Beef, French-style.
August 11, 2005 4:54 AM   Subscribe

Why does my steak taste so good?

Hsoltz and I are on our honeymoon in Paris, and we've noticed that the steak here tastes different than it does in the US, even compared to USian restaurants that seem to offer fairly traditional French fare. The beef itself seems to have a slightly different consistency, with a different "crust" on it, and the taste is distinctly "beefier."

Has anyone else exprienced this? And, any idea how I would replicate this difference once we get back to NYC?
posted by bshort to Food & Drink (32 answers total)
It's all down to the quality of the beef, I'm afraid. I've never had steak as good as the ones I've enjoyed in Portugal or France in the UK or US.
posted by viama at 5:02 AM on August 11, 2005

It probably has to do with the fact the Portugal or France cattle are grass fed rather then grain fed. You can read a great New York Times Sunday Magazine piece on how American beef is raised on grain. It ain't about taste it's about making more money.
posted by doug3505 at 5:17 AM on August 11, 2005

Try organic beef. Better still, if you still have one, go to your local butcher's shop and ask him about what he'd recommend.
Specialist shops have a lot to loose if they give out crap like the supermarkets do, so if you make the effort with your butcher you're guaranteed quality . If they handed out sausages made from bread and mechanically reconstituted meat you'd find a lot of people suddenly not making the effort to shop with them.

This is written from a UK perspective: we've got fields all over the place and a burgeoning organic market so you don't have to look too hard. NY may not be as lush as Devon is, but, in the land of opportunity, I'd hope there were plenty of independents trying to find customers like you.
posted by NinjaPirate at 5:52 AM on August 11, 2005

Quality of the beef would be my guess too.

When you get back to the US look for free range beef or game meats like buffalo, elk and antelope. Most of the people I know that hadn't tried game meat like buffalo steaks and burgers. I prefer antelope.

Downside: expensive.
posted by raaka at 6:13 AM on August 11, 2005

The grain-fed vs. grass-fed is probably the major contributing factor.

Another is that it's likely that the beef in France is aged longer. Supermarket beef is almost never allowed to age enough.

Third thing I can think of is that the French are likely to serve different cuts than the standard meat-processing cuts used in this country, and so you're getting a different piece of meat when you order "entrecote du boeuf"
posted by briank at 6:19 AM on August 11, 2005

Also consider that it's not unusual for steak in Europe to be parly cooked in butter. I'm not sure what the style is in the US. I personally find that when I cook some fillet steak in butter, I've got the perfect steak.
posted by wackybrit at 6:29 AM on August 11, 2005

Another is that it's likely that the beef in France is aged longer

According to Anthony Bourdain, in his Les Halles Cookbook, the French actually don't age their beef. They age everything else, it seems, but not beef.

It comes down to diet and cut. You're unlikely to find an onglet most places in North America.
posted by solid-one-love at 6:31 AM on August 11, 2005

Before the US mad cow scare, I could get Argentine beef at a Whole Foods. That stuff was a lot more flavorful (grass fed) and the same price as domestic. I ask about it occasionally, and they say it ain't coming back any time soon.
posted by bendybendy at 6:40 AM on August 11, 2005

Don't cows in the US have growth hormones fed to them, while cows in the EU do not? Would this have any impact on flavour?
posted by biffa at 7:01 AM on August 11, 2005

I was going to say the same thing solid. US beef is aged at a legal minimum of 10 days. The "beefier" taste could also be described as "gamier." Most likely you are getting fresher killed beef.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:02 AM on August 11, 2005

Yeah, it's definitely that the beef is better--at least organic, probably grass fed, almost certainly fresher. It could also be that the chef is cooking the steak at incredibly high temperature in butter. If you do this with steak at home--slather in butter, put in an incredibly broiler--you can get a similar effect.

We've basically stopped eating beef, except when we can get really good grass-fed beef.
posted by josh at 7:04 AM on August 11, 2005

I would guess it is the butter. Try putting butter on your steak at home, or cooking it in butter. It really enhances the taste, but not the health. Grass fed beef has more flavor, but some people don't like that. They find it a bit gamey. I think it is better, but to each his own. It does have the advantage of being less likely to carry prions. I just read last week that it should be cooked at a slightly lower temperature than grain fed beef, although I have yet to experiment.
posted by caddis at 7:18 AM on August 11, 2005

Have fun on your honeymoon bshort and hsoltz!!!

