The Search for the Ultimate Steak (Home Edition)
In this day of $100 steak entrees, premium Kobe and Wagyu, and celebrity chef-run steakhouses, it's hard to see past the hype and to the substance of what really constitutes a quality steak. Alexander's Steakhouse, the Michelin-star and award-winning steakhouse in Cupertino, California, is one of my favorite restaurants and is no stranger to this market, having long offered their Kobe A5 grade steak at their restaurant at prices north of $100.
But despite how much I LOVE Alexander's, I've yet to have the chance to indulge in any of their ultra-premium offerings. Their USDA Prime steaks are so good (along with their sides like Lobster Mac & Cheese and Hamachi Shots) that I've never felt I've been missing anything....and my wallet has always been happier.
Nonetheless, when you hear people rave about grass-fed beef and massaged Wagyu cows resulting in an unmatchable steak, it's hard to not have your curiosity piqued. So for the past year or two, I've been searching for opportunities to try and cook these high-end steaks and see if there's anything to all the hype.
Using the Wall Street Journal's article, "The Search for the Perfect Steak," as a starting point, I began to search both locally and nationally for cuts of steak that I could compare. After some debate, I began with these candidates for the Ultimate Steak:
Costco - [USDA Prime Ribeye]. Costco is famous for the quality of their meat and, on a regular basis, have USDA Prime cuts in addition to their typical USDA Choice. Only 2% of the meat in this country qualifies for USDA Prime. Costco prices are the bargain of the bunch and a very popular roast for the holidays. Available nationally: www.costco.com
Whole Foods - [USDA Prime, Dry Aged Ribeye Steak]. Whole Foods is another national supermarket with a great reputation and top notch produce and meat section. They take their USDA Prime a step further and actually dry-age their steaks in house. The older method of dry-aging is generally preferred over wet-aging and adds further tenderness and flavor to the steak at the cost of reducing the amount of steak that is usable. Available nationally: www.wholefoodsmarket.com
Bryan's Fine Foods - [USDA Prime, Dry Aged Ribeye Steak; Midwestern and Private Reserve]. Bryan's Fine Foods is located near Napa Valley, California. I had heard rave reviews about their steaks and figured they'd be a good representative of the high quality, local butcher you may have in your town. They dry-age their steaks and obtain beef from two souces. Their Midwestern cut is USDA Prime beef shipped from the Midwest and their Private Reserve is their premium USDA Prime that has the further distinction of being entirely grass-fed and free range. Some believe this feed and way of livestock treatment makes for a more tender steak. Available locally and online: www.bryansfinefoods.com
Lobel's - [Natural USDA Prime, Dry Aged Ribeye Steak and Wagyu Ribeye Steak]. Lobel's is a famous butcher shop in NY that has been written up in numerous magazines and is the favorite of even some Hollywood celebrities. Their butcher shop is notable not so much for their USDA Prime that is similar to Bryan's Private Reserve in that it is all grass fed and free range, but for their American Wagyu. For all the steakhouses that serve Kobe, American Wagyu is the same cow but born and bred in the states. It is also 100% grass fed, without supplements and free range. On the USDA scale, Wagyu scores a level higher than Prime and typically employs a 12 point scale indicative of the marbling. Prime is about ~4-5 on that scale. All Lobel's Wagyu is at least a 9. A 12 would essentially be so marbled that it might be too fatty to eat. Available locally and online: www.lobels.com
I cooked all my steaks similarly, following the method outlined in Lobel's "Guide to Cooking the Perfect Steak." Essentially, you allow the steak to reach room temperature, season simply with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and then pan sear the steak followed by oven broiling.
The result is a medium rare steak that you see in the images. So after all that work, what's my conclusion?
Well, let me start by saying that all the steaks I sampled were excellent. If you were limited to only USDA Prime steaks for the rest of your life, you'd be a lucky person. The outlined cooking methods would also improve USDA Choice and Select cuts.
That being said, buying and eating these steaks, my observations largely concentrate on three characteristics that distinguish these cuts and make them Ultimate Steak candidates:
Dry-aging - Although dry-aging is preferred to wet-aging because it gives a better flavor, even a USDA Prime steak that hasn't been aged at all is still very good. The main differences I discerned between the Costco non-aged steak and the dry-aged steaks were in tenderness. Flavor for both was quite good. Given how easy it is to find a dry-age steak at Whole Foods, I'd definitely recommend it, but if you see a deal on USDA Prime at Costco, realize they are the bargain ultimate steak choice.
Natural or Grass-Fed - I'm not as convinced of the benefit of the steaks that were natural raised with 100% grass feed or allowed to free roam as they allow free range chickens to do. In chicken, free range usually results in a less fatty, more tender meat, but the whole point of steaks is often their marbling. It almost seems contradictory. While I'm sure some can tell the difference, I don't think I could tell a regular USDA Prime Dry Aged vs. one that was a Natural USDA Prime. The price difference isn't much (~10% or so) so if you want to purchase the Natural steaks from a standpoint of supporting that model, that's fine, but I'm not paying a premium for it.
Wagyu - the final difference was the famed and much-hyped Wagyu or Kobe beef vs. regular USDA Prime. Well, I have both good and bad news. The good news is that I indeed think there is a difference and it's a noticeable one with respect to both flavor and tenderness. The bad news is that Kobe or Wagyu costs significantly more. Whether you think this noticeable difference is one that can justify the significant price difference is entirely up to you.
I'd say a good rule of thumb is to stick with the USDA Prime from Costco and Whole Foods on a regular basis and for that occasional special event, pull out the Kobe. It's too pricey to eat on a regular basis, but the rare time that you choose to do it, I have no doubt that you'll remember what those advantages and differences really are.
Of note, I actually prepared my Wagyu steak worse than I prepared my USDA Prime version in that I overcooked it slightly. Still, it was noticeably more tender and more flavorful than the USDA Prime which was cooked a medium rare. I then gave two pieces in a blind taste test and my tester agreed that the Wagyu tasted noticeably better. I thought so too. After that, I was sold.
I know this was a long post, but hopefully, a helpful and enjoyable one. If you'd like to conduct your own taste test, I'd definitely recommend you give the above candidates a try. See if you too agree with me on what is the Ultimate Steak.