How to Buy the Perfect Steak

‘Tis the season to fire up the grill and enjoy a tender piece of goodness. Let Brooke Parkhurst and James Briscione, authors of Just Married & Cooking: 200 Recipes for Living, Eating, and Entertaining Together help you choose a steak that’s a cut above the rest.

You only need two things for a great steak: quality meat and a hot grill. (While you’re at it, throw in some kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper for enhanced flavor.) That means the onus of turning out a great steak rests squarely on the shoulders of the hunk of meat that you select. Here’s what to look for:

Color
The color of the meat is a great indicator of how much it’s been aged. Good or bad. Proper aging of steak yields a slightly darker, more brown color. It might not be the prettiest steak in the butcher’s case, but it’s the tastiest, with the richest, deepest flavor. Improper aging — aka steaks that have been sitting in the butcher’s case too long — will look dull, slightly grayish. To recap: good aging – color deepens; bad aging — color fades.

Marbling
Those white flecks in the meat are fat, and fat is flavor! Look for a good quantity and an even distribution of the white stuff to ensure that every bite will be a flavorful one.

Size
When it comes to steak, size definitely matters. If the cut is too thin, it will be difficult to develop a good char on the outside without overcooking the interior. If it’s too thick, you might burn the exterior before the interior reaches a level beyond that of steak tartare. Go for a steak that’s atleast 1/2 inch thick and up to 2 inches thick.

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Great grilling and barbecue tips

Barbecue Tools 101: What You Need to Make Barbecuing Easier and Safer

Good barbecue requires good equipment. Here, Dotty Griffith, author of Celebrating Barbecue, offers a list of must-haves for making barbecue you can be proud of.

Low and slow is the mantra of all barbecue pit masters. Long slow cooking with indirect heat — that is, not directly over the heat source — or over a very low fire is what makes barbecue. Good barbecue requires good equipment. The options are many, depending on a variety of factors, including budget, cooking and storage space, the number of mouths you’re feeding, and your level of enthusiasm and commitment. It is possible to spend tens of thousands of dollars on custom barbecue equipment or just a few bucks on inexpensive equipment that will also produce barbecue you can be proud of. Costs may range from $25 to $3,000 or even higher.

Types and styles of cookers range from barrels to brick-lined pits and from small grills available at discount stores to expensive designer equipment. Pros who compete in barbecue contests across the country and who also cater have portable barbecue rigs or systems on trailers. Many customize the equipment for their special needs and preferences, like smoking a whole pig or side of beef.

But most of us amateurs — including some pretty serious ones — buy something we think is big enough to meet our needs, easy enough to use, the right size for the deck or patio, and affordable.

Cookers may be constructed in a horizontal or vertical style, round or rectangular, depending on the cook’s preference. With horizontal cookers longer than they are wide, the fire can be built at one end of the grill so that the meat can be placed on the cooler side. Other cookers (usually vertical) have what are called fireboxes in which the fire burns and wafts smoke and heat over and around the meat in the cooking chamber.

Round (or kettle) cookers, except those with water pans, make it more difficult to position the meat away from the fire; in general, this shape works better for grilling. But if you’ve got a round cooker, don’t despair. Start the fire in the middle. Once the coals have burned down to gray ash, push them to the edges, forming an area of indirect heat in the center of the grill.

Some cooks use smokers with a water pan that separates the fire from the meat, thus reducing the chances of overcooking or drying out the meat. When you use a water pan smoker, basting isn’t necessary. If the flavors from a basting or “mop” liquid are desired, pour the basting liquid in the water pan, adding water as necessary to prevent to prevent the pan from cooking dry. Cooking takes longer with a water pan.

A good barbecue cooker has to have a lid and vents or a vent and chimney. They help control the fire and pull the smoke and heat over the meat to cook it. For more convenience, chose a cooker that has a fire door so you don’t have to lift the cooking grate and meat whenever you need to add hot coals.

Experienced barbecuers often have several different types and sizes of cookers requiring different types of fuel. They use bigger cookers fired by wood or wood and charcoal when they’ve got time to spend on a brisket or pork shoulder or several racks of ribs. They may use a smaller gas-or electric-powered cooker for more casual cooking when there’s less time to tend the fire.

Serious barbecuing requires a second, smaller grill that can be devoted to maintaining a steady supply of hot coals for the main cooker. It also comes in handy for grilling snacks while waiting for the barbecue to cook.

Along with a cooker (or two), you’ll need cutting boards, knives and utensils, heavy gloves, squirt bottles, squirt bottles, and fire starters. Here’s a list of basic tools that will make barbecuing easier and safer.

EQUIPMENT CHECKLIST
Aluminum foil:
Get heavy duty, the largest size available, for wrapping big pieces of meat to keep them warm or to store refrigerated.

Chimney fire starter:
This gadget looks like a top hat without a brim and uses crumpled newspaper to start a charcoal fire quickly and efficiently, without the taste residue of chemical fire starters or treated charcoal.

