Well-executed steak doesn't need sauce, but plenty of steakhouses are making their own
By Victorino Matus
Published: Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012, 8:56 p.m.
In the universe of steakhouses, there's a coverup going on. It has advanced way beyond horseradish cream and bearnaise.
The longtime owner of the Prime Rib in Washington dismisses as a passing fad the tendency of steakhouse restaurants to offer more and more sauces. It's just another way for chefs to prove their value, says Buzz Beler. Nonetheless, he finds it troubling.
“Why would anyone continue purchasing USDA prime beef? You get the same flavor if you just make a ground-beef steak and then put the sauce on it.”
Steak sauces have been around, of course. Henderson William Brand created A.1. for England's King George IV in the 1820s, although for much of its history, the sauce was not steak-specific: “It's A.1. Sauce — a favorite with men who love good things to eat,” proclaimed an ad in 1948.
Somewhere from the 1930s to the 1980s, the word “steak” got added to the name, and then, there was a central purpose for the product, according to A.1. senior brand manager Sudheer Kosaraju. “We hear a lot of these sort of hoary conversations about A.1. not being used with the prime cuts of meat. But consumers, they use it on prime cuts of meat. That's basically what our consumer research tells us.”
Tom Colicchio was a fan.
“I grew up using A.1. The rare times we actually had steak at home, I liked it. I enjoyed it,” the celeb chef and “Top Chef” co-host said in a recent phone interview. When customers at his restaurants began requesting sauce, Colicchio decided to make his own. The house sauce at his Craft restaurants, he says, “is based on the original A.1., which had a lot of anchovy and tamarind and a sort of char flavor with a lot of background notes.”
It is delicious, and not inexpensive for a home cook to make. The shrewd businessman sells bottles of it via Williams-Sonoma.
Now it's tough to find a traditional steakhouse that doesn't offer some sauce. Besides A.1., Beler's Prime Rib will pull out Heinz 57, Tabasco and Worcestershire upon request. Morton's carries only A.1. and Heinz 57. One of Morton's restaurant managers recently observed, with some attitude, that customers who ask for sauce are usually the ones who order their steaks medium-well or well-done. According to a manager at the Palm, “we get requests for all kinds of sauce, including ketchup, though more customers ask for A.1.,” which the steakhouse carries.
Ketchup, however, remains for many the final insult. Tensions over its use on steak can be traced back at least to Joseph Mitchell's 1939 New Yorker essay on beefsteak dinners, “All You Can Hold for Five Bucks.”
“I don't even know how to spell the word ‘ketchup,' let alone want to put it on a steak,” celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck says.
Cleveland-based food writer Michael Ruhlman prefers his steak with shallots and butter, offering this assessment via e-mail: “I want to taste the meat, hot-seared on the outside, bloody and raw on the inside, a little sweetness from the shallot and extra succulence from the butter, but nothing that distracts from the chewy, juicy muscle of beef.”
Great steaks don't need much, if any, embellishment, Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema says. He is not sauce-averse, however: “If a chef can whip up something that flatters a steak rather than masks its flavor, I'm game for trying it. A sauce based on mustard or butter and fresh herbs, for instance, can actually be a nice change of pace.”
And so, there is beurre rouge at the Caucus Room, garlic-shallot butter sauce at the Capital Grille and brandy peppercorn at the Palm. J&G Steakhouse pours its brand and soy-miso mustard and black-pepper jam.
The choices expand and get edgier at Puck's Cut steakhouse restaurants: wasabi-yuzu koshu butter and chimichurri. “I want to give people different experiences,” he says.
Michel Richard remembers the heydays of bearnaise and bordelaise. His Central here makes a fine hanger steak sauce with green peppercorns, mustard and concentrated veal stock. Yet, the chef sees a motive in certain sauce applications.
“Ever notice how in Mexico, the meat is often overdone and with a sauce?” he ponders while sitting at the restaurant. “And the farther north you go, the less sauce they use, until you end up with steak tartare.”
Colicchio offers a more market-driven explanation for the sauce trend.
“Probably with the advent of chef-driven steakhouses, I think this is why it happened. I think part of it is, I do a steakhouse, Emeril does a steakhouse, Charlie Palmer does a steakhouse,” he says. “I think people are looking for just a little more than a perfectly cooked piece of meat on a plate.”
Sietsema agrees. “By itself, steak can be repetitive: Chew. Fat. Salt. Char. Repeat.”
Victorino Matus is a contributing writer to The Washington Post.
Two-Step Pan-Broiled Double-Thick Steak
Turn to a reliable butcher to custom-cut this steak for you. We used a 23⁄4-inch-thick porterhouse.
To cook a thick steak, you need a heavy pan — preferably cast iron — and a two-step cooking process, followed by a rest period to complete the cooking and redistribute the juices. This steak is generously seasoned, then seared on the stove top and finally roasted in a hot oven.
Serve it plain, with a drizzle of good-quality extra-virgin olive oil, or with a flavored butter or sauce.
This method works well with any tender, marbled cut of beef, bone-in or boneless, at least 21⁄2 inches thick.
For absolute accuracy — you don't want to mess up this cut of beef — you'll need an instant-read thermometer or, preferably, a digital-probe thermometer with an alert.
Adapted from “The Great Meat Cookbook,” by Bruce Aidells with Anne-Marie Ramo (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012).
One 21⁄2-to-3-inch-thick bone-in rib-eye, T-bone or porterhouse steak, about 3 pounds
1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling, optional
11⁄2 teaspoons salt
11⁄2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
Coat the steak with the oil as needed. Combine the salt and pepper in a small bowl and sprinkle half of the mixture on each side of the steak (see note). Wrap the steak in plastic wrap and let it rest at room temperature for 2 hours, or refrigerate overnight.
