Why we should all eat more steak to save the beef industry (and how to cook it perfectly)

Dishing up one of our favourite restaurant meals at home is not just a treat, it could protect the future of cattle farming

steak on a plate
Beef farmers need the boost from home buyers Credit: Xanthe Clay

Could it be our patriotic duty to eat steak? Not that I generally need much encouragement, but it turns out that our farmers and meat producers could really do with our help. The issue is that there has been a rush on mince, that reliable staple of British home cooking, with the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), which represents the beef industry in England, reporting a 40 per cent rise in sales in the week leading up to April 19. In the meantime, steak sales have been struggling, not so much because we are buying less to eat at home (Waitrose sales are up 8 per cent) but because more than a fifth of our beef usually goes to restaurants – steak and chips being one of our favourite meals out.

This leaves farmers and processors with what’s known in the business as “carcass imbalance”. Usually, around two thirds of the meat on the carcass is used for mince, with the remaining third being a combination of roasting and braising joints, and steak. Normally sales more or less match this – but suddenly we want more mince and less of the posh stuff.

Processors could simply mince the whole carcass, steaks and all, but with mince fetching only around a fifth of the price of fillet steak, they’d lose huge chunks of value, and the farmer might not even recoup their costs. In practice, at some processors around three quarters has been hitting the mincer – resulting in a loss of income for everyone involved.

Another solution would be to process more cattle to meet the demand for mince, and freeze the prime cuts in preparation for better times, but cold storage is now full or close to full, according to the AHDB. Asda and Sainsbury’s took a third route, as reported in the press last month, and imported mince from Poland – a solution that hasn’t been used since the horsemeat scandal of 2013.

Supermarkets are doing their bit, with special offers that are already encouraging us to buy more steaks (just last week, Morrisons decided to slash the price of its 8oz fillet steak from £7.04 to £3.52). The AHDB, along with Quality Meat Scotland and Hybu Cig Cymru, has launched a campaign called “Make it with Beef.” And suppliers, many of whom wouldn’t usually sell to the public, are ready to send you the kind of top-quality meat that you’d usually find in posh Mayfair restaurants.

It may not be cheap (and really, it shouldn’t be), but compared with dinner out, it feels like a bargain.

Prime cuts by post
Prime Feast meat box Credit: David Robson

Mac & Wild The Scottish restaurant group and butcher sells meat from the Highlands, including six-week dry-aged steaks. Delivery nationwide.

Turner & George The London butcher delivers steaks from ex-dairy cattle and Iberico pork nationwide.

Philip Warren Cornwall-based butcher and restaurant supplier with a great range of 21-day aged steaks. Delivery nationwide.

Prime Feast These meat boxes are a joint project by London restaurants Goodman, Beast, Zelman Meats and Burger & Lobster. They include steaks, burgers, buns and sauces. Available from £90, with delivery within a 30-mile radius of London.

Fortnum & Mason Since the closure of Mark Hix’s restaurants, F&M is the only UK retail supplier of the iconic Himalayan salt-aged Hannan Meats steaks. Delivery nationwide.

Macbeth’s Supplies restaurants, as well as home cooks, with Aberdeen Angus, Highland and Shorthorn beef, including six-week hung steaks, much of it from the family farm overlooking the Moray Firth.

Cooking steak: the dos and don’ts

There are as many ways to cook a steak as there are to eat it. What most chefs agree on is the size: thicker steaks are better, as you can get a lovely brown crust without overcooking the middle. “The biggest, fattest steak you can” is the way to go, says chef Tom Kerridge, while Richard Turner, of butcher Turner & George and steak restaurant group Hawksmoor, recommends one at least 4cm thick, much more than the average supermarket offering.

Don’t forget to season really well, with “more salt than you would usually use”, says Phil Campbell, of London’s posh Beast restaurant. Turner salts the meat at least one hour before and up to 12, unless it is a very skinny steak, but Campbell prefers to season just before it goes on the grill or in the pan. All of which seems like hairsplitting beside Kerridge’s advice: season it, he says, and rub it with “a crumbly Oxo cube”. Mad as it sounds, it’s going to pack the savoury flavour in there.

Then there is the temperature of the meat before cooking. Most chefs reckon, like Turner, that the meat needs to be taken out of the fridge and brought to room temperature before cooking. “A myth,” says Campbell, who says it’s better slapped in the pan straight from the fridge, as that way “you won’t overcook it”.

