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.

RECIPES:

The following recipes are featured in the segment on The Early Show and included in "Cooking at Home With America's Test Kitchen."

Pan-Seared Inexpensive Steak
Serves 4

A pan sauce can be made while the steaks rest after cooking (sauce recipes follow); if you intend to make a sauce, make sure to prepare all of the sauce ingredients before cooking the steaks. To serve two instead of four, use a 10-inch skillet to cook a 1-pound steak and halve the sauce ingredients. Bear in mind that even those tasters who usually prefer rare beef preferred these steaks cooked medium-rare or medium because the texture is firmer and not quite so chewy. Shopping can be confusing, as steaks are often haphazardly labeled at the supermarket. … The times in the recipe are for 1 1/4-inch-thick steaks.

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 whole boneless shell sirloin steaks (top butt) or whole flap meat steaks, each about 1 pound and 1 1/4 inches thick
Salt and ground black pepper

1. Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until smoking. Meanwhile, season both sides of the steaks with salt and pepper. Place the steaks in the skillet; cook, without moving the steaks, until well browned, about 2 minutes. Using tongs, flip the steaks; reduce the heat to medium. Cook until well browned on the second side and the internal temperature registers 125 degrees on an instant-read thermometer for medium-rare (about 5 minutes) or 130 degrees for medium (about 6 minutes).
2. Transfer the steaks to a large plate and tent loosely with foil; let rest until the internal temperature registers 130 degrees for medium-rare or 135 degrees for medium, 12 to 15 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare the pan sauce, if making.
3. Using a sharp chef's knife or carving knife, slice the steak about 1/4 inch thick against the grain on the bias, arrange on a platter or on individual plates, and spoon some sauce (if using) over each steak; serve immediately.

Tomato-Caper Pan Sauce
Makes 3/4 Cup

If ripe fresh tomatoes are not available, substitute 2 to 3 canned whole tomatoes, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch pieces.
1 medium shallot, minced (about 3 tablespoons)
1 tablespoon unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons dry white wine
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
2 tablespoons capers, drained
1 medium ripe tomato, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch dice (about 1/4 cup)
1/4 cup minced fresh parsley leaves
Salt and ground black pepper

Follow the recipe for Pan-Seared Inexpensive Steak.

After transferring the steaks to a large place, pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the fat from the now-empty skillet. Return the skillet to low heat and add the shallot; cook, stirring frequently, until beginning to brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Sprinkle the flour over the shallot; cook, stirring constantly, until combined, about 1 minute. Add the wine and increase the heat to medium-high; simmer rapidly, scraping up the browned bits on the pan bottom with a wooden spoon.

Simmer until the liquid is reduced to a glaze, about 30 seconds; add the broth and simmer until reduced to 2/3 cup, about 4 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium; add the capers, tomato, and any meat juices that have accumulated on the plate and cook until the flavors are blended, about 1 minute. Stir in the parsley and season to taste with salt and pepper; spoon the sauce over the sliced steak and serve immediately.

Mustard-Cream Pan Sauce
Makes 3/4 cup

1 medium shallot, minced (about 3 tablespoons)
2 tablespoons dry white wine
1/2 cup low-sodium chicken broth
6 tablespoons heavy cream
3 tablespoons grainy Dijon mustard
Salt and ground black pepper

Follow the recipe for Pan-Seared Inexpensive Steak.

After transferring the steaks to a large plate, pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the fat from the now-empty skillet. Return the skillet to low heat and add the shallot; cook, stirring frequently, until beginning to brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the wine and increase the heat to medium-high; simmer rapidly, scraping up the browned bits on the pan bottom with a wooded spoon. Simmer until the liquid is reduced to a glaze, about 30 seconds; add the broth and simmer until reduced to 1/4 cup, about 3 minutes. Add the cream and any meat juices that have accumulated on the plate; cook until heated through, about 1 minute. Stir in the mustard; season to taste with salt and pepper. Spoon over the sliced steak and serve immediately.

The following recipes are included in "Cooking at Home With America's Test Kitchen" and reprinted here with express permission of America's Test Kitchen. Copyright 2006, all rights reserved

Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes
Serves 4

To achieve the proper texture, it is important to cook the potatoes thoroughly; they are done if they break apart when a knife is inserted and gently wiggled. Buttermilk substitutes like clabbered milk do not produce sufficiently tangy potatoes. To reduce the likelihood of curdling, the buttermilk must be brought to room temperature and mixed with cooled melted butter.