If the steak has been refrigerated, let it rest at room temperature for 2 hours before cooking.
When ready to cook, heat the oven to 425 degrees.
Heat a 12-inch ovenproof skillet, such as cast iron, over high heat (make sure your exhaust fan is on). When the pan begins to smoke and an edge of the steak sizzles when touched against it, add the steak. Sear for 2 to 3 minutes or until deep brown. Turn and sear for 2 to 3 minutes, until deep brown, then transfer the pan to the oven.
Roast for 15 to 30 minutes, until the internal temperature reaches 120 to 125 degrees for rare or 125 to 130 degrees for medium-rare; the cooking time will depend on the thickness of the steak.
Transfer the steak to a cutting board and let it rest, tented loosely with aluminum foil, for 10 minutes.
To serve: Cut between the bone and the meat to release the meat, then cut the meat crosswise into 1⁄2-inch-thick slices. Arrange on a serving platter or individual plates; drizzle generously with extra-virgin olive oil (if using) or pass your preferred steak sauce at the table.
Note: If you're not serving the steak with a flavorful sauce, add 1⁄2 teaspoon of ground coriander to the salt-and-pepper mixture for seasoning.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Michel Richard's Green Peppercorn Sauce
This indulgent sauce is a traditional companion to steak.
The bite of the brandy and the tang of the brine-soaked peppercorns help offset the richness of the cream.
The sauce can be made and refrigerated in an airtight container a day in advance. To reheat, transfer to a small saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring frequently. Adapted from chef Michel Richard, owner of Central and Citronelle.
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 tablespoon finely diced shallot
2 tablespoons green peppercorns, packed in brine or vinegar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
2 tablespoons brandy
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons flour
1⁄2 cup homemade or no-salt-added beef broth
1⁄2 cup heavy whipping cream
Salt, to taste
Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. After the oil shimmers, add the shallot, peppercorns and 1 tablespoon of the butter and cook for 30 seconds.
Add the brandy, using a flat-edge spatula or wooden spoon to scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the saucepan, and stir to combine. Stir in the soy sauce.
Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly, for a minute or so. Add the broth, stir to combine and bring to a slow boil. Cook for 5 minutes, adjusting the heat so the mixture is bubbling slowly. Add the cream, return to a low boil and cook for 5 minutes, until the mixture becomes slightly creamy. Stir in the rest of the butter, and season with salt to taste. Serve warm.
Makes about 11⁄4 cups.
Wolfgang Puck's Chimichurri
This herb sauce native to Argentina is meant to be served with grilled steaks or other meat.
Make ahead: The sauce can be made and refrigerated in an airtight container for as long as 3 days, but the green color of the fresh herbs will darken with time. Adapted from chef-restaurateur Wolfgang Puck.
11⁄2 cups olive oil, divided
1⁄2 cup Spanish onion, cut into small dice
1 tablespoon chopped garlic (from 2 or 3 medium-size cloves)
Kosher salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar
2 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 cups parsley leaves
Freshly squeezed juice of 1 lemon, preferably organic
Heat 1 cup of the oil in a medium-size saute pan or skillet over medium heat. After the oil shimmers, add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until they are translucent, for 7 or 8 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Add the vinegar and cook for a few minutes, until the vinegar has reduced a little. Add the fresh and dried oregano and the parsley, and cook until tender, for about 1 minute.
Remove the saute pan or skillet from the heat and cool the sauce to room temperature. Transfer the sauce to a blender, add the lemon juice and pulse until lightly blended.
Turn on the blender and pour in the remaining 1⁄2 cup of oil, blending until combined. Taste, and add salt and pepper, as needed.
Makes about 2 cups.
Tom Colicchio's Craft Steak Sauce
This sauce has beautiful color, great flavor and mild heat from dried pepper. The recipe yields a generous amount, so although it's a little pricey to make — veal demi-glace is expensive — think of it as an investment in the future.
The sauce can be covered and refrigerated for several weeks. Adapted from Tom Colicchio, owner of the Craft restaurant chain and head judge on Bravo TV's “Top Chef.”
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, cut into large dice (about 11⁄2 cups)
1 whole clove
1⁄4 of a star anise
3 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
1 medium-size clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons sugar
1⁄2 cup tomato paste
5 ounces prunes, chopped (about 1 1⁄2 cups)
Zest of 1⁄4 orange, cut into long, wide strips, plus juice of 1 orange
1 cup red wine
6 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 cup Worcestershire sauce
1⁄2 cup reduced veal stock (veal demi-glace)
1 cup water, or more, as needed
1 dried pepperoncini pepper (may substitute a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes, minus seeds)
2 tablespoons salt
1 anchovy fillet, finely chopped
Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is brown and caramelized but not burned, for about 30 minutes.
While the onion is cooking, tie the clove, star anise, thyme and bay leaf in a piece of cheesecloth or combine them in a small sachet bag.
Add the garlic to the saucepan and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes, then add the sugar and the tomato paste. Cook until the tomato paste is dark-red and caramelized, for about 2 minutes, stirring constantly and scraping the bottom of the saucepan to prevent scorching.
Add the sachet, prunes, orange zest and juice, wine, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, reduced veal stock, water, dried pepperoncini, salt and anchovy, and cook uncovered over low heat for about 30 minutes.
Transfer the sauce to a blender, discarding the strips of orange peel and sachet.
Remove the center lid from the blender, cover the opening with a clean kitchen towel and puree until smooth. If you prefer a thinner sauce, add water as needed.
Pour the sauce through a strainer, scraping the strainer with a flexible spatula to push the sauce through, and discard any solids left in the strainer.
Serve, or transfer to a storage container and refrigerate.
Makes about 41⁄4 cups
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