The traditional method of cooking involves frying it in a hot pan until well browned on one side, then repeating on the other, before finishing in a hot oven if necessary. Heston Blumenthal made the flipping technique famous, turning the steak in the hot pan every 15 or 20 seconds as it cooks. Turner is with Blumenthal, though he admits, “I don’t time it.” Kerridge turns the usual method on its head and tells me to “cook it in an oven preheated to 55C [yes, you heard that right; use a digital thermometer to check], for 45 minutes to one hour. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to overcook it, as it won’t get hotter than 55C. Then get a hot pan with foaming butter, finish in the foaming butter and serve”. This way, he promises, it’ll be “medium-rare and stress free”.

Kerridge is right that getting the “done-ness” right can be the most stressful part. You can use a digital probe, aiming for 50C for a rare steak, 55C for medium-rare, 60C for medium and 65C for medium-well done. No probe? Press the steak with your fingers, judging how springy it is. If it feels a little like a soft pillow, with not much spring, it is rare; cushiony is medium; and more like a soft mattress is moving on to medium-well done. A firm mattress? Over-cooked.

Finally, don’t forget to let the steak rest, as that is when it completes the cooking process.

Five steps to the perfect steak
  1. Heat a sturdy frying pan. Add a little oil or dripping if you are cooking a fillet steak or one without a strip of fat.
  2. Hold the steak on its side (tongs are useful here), pressing the fatty edge, if there is one, against the surface of the pan, until the fat turns golden and starts to run, greasing the pan.
  3. Revolve the steak, pressing the other edges on to the hot pan so that it is browned all the way around.
  4. Turn the steak on its side and cook for about 30 seconds, then flip it and cook for 30 seconds on the other side. Turn the steak every half-minute until it is done to your liking. 
  5. Put the steak in a warm dish and keep out of draughts for 10 minutes or so to rest. Slice before serving.
Super sides

Roasted truffled chips

To make real chips you need a deep-fat fryer, so unless you are an expert with boiling fat, it makes sense to do “home fries”. As great as traditional oven chips are, they compromise some of the joy of fried potatoes in favour of reducing calories. I’m after a restaurant-style treat, so I’m not holding back on the fat. These have a crisp, golden crust and a fluffy centre. Use floury potatoes (Maris Piper are ideal at this time of year), that haven’t been hanging around too long. Soft or sprouting potatoes, or ones that have been kept in the fridge, make for soft, dark chips rather than crisp golden ones. Eat them plain or enrich with cheese, plus garlic or truffle. 

SERVES

three to four

INGREDIENTS

  • 1kg potatoes
  • 100g dripping or duck fat or 100ml vegetable oil
  • 40g grated Parmesan or other hard cheese, grated
  • A sprinkle of truffle oil, or 4 garlic cloves, crushed and infused in 2 tbsp warm olive oil

METHOD

  1.  Preheat the oven to 230C/210C fan/Gas 8.
  2. Peel the potatoes and cut them into really fat chips, at least the width of a finger. Bring a pan of salted water to the boil and boil them for 10 minutes. Drain in a sieve (saving a cupful of the cooking water if making the sauce, below) and cover with a tea towel.
  3. Put the dripping or oil in a large roasting tin (around 30x40cm) and put in the oven. When really hot, remove and spread out the chips in a single layer, turning each one in the fat.
  4. Roast for 20 minutes, turning two or three times during cooking so that they brown evenly.
  5.  Scoop the chips into a dish lined with kitchen paper, then to a warmed serving dish. Sprinkle with cheese and truffle or garlic oil. Grind over black pepper, toss well and serve straight away.
Credit: Xanthe Clay

Thyme-roast tomatoes

A side of garlicky roast tomatoes to eat with the steak.

SERVES

two to four

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 tomatoes, halved
  • 2 tsp olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, crushed
  • ½ tsp chopped thyme
  • 2 tsp butter

METHOD

  1. Put the tomatoes in an ovenproof dish and sprinkle with the olive oil, garlic and thyme. Dot with the butter.
  2. Roast in the oven on a shelf beneath the chips for 20 minutes.

Simple crème fraîche and peppercorn sauce

Makes enough to serve two to four, depending on how much sauce you like.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 level tsp crushed peppercorns
  • 1 level tsp grain mustard
  • 4 tbsp crème fraîche
  • 100ml water (reserved potato cooking water is ideal) 

METHOD

  1.  Using the pan in which you cooked your steak, cook the peppercorns over a gentle heat for a minute, then add the mustard, crème fraîche and two tablespoons of water. Heat, stirring and scraping the base of the pan, to make a sauce consistency. Add more water if needed.
  2. Just before serving, stir in any juices that have accumulated under the resting steak.