Most of us love a good steak every now and then. The simple pleasure of consuming a chunk of meat right off the fire is satisfying on a very primitive level. The problem is that after thousands of years of social evolution, we no longer have primitive taste-buds. Sometimes, good steaks are hard to come by. Finding a restaurant that really knows how to handle a steak is a chore, and can be expensive. And most lay-cooks do not understand all of the nuances involved in preparing a perfect steak. The good news is that it is not all that hard to learn.
The first thing to keep in mind is that Steak Rubs are an accessory, not a way to cover up mistakes. Many is the time I have gotten a steak in a so-called “Steakhouse” and was served a lessor cut of meat encrusted in spices in order to hide it’s pedigree. It doesn’t work. We’ll get into rubs later, but for now, just remember that no amount of rubs or marinades will make up for poor quality or technique.
The perfect steak starts with knowledge (like most other things), and the process starts long before the meat gets near the grill. You need to understand the different grades and cuts of meat so you can make informed decisions when selecting your cuts. In the U.S., meat is graded as whole carcasses, by Inspectors on the governments payroll (USDA). They grade the carcasses according to age, and how much marbling, or streaks of fat they have running through the muscle tissues The grading process is designed to be very friendly to the multimillion dollar beef industry. And keep in mind that a lot happens to the meat after it is graded, so the grade is only one factor to consider. Just because the label may say ‘Prime’ on it, this does not mean the meat is Prime Grade. The label must have a USDA tag on it that says ‘USDA Prime’.
The grades of beef in the U.S. available to the retail public are:
- USDA Prime-this meat has good marbling throughout the carcass, and the steaks will most likely be tender, and have a great buttery flavor. This is the top grade of meat, and most of it is earmarked for export, and high-end restaurants. A small portion of it winds up in higher end markets, and specialty grocery stores. When you find this in a market, it will be very expensive, but worth it. USDA Prime only makes up around 3% of the total U.S. beef production.
- USDA Choice-this is the grade most of us are familiar with, and what you will most likely see in your local market. Although lesser in quality to USDA Prime, it will still have good marbling, and will be tender and flavorful for the most part. It will have a somewhat courser texture than USDA Prime. USDA Choice makes up around 54% of US cattle production.
- USDA Select-This is the lowest grade of meat offered to the retail public. It has minimal marbling, is very lean, and will be tough and mostly tasteless. This grade can still be used to create some great cuisine, especially when long cooking times are involved, such as simmering and slow cooking. This grade should be reserved for things like beef-tips, kabobs, stews, soups, tacos, smoking, and making jerky. It is great for making your own ground chuck, or beef as long as you add at least 10% fat to it.
A few other things you may see are:
- Certified Angus Beef-started in 1978 under pressure from Angus beef producers (who get a lot of people elected to Public Offices) to promote the use of their cattle. It means nothing. There is no evidence that Angus cattle are in any way superior to other similarly-raised cattle.
- Grass-Fed- the cattle have only been raised on forage.
- Grain-Fed-the cattle have been raised on forage, but ‘finished’ on grains in a feedlot.
- Organic-the cattle have not been subjected to any steroids, pesticides or other chemicals. This definition is subject to frequent change, and does not reflect anything that happens to the meat after it has been butchered.
- Halal-the cattle have been processed according to Muslim Dietary Laws
- Kosher-the cattle have been processed according to Jewish Dietary laws.
- Kobe Beef-cattle of the Waygu breed, raised only in the hills of Kobe, Japan. They are finished by hand-feeding them high-energy foods such as beer, and beer mash, to create tenderness, a high-fat content, and the cattle are hand-massaged to reduce stress. This produces an extremely tender, flavorful steak, but the very soft texture takes a little getting used to.
As far as steaks for grilling, we can narrow it down to three main sections: Rib, Short-Loin, and Sirloin. The rib area is where you get Rib Roast, Rib-Eye (the King of Steaks), and of course, the ribs. Moving to the rear of the animal, the short-loin area produces T-Bones, Top-Loin, Tenderloin, and Porterhouse Steaks. The rearmost portion provides Rump Roast, Sirloin, and Top Sirloin Steaks. Other cuts of interest, Flank Steaks, Round Steak, and New York Strip are also cut from the these sections, and are a bit tougher. They are perfectly usable, but require a modification of cooking techniques.