Cutting board(s): Several boards (at least 1 inch thick) of varying surface area can be very helpful. If you choose only one, make sure it is large enough for holding and slicing a brisket or pork shoulder, about 10 by 16 inches. Some boards have a trench around the edge to catch runoff juices.

Electric match: These are handy for starting fire.

Fork: A two-pronged fork is great for holding meat securely while you are carving. But it is better to use a spatula, tongs, or heat-resistant gloved hands for handling meat over the fire. Stabbing with a fork causes to run out.

Gloves: Different kinds are suited for different jobs. Black heat-resistant gloves are a safety bonus, especially if you’re handling big pieces of meat. Plain work gloves make handling wood and charcoal a lot less messy. Latex gloves make handling raw meat more pleasant and  serving cooked meat more sanitary.

Instant-read thermometer: This basic food safety tool is a must for producing good barbecue. When inserted into the meat, it immediately gives you the internal temperature, unlike traditional meat thermometers, which must be inserted in the meat during the entire cooking time. It is also handy for checking the temperature inside the cooker. Some cooks drill a small hole in the lid so they can insert their instant-read thermometer at any time. Others place an oven thermometer inside the cooker on the grill near the meat.

Knives: A large carving knife is a must for slicing cooked barbecue. A paring knife, an 8-or 10-inch chef’s knife, and a boning knife also come in handy for various. A Chinese cleaver is ideal for carving barbecued chicken or for chopping pulled pork or barbecued brisket.

Plastic bags: Get heavy-duty self closing bags in a variety of sizes, mostly large. They are great for marinating meat to be cooked or for storing cooked meat.

Platters: You’ll need large, heatproof platters or roasting pans that can rest on the edge of the cooker or be placed in a low oven to keep eat warm. They are also handy for switching to the Fail-Safe Technique of finishing barbecue in the oven.

Sauce mop: Used for washing dishes, the true dish mop, like a floor mop, is made of string is perfect for swabbing meat with sauce. A pastry brush can do the same job. Keep several of both on hand. Clean them in dishwater.

Shovel or fire spade: One of these is a must if you’re keeping a hot bed of coals to add to the cooker. Use it for the easiest and safest way to transfer hot coals to a firebox or smoker.

Spatulas: Sturdy spatulas are great for lifting the meat so you don’t have to poke fork holes in it. For large pieces of meat, you’ll need two.

Squirt bottle: Keep one on hand to douse the flames that get out of control. More of a necessity for grilling than for barbecuing.

Tongs: These gadgets can be a barbecue cook’s best friend because they allow precise handling of the wood in the firebox and the meat on the grill. Use a separate pair of tongs for each task. For extra flexibility, get several tongs in varying lengths. A spatula and a pair of tongs may be the safest combination for moving meat around on a smoker.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dotty Griffith is the dining editor and restaurant critic of The Dallas Morning News, and has judged numerous recipe contests. She is the author of nine cookbooks, including Celebrating Barbecue: The Ultimate Guide to America’s 4 Regional Styles of ‘Cue (Copyright © 2002 by Dotty Griffith), and has written for magazines, including Gourmet and Travel & Leisure. She lives in Dallas, Texas.

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The 4 Great Styles of American Barbecue

While Americans and cooks all over the world have adapted barbecue basics to local preferences, four regional styles dominate and define the genre. From Celebrating Barbecue: The Ultimate Guide to America’s 4 Regional Styles of  ‘Cue by Dotty Griffith

CAROLINA
Meat: Pork, whole hog and shoulder
Results: Pulled and chopped pork; vinegar-based sauces, with and without tomato, or mustard based
Techniques: Pit cooked, direct heat
Flavor Profile: Hot-sour

MEMPHIS
Meat: Pork, ribs and shoulder
Results: Wet ribs (sticky, with lots of tomato-based sauce) and dry ribs (without sauce during cooking)
Techniques: Smoked over indirect heat; finished over direct heat
Flavor Profile: Sweet, hot, smoky

TEXAS
Meat: Beef brisket, pork ribs
Results: Sliced brisket with tomato-based sauce on the side; glazed ribs with tomato-based sauce on the side
Techniques: Smoked over indirect heat; finished over direct heat
Flavor Profile: Savory, smoky, touch of sweet

KANSAS CITY
Meat: Pork ribs, beef brisket
Results: Sticky ribs with lots of tomato-based sauces
Techniques: Indirect heat; finished over direct heat
Flavor profile: Sweet-sour, hot

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dotty Griffith is the dining editor and restaurant critic of The Dallas Morning News, and has judged numerous recipe contests. She is the author of nine cookbooks, including Celebrating Barbecue: The Ultimate Guide to America’s 4 Regional Styles of ‘Cue (Copyright © 2002 by Dotty Griffith), and has written for magazines, including Gourmet and Travel & Leisure. She lives in Dallas, Texas.

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