Apparently, I am not a beef loyalist (a person that eats a lot of beef to the exclusion of other meats). According to Mark Schatzker's definition in the book, Steak: One Man's Search for the World's Tastiest Piece of Beef, I probably fall in the category of Variety Rotators or people that "divide their meat consumption between beef, chicken, and other meats." I really love beef, especially steak, but I also love pork, seafood and vegetables. However, while reading Schatzker's tale of searching for the best steak, his mouthwatering descriptions of Kobe beef in Japan or a steak festival in Italy, I felt the meat hunger and ate steak not just once, but two weeks in a row.
The book, Steak, is not a cookbook, but an account of the author's travels while searching for great steak. It turns out there is quite a bit more than just cattle breed and diet making up this ideal.
Being the food geek that I am, I was fascinated by parts of his tale. For example, I hadn't realized how much variance there was between one country's steak ideal and another's. I had kind of thought a good steak was a good steak was a good steak.
It turns out that what Americans prize in a steak is somewhat counter to what citizens of another country may look for. The USDA grades steak on a scale, with Prime at the highest, then Choice, Select and several categories I don't really think I want to consume. For a steak to be considered Prime, the cow it comes from is usually less than 30 months old, and the meat must have quite a bit of fat marbling. Many meat scientists in the US (not to mention cooks and steak eaters) swear by marbling as an indicator of flavor, but there are studies contradicting this belief, showing that there is no direct link between the two. In fact some of the better steaks that Schatzker samples in his travels have less marbling, but great flavor. The age of the cow is also a subjective means for grading. In Japan, home to such world famous steaks as Kobe beef, some steaks get an even higher grade if the cows are given more time to fatten, not less.
The book is chock full of arcane information. Schatzker tells us, for instance, why cooking a steak too long will hurt the flavor "a well-done steak has 80 percent less umami than one cooked to medium rare" One big surprise: Argentina, the country that consumes the most beef per person, is the only country in the world where a majority of beef eaters prefer their steak well done.
The book also explores why steak never tastes as good reheated - food scientists refer to some of the flavor compounds in steak as "volatile", because they don't last. They are activated by heat, but begin to degrade quickly. If the steak is later reheated, this will create new flavor compounds that are different, but can not recreate the original ones.
Examining so many different steaks calls for a new dictionary, or at least clarification of terms. Schatzker explains there are two kinds of juiciness, judged by volume and length (is it still juicy on the third or fourth chew? If not, that can be a sign the steak wasn't aged properly). Tenderness (or the absence of this) is determined by the desire to swallow a piece of steak, but still needing to chew.
If steak is not brought to room temperature before cooking, you can give it a nasty case of thermic shock, which will cause a small amount of blood vessels in the meat to explode and can inhibit an enzyme in the meat that makes it more tender.
Aside from the more fascinating details about steak, Schatzker spends a lot of time pursuing some of the odder sources for good beef. He visits an eccentric Texan who insists that eating grain fed cattle is the cause of many diseases, from autism to cancer. At this man's urging, the author buys a grass-fed steak and cooks it low and slow (because charring is carcinogenic). It doesn't come as a big surprise that he doesn't like the steak, in fact finds it inedible due to the toughness and flavor of algae. There are many examples in the book where the author, trying to over dramatize his subject matter, misleads---such as his beginning passages about his trip to France, where he describes in great detail the history of Aurochs, the ancestor of domestic cattle that is now extinct. He details just how the last of the species were killed in 1627 in Poland. Then, for the greatest effect possible, claims to later be standing in a field with a herd of 60 Aurochs. He continues is this vein for a bit, still referring to them as Aurochs, before he eventually backs up and tells the whole story only pages later, letting it come out that they aren't genetically Aurochs and do lack some of the distinctive qualities of the now extinct species. Once I became familiar with the author's style, I tended to wince when encountering a new passage that seemed a bit exaggerated
Though I found some of the information in the book to be fascinating, it could have been condensed into a much smaller novella, but I assume those don't get the good book deals. If I had just picked this book up for pleasure and not committed to reading it for the review, I doubt I would have finished it. The parts I found interesting were just too drawn out between descriptions of the endless meals in steak houses around the world and details of his numerous encounters with "experts."
This isn't a book for someone looking for a quick guide to finding a good steak. It isn't a cookbook with recipes for rubs and sauces. But if you really do love all things steak, and would like to know more details about your favorite food, then you can find them here.