In the future there could be genetic engineering to make a transhuman level of taste or a perfect palate. For now, we can have a better eating experience by understanding what we like and thinking a bit about our food.
People think about the about animals on farms and the meat they buy but tend to do so separately. Yet the difference these factors make to the eating experience is astonishingly marked – and, says Laurent Vernet, hugely underestimated, even by top chefs.
Whilst others brand his skill unique, he isn’t so sure. “There’s almost no science involved. I’ve met farmers and butchers who can immediately identify the same things I can, but they do it informally,” he tells me as we sit in London’s Landmark Hotel waiting for executive chef Gary Klaner to rustle up the first few cuts. “In any case, I want people to understand the differences in beef so they can find their favourites. You wouldn’t pick up any old red wine without thinking about your preferences. Why shouldn’t the same go for beef, which after all, tends to be the most expensive food in your shopping trolley?”
Beef, like any food, has fashions. The current hit, especially in London butchers, is 46-day maturation. A mere nine days is, in some circles, now considered so bland that you might as well chuck it in the kids’ packed lunch. Vernet disagrees and he’s right that while its taste lingers for a shorter time than its two longer-matured equivalents, it is juicier and melts in the mouth. “Beware of the butcher that says all his beef is matured for x number of days,” cautions Vernet. “The reality is they should get to know the individual carcasses, checking them every day, recognising every animal is different in terms of its premium state.”
“Ultimately, it comes down to individual preference,” he says. “Provided it’s good-quality well-reared beef, you can’t (as some butchers and chefs do) say one type is categorically better than another.”
The idea that animals should only be fed grass is another current trend that Vernet disagrees with. “They need other things in winter and turnips or barley – two examples – develop sweetness and a nice marbling, which ultimately give more juiciness.”
The perfect steak: Vernet’s tips
Use the right pan: For juicy cuts, use a griddle. For dryer steaks, use a flat pan. If you place a juicy steak on a flat pan, the liquid will boil and ruin taste and texture. If you put a dry steak on a griddle, you’ll make it even dryer. If you’re not sure which category your steak fits into, ask your butcher. Alternatively, go by the rule that the more marbling, the more juice.
Get your temperatures right: Your pan needs to be very hot. Top chefs think nothing of heating the pan five to ten minutes before putting the steak anywhere near it. The steak itself should ideally be room temperature. If it’s too chilled, the meat fibres will contract together and produce a massive release of juice, potentially drying out your steak.
Cooking your meat: Steaks can be trimmed of fat before or after cooking. The latter option adds a little more flavour. Lightly coat the steak with oil before placing on your pan/griddle and allow the meat to cook until the desired amount of browning occurs. Go by the rule of two-and-a-half minutes each side for rare; 3-4 minutes each side for medium rare; 4 for medium; 5 for medium well; and 6 for well done. If using a griddle, rotate the steak 45 degrees while cooking for a criss-cross effect.
Bone or no bone? Some butchers say steaks best retain their flavour when cooked on the bone, but there’s no evidence or logic to suggest this is true. Since butchers have to pay to dispose of bones, they may have an ulterior motive. That said, bones are always good for stock or soup.