On topic, I'm sure the organic market at Union Square will have what you're looking for. I've never bought beef from the vendors there, but it all looks amazing. Most of it is grass fed -- grass feeding definitely gives beef a "beefier" taste.

Another thing in your favor is that there are actually butcher shops in NYC (2nd ave / East Village). So I second the recomendation to check out some of the eastern european butcher shops.
posted by zpousman at 7:52 AM on August 11, 2005

Judging by your description, there may be two cooking techniques employed here:

Searing the beef briefly in a high-temp pan with butter seals the meat, keeping moisture and flavor trapped inside. After searing, cook as normal.

Letting the steak "rest" before serving. Allowing the temperature to reduce while inside the steak allows the moisture, and dissolved flavorings to return to a less volatile state, making the state noticeably juicier and "beefier."
posted by sourwookie at 7:58 AM on August 11, 2005

Do the high-end steak houses in the US serve grain or grass fed?
posted by mullacc at 8:12 AM on August 11, 2005

sourwookie: just to clarify, searing meat does not "seal" the meat. It is myth .

Searing is very good if you like that flavor, since it browns the meat and causes lots of chemical reactions. Just don't use it as method of keeping it juicy (in fact, low temps tend to keep meat more juicy, which is why most prime rib places slow cook the meat at between 160 and 225F).
posted by skynxnex at 9:26 AM on August 11, 2005

skynxnew: My dad has been producing some very, very good steaks the last couple years by searing them in a cast-iron pan (pre-heated in the oven and then put on a the stove on high). After searing them, he puts the steak back in the oven (still at ~500F) and cooks the steak for a minute or two on each side. Would he be better off searing the steak as normal and then turning the oven way down to finish the process off more slowly?
posted by mullacc at 9:32 AM on August 11, 2005

Interesting points sourwookie!
posted by eurasian at 9:37 AM on August 11, 2005

Well certainly better quality beef--organic, grass fed, and so on--will lead to better flavor. As will aging and the use of butter (and if you want to bring buttertastic memories back to NYC, try something like Plugra.)

But it's also the case that beef is butchered differently in different place, which means the "steak" you're eating in Paris may well be a cut of beef you'd have a hard time finding at the supermarket. Of particular interest is the hanger steak, which often shows up on menus in France as "onglet." It's a cut commonly used for steak frites.
posted by donovan at 9:41 AM on August 11, 2005

I just read last week that it should be cooked at a slightly lower temperature than grain fed beef, although I have yet to experiment.

Did they say why? Just curious
posted by IndigoJones at 9:50 AM on August 11, 2005

mullacc, maybe. One advantage of a lower temp. is that more of the steak can be the desired level of doneness, since tempature will change more slowly. I made a roast beef below 300F once (250F, I think), and definately more of it was the slightly pink without any "raw" at the center than when you cook it hotter. It takes a lot longer, though.
posted by skynxnex at 10:05 AM on August 11, 2005

Grass-feeding rather than grain-feeding isn't entirely (though mostly) due to economics. Americans know what they expect beef to taste like (and how mushy it should be) and their rebellion is feared if the formula is changed.
The same principle keeps Hershey's chocolate, made with rancid milkfat, on the shelves. (Some amusing reactions here from people who didn't grow up with chocolate tasting like that.)
posted by Aknaton at 10:34 AM on August 11, 2005

more of the steak can be the desired level of doneness

I see that as a disadvantage. I like my steak a little crispy on the outside and essentially raw in the center. Again, to each his own.

IndigoJones, I think the lower temperatures had something to do with the nature of the fat in the meat. I think not only does the grain fed version have more fat and more evenly distributed marbling, but I think they also said that it had a different characteristic when cooked. The lower temperatures were supposed to prevent toughness in the grass fed beef.
posted by caddis at 10:59 AM on August 11, 2005

You're unlikely to find an onglet most places in North America

Actually, you can. We just call them hangar steaks or butcher's tenderloin. If you have a relationship with good butcher, he can order them for you. They're tender, awesomely beefy-tasting with a distinctly gamy, ferrous flavor. Most Americans don't know about this cut of meat, so it's unlikely you'll find it at your local supermarket.

