This post is the first in a series in which Mark Schatzker will reveal where to find some of the world's best steak, why flavor isn't necessarily related to fat content, and more.
In the winter of 1994, I ate the most culturally out-of-context steak of my life. It was a rib-eye from Argentina served to me at a Peruvian chain restaurant in a suburban mall in Santiago, Chile. It was also one of the best steaks I have eaten.
The steak was served on a smallish white plate and bathed in a pool of pink liquid. That's it. There was no tarragon butter, no blanched green beans in demi-glace, not even a sprig of parsley; it was plating at its most literal. The steak did come with fries, but they were on a separate, larger plate, trailing the beef like some subservient entourage.
The steak was also astonishing. It was not the most tender I had ever eaten, but the flavor floored me. It tasted like steak, but more intensely. It was beefy. Every bite was a shocking explosion of steakiness. What was going on? I asked the waiter for the recipe, intent on recreating this masterpiece in my own backyard thousands of miles north. This was his response: "salt."
Back on home soil, I bought an expensive strip loin and did to it what had been done to the Argentine steak in the Peruvian kitchen in Chile. I sprinkled it with salt, grilled it, and prepared for rapture. What I got was more like salt water on a fork.
The problem with steak, I realized, wasn't the cooking, and it wasn't the seasoning. It seemed to be the steak itself. There was some quality within a steak that determined its tastiness. What was it?
To find out, I phoned the National Cattleman's Beef Association. If anyone would know the secret to a delicious steak, it would be the largest beef advocacy organization in the world. Here's what they said: marbling. This is the same message espoused by every high-dollar butcher shop and steak house. The more dots and curls of white intramuscular fat, the more delicious, tender, and juicy the steak will be.
My next move, naturally, was to go out and buy highly marbled steaks. I salted them, grilled them, and waited, once again, for rapture. This time, the result was more like salted butter on a fork.
The steak was juicier, but still lacking in flavor, a hollow shell of meat whose good looks hid an utter scarcity of personality.
By this point, my curiosity about steak was turning into an obsession. I craved it, but my cravings went unrequited. None of the steaks I bought seemed to have any flavor. But then, very occasionally, I would bite into a standout steak, a steak that reminded me of that Argentine rib-eye.
Could it be that there was some other quality to a steak besides marbling that determines the way it tastes? Were cows like grapes? Did an Angus taste different from a Hereford the way a Cabernet Sauvignon tastes different from Pinot Noir? Or did it have something to do with what a cow ate? Were North American cows not eating enough corn? Or were they eating too much?
In July of 2007, an event took place that made my steak-eating obsession more than a mere hobby: I got a book deal. Weeks earlier, I sent out a proposal in which I suggested, with a straight face, that I travel around the world on a steak-eating quest requiring the consumption of several hundred pounds of rib-eyes, strips, and tenderloins.
Three years later, the result has arrived. It's called Steak: One Man's Search for the World's Tastiest Piece of Beef. My journey took me to Texas, France, Scotland, Italy, Japan, Argentina, and all over the United States. I attended a high school meat-judging contest in Lubbock, Texas; ate Kobe beef at Tom Cruise's favorite steakhouse in Japan; and dined on a long-extinct breed of primitive cattle that was biologically engineered by the Nazis. I learned about such arcane—but supremely important—scientific things as "volatile aromatic compounds" and "water holding capacity" in beef. And I met (and in many cases petted) countless steers, bulls, and cows, analyzed their dung, and even raised my own heifer, fattening her on apples, carrots, and nuts in an effort to make her steak as delicious as possible.
Did I learn the secret to great steak? It's not that simple. How could it be? Steak has many secrets. It is so complex it needs an entire book—a whole genre, actually—and I won't even attempt to explain it all in a few short sentences. But I will tell you this: steak quality is not about marbling. Steak quality is not about cattle being grain-fed, no matter what the National Cattlemen's Beef Association has to say about it. Everything American steak lovers have been taught to believe about steak is, basically, wrong.
But it's not all bad news. There is still good and great—even life-changing—steak out there waiting to be grilled. There's more of it now, in fact, than there was 10 years ago. And I can tell you how, and exactly where, to find it.