A guy gave me some meat the other day. Don’t worry who. He was just a guy I knew. But you can see what the meat was like from the image above. This was Kansas Kobe, some of the best and rarest beef you can find anywhere. It’s the same breed of cattle that the famous Japanese kobe steaks are made from, but signally improved by actually having the freedom to walk around in green fields, and partake of delicious sweet corn and grain. The steak I was surreptiously slipped was a jewel of marbled red meat and I was hard pressed to figure out what to do with it. I couldn’t cook it in my tiny apartment, but I was nervous about entrusting it to any chef. Why?
Because chefs always think that you should eat great meat rare. And chefs are wrong about that.
There is a profound and long-standing prejudice against steak less than medium-rare. It’s been pronounced dogmatically by the most authoritative of food sages. Jeffrey Steingarten of Vogue, the dean of American food writers, believes that all steaks should be served with a dark crust, under which ought to be seen “”dry gray-brown stripe just beneath, and then layers of gray-pink, dusty rose, scarlet, and finally, across the very middle, a purplish crimson.” Steingarten, like many food writers, has a dogmatic bent that is only exacerbated by his titanic learning and his training as a lawyer. He’s ready, like so many food writers, to throw the book at anyone who isn’t ready to enthuse over red meat and dry aging.
But guess what? I like rib steaks cooked medium. A hot pink suits fatty cuts like this one right down to the ground. What’s going to happen if you cook it medium? Will it be tough and chewy? No; that only happens when the muscles become hopelessly taut and constricted from too much heat. Well-done meat is indeed an abomination, as Steingarten might say, because at a certain point the meat loses all flavor and all tenderness, and turns into a chew toy. But a medium steak is less chewy than a rare one. Rare meat, by being totally slack, is hard to chew for the same reason a bicycle cable is hard to cut through: it offers no resistance.
Well, what about the taste? Surely you’ll lose something in beefy taste, no? Maybe. But I don’t eat rib steaks to taste the red meat itself; I eat it them to taste the fat, which is at its best when sizzling or at least melted. And unless the steak is a four-inch bohemoth, most of what you taste is going to be the surface. That’s where all the magic happens. That’s where the maillard reaction takes place, that alchemy that transmutes dead, limp, cold meat into the sizzle and sear and texture of a steak. That’s where all the salt is, which as I’ve written before is basically cocaine to the palate; and that where any sauce or toppings will be too. Since so much of the steak experience is about the surface, don’t you want that surface to be as brown as you can get it?
I do. And that’s why I also ignore another piece of meaty misinformation: namely, the idea that you should let a steak sit out and come to room temperature before you cook it. That one makes no sense at all! The warmer the steak is when you put it in the pan or broiler, the less you have to cook it to get it where you want; and given that the same people who suggest this method are the same ones who love it to be rare, that makes no sense at all! The colder the meat is, the more you can brown it without overcooking it. But meat myths are strong once they take hold of mens’ minds, and these two continue to reign over many good eaters, despite being in utter contradiction. What can I tell you? It’s a good thing you met me.
Josh explains the various stages of meat doneness, from rare to well-done.