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There's more to filet mignon than the price — and maybe there's an even better cut for whatever you're cooking up. Are you a little baffled by all the different types of meats available at the market? Ted Allen, author of “The Food You Want to Eat” and judge on Bravo's “Top Chef,” shares his Butcher's 101 guide:
What do you look for in quality beef?
In general, what you want with beef (and any other food) is freshness. When possible, go to an actual butcher, and get your meat cut to order—that way you'll know it hasn't sat in a cellophane-wrapped package for days and days. Or be difficult in the grocery store and ask the meat guy to cut your stuff for you. Naturally you want a bright-red, fresh color — nothing dark red, and certainly not gray!
Why are certain cuts more expensive than others?
The short stroke would be that prime cuts cost more than cheap cuts because they are more tender when grilled as a steak, and the customer prizes tenderness. But the savvy cook knows that some of the best flavor comes from the cheap cuts, like flank steak. You just have to know how to cook it to MAKE it tender. Much more flavor than tenderloin, and a quarter the price.
Tenderloin is where the filet mignon comes from, filet mignon being the one piece of all-American beef that has a French name. It's considered the most luxurious because I think Americans like consistency — kind of like if you think about a chicken breast, there's not a lot of sinew or veins, but also in itself, not a lot of flavor ... that's why you can put pretty much anything on it from salt and pepper to sauce.
But the tenderloin has a real silky consistency, and not a lot of fat content or marbling, and that's because it's a part of the cow that doesn't get a lot of exercise ... it's just unworked, lean muscle. And it does have the veneer of fancy, but definitely not the natural flavor of a ribeye.
In the rib and ribeye you get beautiful marbling. It's a couple bucks cheaper than the tenderloin and filet, but you still get the “luxury.” With the marbling and higher fat content, you don't need a lot to flavor this cut — no sauce, just some kosher salt or sea salt and some pepper.
Also, a lot of supermarkets cut their ribeyes and other steaks to about an inch thick, but it's hard to get a real perfect steak at that thickness. You want about an inch and a half to 2 inches to be able to get that nice charred outside but still a good medium to rare pink on the inside.
Flank, skirt and hanger
If you want to save some money, there's the flank, skirt and hanger steaks, which are really underrated. You see it typically in Latin and Cuban cooking. Cook this quickly with high heat, by grilling or broiling. This is a part of the cow that does get a lot of exercise, so there's fat and connective tissue, so if you cook it wrong and overdo it, it can be really tough and chewy. What you want to do is put it in a good, long marinade with acid that tenderizes the meat and starts to break down the fibers. After that, cook it quickly and you're good to go..
Ground beef is typically the most affordable, and chuck/ground chuck is your typical ground beef. We all love hamburgers, we don't have to tell people to cook burgers, but since the Depression and probably before people would look for ways to stretch that beef out into meatloaf. Now meatloaf doesn't necessarily say luxury, but it can be done well, so that it's moist, You don't have to fill the top with ketchup or anything like that ... I've got a great recipe that doesn't require too much breading either. And some of the best Italian meatballs are made with it, too. When you're doing burgers, one thing to remember is that burgers aren't the place to go with 95% lean beef because they'll come out dry. A good burger needs fat to have good flavor. So if you're that concerned about cholesterol and fat, just make a turkey burger.
For a beef roast — and here, we're talking slow-roasting in the oven or, for seasonal purposes, on a grill (low, indirect heat, and covered) — a sirloin roast, is a marbled, more flavorful cut than the tenderloin. It has great texture, a bit less tender but still much more tender than round (which really is only suitable for braising, chili, pot roast, etc.), and slightly less expensive than tenderloin.
Ted Allen is a host of of “Queer Eye For the Straight Guy” and author of “The Food You Want to Eat: 100 Smart, Simple Recipes.”