Time was a steak meant a slice of grey meat less than half an inch thick and looking as if it had been boiled as long as the onions and mushrooms it was served with. Hermetically sealed, it might well be dry enough to survive a trip into outer space in an astronaut's ration pack.
On trips to France, British carnivores warned one another to ask for "well done" steaks to avoid being served up a quivering lump of uncooked flesh. A lady traditionally ordered a fillet steak; it is the most expensive and thus comes in small, female-friendly portions, and has a low fat content. Men would go for a rump steak, as if eating a large piece of meat somehow bolstered their masculinity. Thankfully, hefty doorstops of tender, bloody, fatty, cuts of beef no longer look out of place on anybody's plate.
A good steak is one of the quickest and simplest meals to prepare – yet somehow one of the hardest to get absolutely right. Quality meat is expensive and shouldn't be wasted, so we asked the experts how to turn a simple slab of beef into a showstopper of a supper.
There is plenty of consensus: start by choosing your cut from fillet, rump, sirloin or ribeye, though fillet is now out of favour with steak aficionados. Make sure it has been hung, for anything between 21 and 30 days, before grilling it on a hot griddle pan.
Ryan Hattingh of the Gaucho restaurants – high-end Argentine steak joints in London and Manchester – stresses that steaks are not better or worse simply because of their provenance, just different. "In the Eighties and Nineties, farmers didn't love their meat like they do now and they were really destroying it. Now the UK is full of fantastic meat."
Hattingh's favourite cuts are ribeye – "you get two textures of meat and the eye of fat in the middle melts into the meat," and sirloin – "just as soft as fillet but with a slice of crackling on the top which melts like butter into toast".
Fillet, he says, is "flavourless, without texture, no fun to eat and you have to have a sauce with it." Rump, though, is "earthy and very, very flavoursome. The true taste of cattle raised on the pampas by the gaucho."
Hattingh's top tips with steak include having a feel of the meat before buying, if possible. The softer the meat is, the better. Bright red meat is young and will be tough. Look for a dark purple colour instead.
Marinating beef, says John Rattagan, head chef of another Argentine steakhouse Santa Maria del Buen Ayre, is frowned upon as a way of hiding the quality of the meat. "We like to boast that marinating would interfere with the high quality of our beef."
To toast your perfect steak, advises Fernando Trocca, one of Buenos Aires' most respected chefs, uncork a bottle of good Malbec.
The butcher: Tim Wilson, The Ginger Pig
"Steak means different things to different people. You have four choices: fillet, rump, sirloin and ribeye. Fillet is expensive because you only get 10 kilos of it from an average carcass. It is tender, because it's the muscle which lies inside the abdomen and never does any work, and it's also quite lean, but even if you hang the whole fillet of beef for a month you won't get fantastic flavour from a fillet.
Rump is the other extreme. It's always moving backwards and forwards so there is a lot of muscle in there. The fat is in the meat so you have marbling. Rump always has the best flavour. "
Ribeye has fat, it can be cut nice and thick and will be tender and have lots of flavour.
The chef: John Torode, Smiths of Smithfield
"I really love a thick piece of rump cut from a piece of beef that has been hung on the bone to mature for 21 days. Pan-fry it very quickly in a really hot pan to seal in the juices, then finish it off in the oven for about five to 10 minutes until it is medium-rare – fantastic stuff! A really classy piece of rump has all the right ratios of fat, muscle structure, fibre and flavour.
The T-bone steak is a piece of sirloin attached to the bone with the fillet sitting quietly on the other side. This is a real win-win situation. You want flavour? Sirloin. You want tender and melt-in-the-mouth? The fillet. You want to chew? Hey, there's a bone. A T-bone steak needs to be cut as thick as a full rib and the butcher will probably look at you like you have lost your mind, but it will be fantastic. To cook: leave the fat on and don't be too tempted to trim it off. The fat is paramount to the success of the flavour of this steak, especially during cooking. Heat the oven to 200C and then rub the steak and the bone with a good amount of oil. Not olive oil – this will not help the flavour at all. Give a good grind of pepper and a generous amount of salt to each side and leave to one side, but not for more than 20 minutes or the salt will start to draw out water from the flesh.
Heat a frying pan or griddle (they need to be able to go in the oven), and when really hot – when you can't wave your hand over the top because the heat is so high – drop the steak in the pan.
Notice that I have put no oil in the pan but only on the steak. Scrape the remaining oil from the plate on to the steak and cook for a good four minutes. The kitchen should be full of steak smoke. Turn the meat over and cook for a further four minutes. Pour over 30ml of olive oil and place in the oven for five minutes.
Chop a large amount of parsley – say two handfuls – and place in a mixing bowl. Pour over 30ml of quality olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Don't skimp. As the steak comes out of the oven, leave it on the side for five minutes to rest and squeeze half a lemon into the parsley mix.
Take the steak from the pan and put on a board, carve it up ready or leave to be torn apart at the table. Drain the juice from the pan into the bowl with the lemon and parsley and olive oil, mix well and then pour it over the steak. Serve with lashings of bread and a great tomato salad topped with a few salty anchovies."
John Torode's 'Beef and Other Bovine Matters' is published by Quadrille, £20
The Argentine way: Ryan Hattingh, Gaucho restaurants
"Squeeze some lemon into corn oil, throw in some crushed garlic and brush a little on one side of each steak. This is to stop it from sticking to the steaming grill.
Use a cast-iron griddle pan – the heavier the better – and heat it until droplets of water evaporate in about three seconds. You don't want to burn the steak and for me the most important thing is for the pan not to be too hot. Cooking on a large grill like we do at Gaucho or on a griddle at home gives a much better flavour than frying.
Lay the steaks oil-side down and sprinkle a mixture of table and sea salt on the side facing up. You can put as much salt as you want to on to the meat as it will only take in as much as it needs.
Only turn the meat once. How long you cook it for depends on its thickness – for a medium-rare thick steak leave for about three-and-a-half minutes per side, but the side covered in salt will take a little longer.
The best way of telling if it's ready is to touch it – the harder the steak, the more cooked it is – and it should lift up from the pan easily. If somebody likes a steak well done, that is their choice, but I don't think you're going to get the best from the meat that way.
Why do people put cooked steak in the oven? It shouldn't be rested. It just gets cold."
The sauce: Fernando Trocca
Fernando Trocca is the Gordon Ramsay of Argentina, but far better mannered. He owns Sucre in Buenos Aires, is building an international empire and as a consulting chef is currently developing a new menu for Gaucho restaurants. He recommends dipping your steak in chimichurri, to add an authentic Argentine flavour to your dinner.
Every family has a different touch for their chimichurri, he says. "I always use fresh ingredients."
1/2 green chilli, chopped 1/2 romero pepper 4 pinches of dried oregano 1/2 cup olive oil 1/8th cup red wine vinegar
Mix everything together and, just before serving, add a handful of chopped parsley into the mixture. Serve as a relish on the side."Reuse content