chef-partner; Tyson Cole, chef-owner of Uchi Japanese restaurant; Quincy Adams Erickson, chef-owner of Fête Accompli catering; Marion Gillcrist, chef-owner of La Traviata Italian restaurant; and Stewart Scruggs, chef and co-owner of Wink and Zoot American restaurants.

Lamberts’ chef-partner Larry McGuire and Whole Foods’ meat expert Russell Stockstill did grill duty, cooking the five ribeyes and two strip steaks, each one an inch in thickness. They used an open grill and mesquite coals, flipping the steak once, allowing it to char just a bit, rest for around seven minutes, and seasoning it with kosher salt and pepper.

At 4 o’clock the steaks started coming off the grill, about one every ten minutes (the judges didn’t know which was which). We had water for a palate cleanser, but no dump buckets were requested and no one spit out a single bite. The results, from lowest to highest (oh, we had score sheets), were as follows.

Seventh Place : Choice, natural beef (a vague term that some producers use to indicate the animal has not been exposed to hormones or antibiotics), dry-aged for 28 days, grain fed .

Even though dry aging and grain-feeding are supposed to produce the deepest, meatiest flavor, this picky group was not very impressed. Comments included, “There’s a sour flavor to it, like lemongrass,” “It’s kind of metallic-tasting,” “It has a grassy note,” and “I don’t care for it.”

Sixth Place : Ungraded (grass-fed beef has almost no marbling and thus is not graded, which is a measure of fat), dry-aged for at least 7 days, grass-fed.

A sharp difference of opinion about this grass-fed steak emerged between two judges, one of whom said, “The taste is delicious,” and the other, “It’s bland; the juice is like water.” Other judges thought the beef had more aging than some of the rest and liked the flavor, but opined that it was on the tough side.

Fifth Place : Choice, natural beef wet-aged for an estimated 7 days, grain-fed.

This steak left them neutral. One said, “It has good enough flavor but it’s not fabulous.” Another didn’t like the texture, saying, “You can feel the connective tissue.”

Fourth Place : Prime (a strip steak), dry-aged for 28 days, grain-fed.

They warmed up to this steak a little more, but with varied opinions. Comments included, “I think it’s good—it doesn’t have the fat flavor but it has a meaty flavor,” and “It’s not as juicy as some, this is the one you want the béarnaise on.”

Third Place : Top Choice, dry-aged for 16 days, grain-fed.

While they weren’t that impressed with tenderness, they agreed this was a good piece of meat. “This one was juicier but tougher,” and “This has a little more fat and flavor.”

Second Place : Top Choice, dry-aged for 28 days, grain-fed.

Now they started to get excited. “This one looks better,” “I like this one so much better,” and “It has a buttery flavor the others were lacking.”

First Place : HeartBrand Beef, Akaushi breed, Prime plus, wet-aged for an estimated 7 days, grain-fed.

They went hog-wild. “It’s almost like each bite is more delicious than the one before it,” somebody said. The others chimed in: “It’s richer and more complex,” “This one stands up to the char,” “It’s like sex in my mouth,” and “I don’t want it to end.” Whew. Turn on the exhaust fans.

The consensus: What consensus? All the components you think will predict best taste can be altered or masked by other factors. For example, one 28-day aged steak came in second, the other dead last. Prime did not prove to be a slam-dunk. Grass-fed beef got both praise and disdain. The only thing they all agreed on was that Akaushi, which is grain-fed and had the most intramuscular marbling of all, was their favorite. Our one solid conclusion: Fat is where it’s at.

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