2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
Salt
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2/3 cup buttermilk at room temperature
Ground black pepper

1. Place the potatoes in a large saucepan and cover with 1 inch cold water; add 1 tablespoon salt. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the potatoes break apart very easily when a paring knife is inserted, about 18 minutes. Drain the potatoes briefly, then immediately return them to the saucepan set on the still hot burner.

2. Using a potato masher, mash the potatoes until a few small lumps remain. Gently mix the melted butter and buttermilk in a small bowl until combined. Add the butter-buttermilk mixture to the potatoes; using a rubber spatula, fold gently until just incorporated. Adjust the seasonings with salt and pepper to taste; serve immediately.

Variations

Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes with Leeks and Chives

Follow the recipe for Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes, adding 1 bay leaf to the potato cooking water in step 1. Discard the bay leaf after draining the potatoes. While the potatoes cook, melt 1 tablespoon unsalted butter in a small nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add 1 medium leek, white and light green parts only, rinsed well, quartered, and cut into 1/4-inch slices; cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned and wilted, about 8 minutes. Continue with the recipe from step 2, adding the sautéed leeks and 3 tablespoons minced fresh chives to the potatoes along with the butter-buttermilk mixture.

Buttermilk Ranch Mashed Potatoes

Remove the sour cream from the refrigerator at the same time as the buttermilk so that both will be at room temperature when they're added to the potatoes.

Follow the recipe for Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes, adding 1 small garlic clove, minced or pressed through a garlic press (about 1/2 teaspoon), 3 scallions, sliced very thin (about 1/3 cup), 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley leaves, and 1/3 cup sour cream to the potatoes along with the butter-buttermilk mixture in step 2.

Pan-Roasted Asparagus
Serves 3 to 4

This recipe works best with asparagus that is at least 1/2 inch thick near the base. If using thinner spears, reduce the covered cooking time to 3 minutes and the uncovered cooking time to 5 minutes. Do not use pencil-thin asparagus; it cannot withstand the heat and overcooks too easily.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 pounds thick asparagus spears (see note), ends trimmed
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
1/2 lemon (optional)

1. Heat the oil and butter in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. When the butter has melted, add half of the asparagus to the skillet with the tips pointed in one direction; add the remaining spears with the tips pointed in the opposite direction. Using tongs, distribute the spears in an even layer (the spears will not quite fit into a single layer); cover and cook until the asparagus is bright green and still crisp, about 5 minutes.

2. Uncover and increase the heat to high; season the asparagus with salt and pepper. Cook until the spears are tender and well browned along one side, 5 to 7 minutes, using the tongs to occasionally move the spears from the center of the pan to the edge of the pan to ensure all are browned. Transfer the asparagus to a serving dish, adjust the seasonings with salt and pepper, and, if desired, squeeze the lemon half over the spears. Serve immediately.

Variations

Pan-Roasted Asparagus with Toasted Garlic and Parmesan

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil and 3 medium garlic cloves, sliced thin, in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat; cook, stirring occasionally, until the garlic is crisp and golden but not dark brown, about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the garlic to a paper towel–lined plate. Follow the recipe for Pan-Roasted Asparagus, adding the butter to the oil in the skillet. After transferring the asparagus to a serving dish, sprinkle with 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan, the toasted garlic, and the lemon juice; adjust the seasonings and serve immediately.

Pan-Roasted Asparagus with Warm Orange-Almond Vinaigrette

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat until shimmering; add 1/4 cup slivered almonds and cook, stirring frequently, until golden, about 5 minutes. Add H cup fresh orange juice and 1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves; increase the heat to medium-high and simmer until thickened, about 4 minutes. Off the heat, stir in 2 tablespoons minced shallot, 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar, and salt and pepper to taste; transfer the vinaigrette to a small bowl. Wipe out the skillet; follow the recipe for Pan-Roasted Asparagus. After transferring the asparagus to a serving dish, pour the vinaigrette over and toss to combine; adjust the seasonings and serve immediately.