You don't have to go to some high-end steakhouse or shell out $200 a pound for ultramarbled Wagyu beef from Japan to get flavorful, tender beef for your next barbecue. Just keep three crucial factors in mind: the grade, the grain and the aging. A well-informed purchase and a couple of easy prep steps can make the difference between a so-so steak and one that sends your eyeballs skyward.
Step No. 1 — buy the best meat that fits your budget. To do that, you need to know a bit about how beef is graded in the U.S. The system is based mostly on the age of the animal and the amount of marbling in the meat.
"USDA prime" is the highest grade. Only about 3 percent of cattle meet the criteria, so most prime-grade meat is snatched up by fancy restaurants and specialty butchers before it makes it to supermarkets. Below that is "choice," followed by "select." Anything below these is best avoided for steaks, ribs and roasts. In Canada, the equivalent grades are called "Canada prime," AAA, and AA.
Though the visible fat content of red meat is easy to measure, researchers have found that it accounts for only about 5 percent of the variation in meat tenderness. The Australian government uses a much more reliable grading system that takes into account other important factors, including what the animal ate, how it was treated, and the pH of its muscles, which reflects how humanely it was slaughtered.
If cattle are exhausted, shivering, injured or highly stressed at the time they are killed, their muscles deplete their natural fuel store of glycogen, and the pH of the meat is abnormal as a result. Beef that is unusually dark, firm and dry often is a product of poor slaughterhouse practices.
A grade stamped on the package is one useful piece of information about the quality of the meat, but it isn't the end of the story. Some of the best beef is not graded at all; it is sold by small producers who can't afford to pay the high costs of having a USDA grader on site. In other cases, official-sounding labels — such as Certified Angus Beef — are not grades, but rather brand names used by loose associations of ranchers to make their meat appear distinctive.
Whether you spring for a prime tenderloin or a select flat-iron steak, you can get the most tenderness out of the cut if you pay attention to the grain. Just like wood, meat is a collection of long, skinny fibers. If you cut the meat along the fibers, it's like sawing boards out of a tree trunk: the resulting pieces are very strong and hard to chew. Instead, slice across the fibers; the tougher the cut, the thinner the slices should be. Each bite will then fall apart more easily and release more of its juices and flavor.
For a real steakhouse experience, try aging your meat before you cook it. The best steakhouses use special humidity-controlled rooms to dry-age beef for a month or more. The drying process concentrates sugars, protein fragments, and other flavorful molecules to yield unparalleled taste. But because the steaks shrink as they dry and much of the exterior has to be trimmed off before cooking, this is typically an expensive step.
Here's a shortcut: brush Asian fish sauce onto the steak (use about 3 grams of sauce for every 100 grams of meat). Put the coated steak in a zip-closure bag, then remove the air by submerging the bag in water while holding the open end just above the surface (the water forces the air out of the bag). Seal the bag, then lift it out of the water. Refrigerate the sealed meat for three days before you cook it. You may be surprised by how much tenderer the steak becomes and by the depth of its meaty, umami flavor.
EDITOR'S NOTE: W. Wayt Gibbs is editor-in-chief of The Cooking Lab, the culinary research team led by Nathan Myhrvold that produced the cookbooks "Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking" and "Modernist Cuisine at Home." Their new book, "The Photography of Modernist Cuisine," will be released in October.