Tough times put tender beef on sale

As the recession has reduced business at high-end steak houses, more prime-grade beef is showing up in retail outlets.
As the recession has reduced business at high-end steak houses, more prime-grade beef is showing up in retail outlets.
Posted: January 07, 2010

For steak lovers, it's like stumbling on a hidden treasure. You're in a warehouse club, and there, at the far end of the meat selection, is a stash of beef labeled USDA Prime.

Not only that: The rib eye, for example, is selling for less than $11 a pound, not too much more than the USDA Choice rib eyes a few yards away.

"The price of prime earlier this year was lower than it had been since before the millennium," says Lou Rook III, chef at Annie Gunn's restaurant in Chesterfield, Mo.

Terry French, the meat supervisor at Sam's Club at the Franklin Mills Circle in Philadelphia, says they have a good supply of USDA Prime rib eye steaks, currently selling for $8.84 a pound.

If you take advantage of those prices, your special-occasion dinners can feature the same grade of beef that is served in high-end steak houses and restaurants.

Those restaurants used to snap up a huge portion of the prime beef sold.

But the recession has hit special-occasion and expense-account restaurants particularly hard. Revenues for Morton's Restaurant Group, parent of Morton's The Steakhouse, are down 17 percent this year; Ruth's Chris steak houses have seen comparable-restaurant sales in its most recent quarter drop 23 percent. As steak houses buy less prime beef, more finds its way to retail shelves.

The more "marbling" - the amount of fat distributed evenly among the muscle - the higher the grade from the United States Department of Agriculture. According to USDA statistics, prime accounted for just 2.9 percent of the 21 billion pounds graded in 2008. By far the largest amount, 77.6 percent, fell into the next category down, choice; 12.9 percent received the select grade. The small remaining amount of beef was graded standard, commercial, utility, or cutter.

Two of the signature steaks at Annie Gunn's are a prime strip steak and a prime rib eye. Rook serves those steaks with a compound butter, but he makes them even more simply at home.

"Just salt and pepper and some whole butter - there's nothing better," Rook says. Before seasoning the steaks at home or at the restaurant, he brushes them with extra-virgin olive oil, although he says regular olive oil, clarified butter, or even canola oil will work for the home griller.

One thing that most people can't reproduce at home is the grilling temperature - 1,800 degrees - achieved in steak-house kitchens. But Rook grills at 700 to 800 degrees at Annie Gunn's and at about 600 degrees on his home gas grill.

"I think that too high of a heat can char it and alter the flavor of the meat," Rook says. "Some people like that, and the steak houses even boast that their steaks are charred."

However, Rook says home cooks should get their grills as hot as possible.

"What you're trying to do is caramelize the natural sugars to form that great crust," Rook says. "That, in turn, will give the meat its optimum texture."

Sam's Club sells prime beef at some of its stores, although those stores don't always have it in stock. Costco offers both prime beef and American Kobe beef through its online ordering service and in its stores.

Beef terminology

American Kobe. Beef produced in America from hybrids of the Wagyu breed, the source of Japan's Kobe beef. American Kobe producers claim their beef can have more than 10 times the marbling required for USDA prime grade.

Certified Angus Beef. A brand name for beef from Angus cattle; can be choice or prime grade. In addition, the beef meets specifications for marbling, maturity, uniformity, appearance, and tenderness.

Choice. The second-highest grade given by the USDA, below prime. Grades are based on the amount of marbling.

Dry-aged. Beef hung in a refrigerated cooler at a specific temperature and humidity for at least 10 days before being cut. The aging evaporates moisture from the muscle, concentrating the flavor, and allows the beef's natural enzymes to tenderize it. This method reduces the weight of the beef by about 20 percent.

Grass-fed. Beef from cattle raised on an all-grass diet, rather than by the more common practice of feeding them grain toward the end of their lives. Grass-fed beef has a more complex, some say milder, flavor than grain-fed beef, less marbling, more omega-3 fatty acids, and less saturated fat.

Prime. The highest grade given by the USDA, signifying the most-marbled beef. (Prime rib is a specific cut of beef - its name has no relation to USDA grading.)

Select. The lowest USDA grade seen in stores, below choice.

Wet-aged. Beef vacuum-packed in plastic and aged at temperatures of 34 to 38 degrees for at least 7 days. Wet-aging is used for about 90 percent of aged beef because it doesn't cause loss of salable product, as does dry-aging.

Roasted Fingerling Potatoes

Makes 6 to 8 servings

2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary

11/2 teaspoons minced garlic

1 teaspoon sweet paprika

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1/4 cup olive oil

2 pounds fingerling potatoes

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a small bowl, mix together rosemary, garlic, paprika, salt, and pepper.

2. In another small bowl, whisk together Worcestershire sauce and oil.

3. Spread potatoes in a baking dish; drizzle with the oil mixture. Sprinkle the rosemary mixture evenly over the potatoes and toss to coat.

4. Roast for 35 to 40 minutes, until the potatoes are lightly browned, tender, and cooked through, stirring several times.

- Adapted from Morton's The Cookbook, by Klaus Fritsch (Clarkson

Potter, 2009)

Per serving (based on 8): 145 calories; 7g fat; 1g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 2g protein; 20g carbohydrate; 1g sugar; 2g fiber; 320mg sodium; 20mg calcium.

Cabernet Garlic Thyme Butter

Makes about 1/2 cup (or enough for 6 to 8 servings)

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room tempera-

ture, divided

1/4 cup minced garlic

1/4 cup minced shallots

1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce

1 cup cabernet sauvignon

1/4 cup honey

2 tablespoons fresh thyme, minced

2 tablespoons cracked


Kosher salt

1. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a saute pan. Saute garlic and shallots over medium heat until translucent, 2 to 4 minutes.

2. Stir together Worcestershire, wine, and honey in a medium bowl. Pour into hot pan, scraping the bottom gently with a spatula to loosen any cooked bits.

3. Cook over medium heat until liquid is reduced by half. Add thyme and peppercorns and cook until liquid has almost evaporated. Let cool.

4. Transfer cooked mixture to a food processor or blender and add remaining 6 tablespoons butter. Blend for 2 to 3 minutes. Add salt to taste, and blend briefly until combined. Serve over a freshly grilled steak.

Per tablespoon: 190 calories; 12g fat; 7g saturated fat; 30mg cholesterol; 1g protein; 14g carbohydrate; 10g sugar; 1g fiber; 95mg sodium; 20mg calcium.

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