By Chef Eamon Lee, CEC
During my time working as the chef at The Century Club of Syracuse, I noticed that members wanted tenderloins exclusively for carving stations during the holidays. That was just crazy! Even if you buy no-roll tenderloins, they are still expensive, especially during the time of year when the demand is through the roof. Instead, we roasted barrel cut New York Strips. It was far more flavorful than tenderloin thanks to its higher fat content, and members enjoyed it just as much as tenderloin — sometimes more! It was like inventing a new muscle on the steer — and all we did was use our imagination.
That’s just one example of how we can think differently about cooking beef. Why don’t we smoke shanks? How come we don’t cure cuts like teres major the same way we cure corned beef? The meat will usually dictate the cooking method, but when it comes to utilizing the cuts, think outside the “big brown box.” For example, when you get into that first part of the chuck by the rib, why not roast that part like a rib? Old habits die hard and preconceived notions can hold you back. Once you know the rules, you’ll know right where and when you can break them.
Bring the Heat
Grilling is direct heat cooking, using a very high, dry heat. You want a cut of meat that can handle perfect quadrillage (French term for the grid-like grill mark pattern) without overcooking. Avoid using a piece of meat that is so thin it will overcook and dry out on the grill, or a huge piece that you wind up charring the exterior trying to get the interior cooked to the proper doneness.
New York strips, filet mignons, and rib-eyes are the most popular grilling steaks. Next are the sirloin cuts in strip or filet style — they look different but come from the same muscle. There are also the thin meats such as flank and skirt steaks, which are commonly marinated. The thin meats can have the added advantage of extra flavor from grill flare-ups when the marinade drips onto the heat source.
When it comes to roasting — typically slow cooking using dry heat — larger, celebratory cuts such as the top round and the rib (rib-eye and bone-in exports) reign supreme. When cooked in the oven, you can develop deep flavors from Maillard browning and caramelization. With either of these methods, a chemical reaction occurs between an amino acid and a reducing sugar with the addition of heat that creates the browning. You get all of this wonderful flavor development on the outside of the roast while the inside is still tender, resulting in a gorgeous rare to medium rare. It’s the best of both worlds!
Smoking and barbecuing have become very popular. With smoking, flavor is imparted by the fuel. Barbecuing is cooking low and slow using a hardwood heat source with humidity added using water pans or steam injection. Less tender cuts of meat such as ribs or brisket lend themselves well to these methods because over time, they become tenderized, as cooking breaks down the connective tissue and liquefies the collagen. And, when combined with brining, you have the added benefit of flavor enhancing from the brine and additional retained moisture! Win, win, win!
Braising entails low, moist heat. The most popular cuts are the short ribs — the boneless variety commonly cut from the chuck flap, and the more traditional bone-in cuts from the plate — beef shanks and pot roast. These lend themselves well to low and slow cooking thanks to all that connective tissue and intramuscular fat!
Finally, there’s sautéing and stir-frying that takes full advantage of smaller, thinner pieces of beef by quickly cooking them over very high heat. This method maximizes the flavor and value of economical cuts of beef that otherwise would not lend themselves to any of the aforementioned cooking methods, and happens to be the basis for some of the most flavorful cuisines in the world. Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Indonesian cuisines are no less wonderful by using this very method. Intensely flavored with highly seasoned sauces, aromatic vegetables and exotic spices, the most inglorious beef cuts can be elevated when cooked in this manner, and economically speaking, there’s likely no greater value in food today.