From the perfect bacon sandwich to the best-ever hot cross buns, in this new series Daniel Tapper consults experts to reveal how to master six classic dishes. This time, steak
If you’re currently considering a career in butchery, then you friends and family may reasonably conclude that you are completely and utterly out of your mind.
Studies show that almost one third of Brits are taking steps to reduce their meat intake, while a further one in seven say they are interested in adopting a ‘flexitarian’ diet. Thus, since 1990, the number of butchers in the UK has reportedly more than halved, to fewer than 6,000. But please don’t lay down your apron just yet.
Though small in number, Britain’s dwindling fleet of independent butchers are increasingly setting themselves apart from the supermarkets by focusing on quality, provenance and sustainability, heralding what I predict will become a golden era for those who take their craft seriously.
Few businesses embody this approach better than the Wild Beef stand at Borough Market—an immensely popular butchers selling exceptional rare breed beef from Hillhead Farm near Chagford, Devon. And when it comes to sourcing beef for the ultimate steak, few are as clued up as owner Richard Vines.
“It’s imperative that you talk to your butcher,” he says. “For the most flavoursome meat, ask for a cut sourced from grass-finished cattle. Ours feed on uncultivated perennial grass, which provides more minerals and trace elements, resulting in greater overall character. They’re also encouraged to express natural behaviour,” he adds, “which is why the cattle stay with their calves for around 10 months before weaning. As for what kind of steak to choose, there are so many good options, but it’s hard to go wrong with sirloin, rump or rib eye.”
A life-long fan of fat, I opt to buy the latter, which is a cut famous for its liberal amount of marbling. This particular specimen has been hung for three weeks. During this time, enzymes within the beef break down the connective tissue, resulting in more succulent meat. More still, some 10 per cent of the meat’s weight is lost to evaporation (‘the angel’s share’), a process that helps to enhance the steak’s natural umami flavour.
Now all that’s left to do is bang it on the grill, right? Wrong, says chef, restaurateur and food writer Ben Tish, who is currently overseeing the food offering at historic five-star London hotel, The Stafford. “There is absolutely no point in spending money on great quality meat if you’re not going to give it the attention it deserves in the kitchen,” he tells me. “First, a steak should always be brought to room temperature before cooking, otherwise you’ll end up with meat that is charred on the outside and cold on the inside. This means a minimum of 30 minutes outside of the fridge before you fry it.”
Second, it’s imperative that you get your griddle pan smoking hot—quite literally. “Only once you’ve done these two things can you consider the cooking.”
I’ve long subscribed to the theory that a steak should be slathered in oil and salt before being cooked. Ben and Richard say otherwise. Fatty steaks, like sirloin and rib eye, are best cooked dry, they say—a method that will give you the all-important char. Salting, meanwhile, should only be carried out once the steak has been cooked, to prevent it from drying out.
Sadly, the rules are less clear-cut when it comes to deciding how long a steak should be cooked for. Ben suggests gently pressing down on the meat with a single finger: if the flesh within is rare, it will stay indented, he promises, while a well-cooked steak will bounce back immediately. Alternatively, for a two centimetre-thick medium-rare steak, try cooking it for around two minutes on either side, before using a sharp knife to inspect its interior.
Crucially, steak should always be left to rest for a minimum of 10 minutes after cooking, preferably on a warm plate covered loosely with foil. “Serve it straight from the pan and it will lose all of its delicious juices to the plate,” says Ben. “However, if you leave it to rest the steak will act like a sponge, soaking up its juices and concentrating them in the centre. This last point is absolutely critical if you’re serious about cooking a really flavoursome steak.”
Finally—and perhaps most contentiously—is the issue of serving. A man after my own heart, Richard says that a decent steak should be enjoyed pure and unadulterated, albeit with a generous dose of Maldon sea salt, a splash of olive oil and a “bloody good bottle of claret”.
Ben is less easy to please, insisting that his desert island steak would be one adorned with béarnaise sauce or café de Paris butter, a condiment made with capers, chives, paprika, parsley, shallot, anchovies and Worcestershire sauce.
Thankfully, we all agree that no steak should ever be served sans chips. “I’m not allowed to deep fry them at home,” Ben tells me, wistfully, “so I shallow fry them in the oven with a bucket-load of olive oil.” Amen to that.
Remove the steak from the fridge at least half an hour before cooking to bring it to room temperature. Pre-heat the grill to 280C. Cut 2 medium-sized, un-peeled potatoes into 1cm thick chips. Wash and then dry the chips using kitchen paper, before placing in a non-stick roasting tray with a glug of olive oil and plenty of salt and pepper. Grill for around 20 mins, turning often.
In the meantime, heat a griddle pan over a medium to high heat for a few mins until smoking. For a 250g 2-3cm thick rib eye steak (make sure it’s at least 21 days old), fry the steak for around 2 mins on either side, until the outside is slightly charred and the inside remains pink.
Remove the steak from the pan and place it on a warm plate. Cover it loosely with foil and leave it to rest for a minimum of 10 mins. Serve with the chips, and dressed watercress and a dollop of English mustard, if you like.