It would also help to do a bit of research on what the American versions of the French cuts of beef are, since most butchers will look at you like you're nuts if you walk into their store and order onglets. The Les Halles Cookbook and The Book of Meat are good starting places.

In NYC, you can get French cuts of meat at Florence Meat Market in Greenwich village. Lobel's of the Upper East Side might carry them, too. We get our onglets (and oyster steaks) from Brenman's meat market in Gerritsen Beach, and they're really good, even if the guys there do call me "sweetheart". There's also a good butcher in Coney Island, Major Prime Meat Market.
posted by Lycaste at 11:07 AM on August 11, 2005

An important steak point: grass-fed <> organic. Grass-fed cattle aren't necessarily going to yield organic steaks, and organic steaks aren't necessarily (and, in the U.S., aren't usually) going to have been cut from grass-fed cattle. Organic is determined by the non-use of hormones and anti-biotics in raising the cattle and feeding the cattle organically-grown feed, which can be grass in pasture, hay, or grain.

Another point to bear in mind is the way that traditional, expensive, steakhouses soak up all the Prime-graded steak in the U.S. Your typical small French-style restaurant in the U.S. will serve a lower-grade steak than a French-style restaurant in France will...
posted by MattD at 11:40 AM on August 11, 2005

I've been raising my own steers for years. One thing to also add to this list is breed. Most supermarket beef in the US is hereford (the red ones with white faces). I don't know what breed they use in France.

I've eaten holstein, hereford and angus. Angus is the best, in my opinion.

We grass feed for about 16 months, grain for 2 months, hang for 2 weeks.
posted by joseppi7 at 11:40 AM on August 11, 2005

Actually, you can. We just call them hangar steaks or butcher's tenderloin.

And, again, you're unelikely to find them most places in North America. Almost nowhere can you find a decent butcher who will provide you with such a cut. Yes, you can get them. No, it's not easy. Most places it's not even possible.

I know of exactly one butcher in my metro area of 2.2 million people where I can get a hanger steak, and I've done the legwork.

Key words: unlikely, and most.
posted by solid-one-love at 12:02 PM on August 11, 2005

caddis: "Black & Blue" -almost charred on the outside and cold in the middle. Mmmm!

And Guys- if you can't find a in-store butcher who'll help out, ask a local small-time rancher who butchers for him, and get dialed in!

off topic: How the hell did we Americans end up so dependent on supermarkets?! Why back in my day!... (and you kids get off of my lawn!)
posted by small_ruminant at 1:05 PM on August 11, 2005

While most North Americans probably don't have access to these cuts, they can be found in NYC, which is what bshort was asking about in the first place.
posted by Lycaste at 1:15 PM on August 11, 2005

"...if you can't find a in-store butcher who'll help out, ask a local small-time rancher who butchers for him, and get dialed in!"

In addition, check the local rancher's schedule to see when he's sending some cattle to the butcher, and buy a 1/4 or 1/2 of a beef from him (if you have a large freezer) and enjoy the meat all year long at pennies on the dollar.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 3:30 PM on August 11, 2005

While most North Americans probably don't have access to these cuts, they can be found in NYC, which is what bshort was asking about in the first place.

That's well and good, but he was first asking whether other people had experienced this. I was speaking to that question, and not to replicating the experience in NYC -- which is actually what he was asking about in the second place.

But I'm glad that we can agree that I was right and thus we can move on.
posted by solid-one-love at 3:33 PM on August 11, 2005

Your grass-fed beef is almost guaranteed to be a bit tougher - that's the price you pay for tastiness. Cattle don't do much in a feedlot other than stand in a pen. Free-ranging beasts get more exercise, and they don't have marbled flesh. Basically, for animals to taste interesting, they have to have an interesting life. This is why game is tastiest and toughest, while battery hens might as well be cotton wool.

Possibly there is an element of "terroir" involved, from the lifestyle of the cattle and the mineral content of the feed. In which case you may never replicate delicious French beef outside France, any more than you can a Bordeaux.

Absolutely the cut makes a big difference. What I call a rump steak is indisputably more flavoursome than fillet or sirloin. (Sorry, can't remember American cut equivalents).

Here is where I patriotically plug New Zealand beef. Grass fed, hormone free, free-range, no BSE.

Don't French steak recipes usually involve dressing the meat with butter?
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:35 PM on August 11, 2005

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