Happy new year, food freaks. How To Eat is back, and this month the blogpost with a tinpot dictator vibe is tackling a true classic: steak and chips.
Nothing too controversial about that, you may think, but, inevitably, a dish touted as the UK’s favourite by everyone from Kenwood to Oxfam, is bound to provoke passionate debate. If not some serious beef. So, (serrated, wooden handled) steak knife in hand, let’s get stuck in.
You want to know how to cook a steak? We have people who can help you with that elsewhere on WoM. Suffice to say that at home – if there is any point trying to cook a steak at home (see below) – then, for my money, you need a dry, infernally hot pan (char / hot Maillard action is good).
Discussing the cut is another matter. No-one of sound mind eats fillet. It is the designer handbag of steaks. Only with less depth of flavour. T-bone is more a statement (look what a macho, big-swinging bloke I am) than a sensible choice, while sirloin is, all too often, a sublime ridge of seared fat, with an anonymous, comparatively dry bit of meat attached.
No, if you’re looking for steak perfection, it’s got to be well-marbled rump or rib-eye. Rump shades it because, if it hasn’t been too radically trimmed, it should have some stretches of crisped fat at its edges. There is also a case to be made for tender, lightly sinewy (rope-like is the common, slightly misleading description) onglet, which, when blast-cooked and blackened without, but still rare in the middle, is one of food’s great sweet / savoury juxtapositions. Feathered skirt is also a great steak, but comes into its own when marinated, which is taking us off-piste.
Choose grass-fed, British beef. Otherwise, the underlying guilt that you’re destroying the planet makes your steak taste funny. As for hanging? Bring it back, definitely. Certain experts insist on a 35 day cut-off to the ageing process, as after that beef can begin to taste livery, gamy, if not outright cheesy. Personally, the best steak I’ve ever eaten was a 42-dayer. Indeed, on occasion, a developed flavour complexity is nice in a steak. However, you want your steak to taste predominantly of beef, not putrefaction, so on balance 35 days is probably a good rule of thumb.
You like a well-done steak? You might as well eat your own shoe. So, let’s dispense with that (and medium, too). That said, I don’t agree that steak need necessarily be a race to raw. Liking your steak black and blue is, unless you are eating something with the tenderness of fillet, likely to leave you chewing for days. We’re talking small degrees here, but there needs to be some heat applied to the centre of a piece of rump or sirloin in order to denature the collagen, or whatever the technical term is for breaking down the meat, fat and any sinews a bit. Very rare / raw steak is often inedible. Essentially, you want blood on the plate, and genuinely rare steak that, at its core, is still a sweet purple-red, rosy-to-pink from there outwards and crusty-cremated on its surface.
Saucing steaks is a serious business. The recipe for high-fallutin steak chain Le Relais de Venise L’Entrecôte’s unguent is one of the great unsolved mysteries of French cuisine. Which is weird, as, clearly, there is only one acceptable sauce for steak: béarnaise.
A perfect luxurious, light-stepping buttery emollient, yet, in its vinegary zing, in its lick of tarragon, also a useful counterpoint to a good steak’s richness. Due to its eggy thickness it also mitigates against that great steak crime: serving your steak already covered in sauce, rather than presenting the sauce in a container (those little copper or cast-iron pans are a touch hokey, but a suitable size), where you can cut and dip, as you see fit. Using the emulsion as a condiment, effectively.
Drowning a steak in peppercorn sauce is like trying to listen to [insert your favourite band here] while someone shouts gibberish in your ear. It is pure idiocy. Tiny pouring jugs of bordelaise? Overbearing blue cheese concoctions? Wasabi-yuzu butters? Come the revolution, all of these will be banned. That fine day may be some way off, however, given that, in 2013. you still find people serving steak with a little puck of herbed garlic butter popped on top, or in a blanket of creamy mushrooms.
Ultimately, a great juicy steak should stand on its own. You might argue that condiments such as mustard, horseradish, and steak sauce, are, if used sparingly, less evil than sauce. But you’d be wrong.
Hot, rustling frites, glistening sticks of starch and oil. That’s what you need, not chips. There is nothing worse (the current over-engineering and poor cooking of the British chip is worth another blogpost in its own right), than trying to eat steak with fat chips which, if in any way dry and mealy, suck all the moisture from your mouth. Light, airy fries give just the right textural contrast and, if anything, an extra lubricating layer of oily goodness. Fat on fat – what’s your problem with that? You’ll note that I am not even considering other forms of potato. Incredibly, I’ve seen everything from new to dauphinoise recommended with steak. Why? Why? Why? Next, you’ll be telling me you eat steak with a baked potato.
A sprig of parsley, a couple of lost, bewildered mushrooms slices, a lone onion ring (incidentally, the most dim-witted of food items); steaks, it seems, throws chefs into design crisis. They panic. Put stuff on there which adds nothing. A steak needs no garnish.
What steak doesn’t need, either, discounting frites, is any kind of hot vegetable accompaniment. Asparagus? Broccoli? Peas!? They are a bland vegetal distraction from, an obstruction to the main point of interest: the meat. Compounding the error, you so often see such veggies jazzed up with cream and butter to try and justify their presence on the plate. Which builds in another layer of unctuous richness to a dish which just doesn’t need it. Creamed spinach may make you feel like a high-roller, but, ultimately, it detracts from the meaty majesty of your steak. It is too much. I’ll concede that roasted mushroom (woodiness) and tomato (acidity) add a logically satisfying extra dimension, but in a meek, footling way.
The solution? Salad! The fresh spritz of a simple watercress salad; parmesan and rocket; something sharp and zippy based on onion and tomato.
So shoot me: I don’t mind a wooden board. It adds, in a panto way, to the primeval, hunter-gatherer pretence of eating steak. Above all, give me a sound steak knife or this will be more slog than enjoyable meal. It may look pretty, chef, but pre-slicing my meat is a mortal sin. Hacking and sawing through your own steak is half the fun.
Red wine, of course. I’ll be honest, I rarely touch the stuff, but you can’t argue with the science. Beer-wise, I’d go for something pale and crisply bitter, a relatively innocuous working partner, on a pils / golden ale axis – something like Headless – rather than a flavour match per se. Save your favourite hop-bomb to savour on its own. With darker beers, like stouts, there is a danger that their roasted notes will overwhelm your steak’s carbonised qualities. Far worse is water, which, somehow, can turn even the best steak to stringy, tasteless matter in your mouth. Avoid.
Class traitor that I am, I no longer own a chip pan. Although, neither do I live near a first-class butcher’s or own a Josper grill (solid-fuel being the smoky, high-temperature pinnacle of steak cookery). For those reasons, and for ecological ones, too, I’d say eat steak rarely and when you do, eat it in a restaurant renowned for its cow know how.
So, steak and chips, how do you eat yours?
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
Seit 1996 bin ich freier Mitarbeiter der Salzgitter-Zeitung, als Experte für das Geschehen im hiesigen Kreisfußball. Daneben sind meine Kolumnen seit 2005 fester Bestandteil im Lokalteil der Salzgitter-Zeitung. Zusammen mit Frau und Tochter sowie zwei gefräßigen wie faulen Stubentigern versuche ich das zu meistern, was das Leben, das Universum und der ganze Rest an Absurditäten für uns bereithalten.