Now, you have a professional cooks knowledge of how to select the best steaks for your needs, and budget. It’s time to develop our rub. Good steaks do not require any added flavor, fat or marinades. When cooked properly, and allowed to rest before serving, they contain their own marinade and flavoring built right in. You can make a perfectly edible steak just by throwing it on the grill and cooking it to the proper level, such as Rare, Med-Rare, etc… (that’s for a future article), and letting it rest for 5 minutes before serving. But most of us would like to distinguish ourselves by adding a little of ourselves to the creation. This is art in it’s purest form. So rubs should be considered in this light. Your rub should reflect who you are, unique from all other individuals.
When making a rub, mix a new blend in small amounts until you know if it is what you want. Rubs will keep for around two months, then start to lose flavor, so make sure to label them with the date, and the recipe. There is nothing more aggravating than coming up with a dynamite recipe, then later forgetting how we did it (it’s happened to all of us at one time or another).
The basic components of a rub are salt, sweet, sour and bitter. Every flavor is made up of varying amounts of these four components. It’s best to start with the salt and sweet parts, then build towards the sour and bitter.
You might think that common sense dictates that the salt portion would be just salt, but that is only partially correct. There are many kinds of salt available such, such as Garlic Salt, Onion Salt, Celery Salt, and Seasoning Salt. Other candidates might be a mostly salt mixture such as Spike, Cajun Spice, or for people on a salt-restricted diet, Mrs Dash, or your own mix.
The sweet part can be regular sugar, brown sugar, turbinado, molasses powder, honey powder (remember, this is a dry rub, so only dry ingredients should be used), or for diabetics, even Splenda, or Sucralose (do not under any circumstances use Aspartame. When heated, it morphs into potentially dangerous chemicals-this may also be a future article). The only limit is your imagination. Just remember to go easy. We want to compliment the steak, not slap it in the face.
For a basic rub, this is as far as you have to go. An absolutely wonderful all-purpose rub can be made with just a cup of brown sugar, and a cup of Garlic Salt. Trust me on this. I have done this in restaurants for over 4 decades, and people have gone crazy trying to figure out how I made it. This is the first time I have shared this secret with anyone. I am not a very complicated person, and my likes and dislikes are very basic and straight-forward. This rub reflects my personality to a tee. But you may be a little more complex, so moving on….
From this basic rub, we can start to build on the flavor. If you are a little mysterious, or a bit exotic (personality-wise), you might want to add just a touch of something mildly flavored, like paprika. Just a little, though. We want to make a suggestion, rather than a definite statement. It will ad a touch of mystery to the mix, and a little color as well. Other good suggestions are the slightly musky taste and aroma of Black Pepper, or the Old World flavors of oregano, and basil. Horseradish Powder can add a touch of West Coastal class to the mix. Old Bay can impart the quaintness of New England. You might want to add some of the mystery of the Orient by adding a touch of Five Spice powder, or the wonderful character of Latin America with a touch of Cumin, Cilantro, and a small dash of Chili Powder. The possibilities are endless. Just be sure to add them a little at a time, and taste the rub between ingredients to see how it is developing. It is much easier to add flavors than to try to take them out. For the sour component, if you want one, you can add Tomato powder, powdered lemon, or lime, or (you’re not gonna believe this, but it works great, ….another one of my secrets) unsweetened Kool-Aid, Tang, or similar dry mixes. I have also used things like Oolong Tea, Green Tea, Instant Coffee and Instant Expresso. They can supply the bitter finish brilliantly. Just add them very sparingly.
The very last component is optional, but there may be times when you want to put a little heat in the rub for some added excitement. My three main tools to this end are cayenne, or Red Pepper, Jalapeno Powder, or Wasabi Powder, depending on what statement you want to suggest. Whatever you use for hot, go very easy with it.
Now you know how to make a homemade steak rub that reflects your personality, and matched with the right meat and cuisine, can reflect what you want to say to the world. I purposely did not include any recipes with this article, because I want you to experiment, and find your own path to culinary greatness. After all….getting there is half the fun.