Steak For Dinner, Cheap And Delicious

For many people, there's nothing like a good steak for dinner.

It's relatively easy to cook, and it doesn't have to be expensive to be delicious, according to America's Test Kitchen editor Chris Kimball.

He and his colleagues tried all sorts of steaks and came up with a few you'll love for their flavor and price, and put the results in their latest book, "Cooking at Home With America's Test Kitchen."

The cookbook is a companion to the show, which kicked off its sixth season this month.

"Cooking At Home With America's Test Kitchen" features all the recipes you'll see in the 2006 season of the show, as well as tips and illustrations so, if you miss something on the show, you can refer to the book as a guide.

On The Early Show Tuesday, Kimball focuses on a chapter called "Dinner On a Dime."

Steak needs very little embellishment beyond seasoning with salt and pepper, but that doesn't mean you need to spend $12 a porterhouse to have a fabulous meal.

Kimball says many people use the price at the meat counter as their way of deciding which steaks are good, assuming that the more expensive the cut, the better.

That's not necessarily so, he says. So America's Test Kitchen's editors decided to put inexpensive cuts, and various recipes, to the test.

They were they looking for an inexpensive steak with the flavor and texture to rival pricey competitors.

What makes certain cuts inexpensive?

In simple terms, steak is muscle and cost is driven primarily by tenderness. As the animal grows and exercises, the fibers within each muscle grow, making the muscles bigger and tougher. The more tender cuts tend to come from the least exercised part of the animal, the middle. That's why the cuts of beef from the rib and loin are so tender, as opposed to the chuck (shoulder/front arms) or the round (back legs).

Another factor that affects the perception of tenderness is the fat content. Marbled fat adds to the tenderness of the meat. During cooking, this kind of fat, as opposed to exterior fat, melts into the muscle and helps separate fiber from fiber.

It's easy to spend too much on steaks, but there are tricks to cooking less expensive steaks that taste as good as the more expensive cuts.

The editors came up with a list of 12 cuts of inexpensive steaks to try. They bought every cut under $6.99. Most were too tough, but the boneless shell sirloin (also called top butt) and flap meat came out as the favorites, at about $4.29 a pound.

The editors then researched the best cooking method for these inexpensive cuts. They did everything from dry-aging and marinating to wet aging, and the method that produced the meat that tasted best was pan-searing.

You should prepare boneless shell sirloin and flap meat using a very hot, conventional (not non-stick) skillet. Allow the meat to rest before slicing. Slice the steak thin, against the grain and on the bias, to ensure the tenderest meat.

How do you know when the steak is ready?

A few methods the America's Test Kitchen staffers heard home cooks using, and how they fared include:

Method No. 1: Press the meat and compare to parts of the body. Rare meat will feel like the flesh between your thumb and forefinger Make a fist and touch the same part of your hand: Medium meat will feel like that. Well-done meat will feel like the tip of your nose.

Editors' review: This doesn't work for most home cooks.

Method No. 2: Nick and peek. Slice into the steak with a paring knife and check the color.

Editors' review: Steak has already been butchered once; why do it again and risk losing the juices? Fine in an emergency, but not their first choice.

Method No. 3: Take the temperature using a meat thermometer. Hold the meat up and away from the pan, using a pair of tongs.

Editors' review: The most reliable method. Works the first time you try it and every time after.