Meat over fire: one of the most primitive cooking methods, but still fraught over by many on how to do it right. If you’re thinking of cooking beef this Valentine’s Day, these top chefs school us on how to do it right.
Starting with the right cut is essential, and we cover how to shop for beef, choosing between grass- or grain-fed, affordable alternatives and offal for more daring diners. Fermented ingredients bring an exciting element to seasonings, and the right equipment and techniques ensure you serve a steak like the pros.
For tips, we ask chefs Mark Tai of Cloudstreet, Petrina Loh of Morsels, Rosemead‘s David Tang and Samuel Burke, Corporate Chef for Meat & Livestock Australia on how to master beef, and their go-to Valentine’s Day beef dish. Read on to find out more.
How to cook beef this Valentine’s Day, according to top chefs
What to look for when you buy beef
Mark Tai: I would look out for qualities like the marbling, the colour, and there is little to no smell from the beef. The firmness also determines the quality. If it is too soft, the quality is poor.
Petrina Loh: First and foremost, cattle husbandry is important to me. It shows in the quality of beef right away. After that, I like to look at intramuscular fat distribution.
David Tang: The quality of beef is determined by how well the animal’s fat is integrated into the muscle.
Samuel Burke: You want beef to have a nice cherry-red tone instead of a dull brown. The colour of the fat is also important. For grass-fed beef, streaks of buttery yellow are good. For grain-fed beef, you should look out for streaks of white.
Only buy beef if it’s in properly sealed, undamaged packaging with an acceptable use-by date. Beef juices shouldn’t be able to escape, and the packaging should feel chilled.
Look closely at the fibre of the meat. They should be tight and correctly cut, the grains should all point in one direction. Then look at the cut. It should be smooth and uniform in size. An uneven cut would result in an uneven cook for your steak.
Grass- or grain-fed beef?
MT: Grass-fed beef is more gamey in taste as compared to grain-fed beef due to having less fat in the meat. Grain-fed beef is fattier and will have a melt-in-your-mouth texture due to the marbling of the beef.
PL: If you are looking for consistent beef taste and a rich tasting meat I would say go for grain-fed. If you like more complexity and have your beef without much marination, go for grass-fed.
DT: Growing up in the United States, we only ate grain-fed beef and my palate gravitates towards that profile when it’s grilled over fire. Both are great depending on the context, but I prefer the clean flavour of grass fed when eating raw or as tartare, much like the beef I use for Rosemead’s Grassfed Wagyu Tartare with Kampot pepper caramel and lettuce.
SB: Australian grain-fed beef has a smooth texture and delivers a consistent eating quality. Depending on the cut, some cuts such as tenderloin tend to be a leaner product with whiter fat. Grain-fed beef is generally higher in marbling than grass-fed beef due to the high energy grain-based rations that the cattle feed on.
Australian grass-fed beef is said to have a robust, earthy flavour and excellent texture. It can vary in flavour, texture and tenderness due to Australia’s considerable differences in cattle breeds, pasture quality and type, soil type, topography and climatic conditions.
Both Australian grass- and grain-fed beef are assessed using the Australian meat grading system, which includes giving the beef a marbling score of 1 to 9+. When choosing between the two, I would say consider the above qualities and whether they meet your personal preference and suit the dish you are cooking.
Budget cuts that deliver quality
MT: Flat iron steak would be an affordable alternative. It is flavourful and has good marbling. You do not need to do more as it is quite tender. You can grill it on a cast iron pan for a quick few minutes on each side and you have a nice piece of steak for dinner.
PL: My personal favourite is the chuck tail flap or zabuton for steak or grilling. It has a lot of flavour, has great fat distribution and can be cooked fast and easily on a pan. Another favourite is rib fingers. It is cut down from individual ribs in the rib primal, and is like boneless rib. Drop it into the sous vide with a nice barbecue sauce, and finish quickly in the oven or on the grill.
For carpaccio, I like oyster blade. It offers a lot of taste compared to tenderloin and it is very marbled. It can get tedious trying to trim it so leave it to the butcher. For braising, beef cheeks is cheap, tasty and requires the least cooking time. You can sous vide it, or put it into the slow cooker or pressure cooker, or even just a simple pot on the stove over slow fire, and it offers a hearty beefy meal with leftovers the next day for a simple beef noodle.
DT: Rump is a great alternative cut that’s great for a steak or roast. An extension of the sirloin, it’s quite similar in texture with an added minerality and extra flavour. Season with salt and pepper, pan sear in olive oil, and finish with butter, garlic and herbs for extra savouriness. If you are braising, ask for the chuck (from the neck), brisket (from the lower chest) or round (from the rear leg).
Feeling adventurous? Go for offal.
PL: I love beef tongue but it is a tough cut. If you want to have it tender, sous vide it. If you want it grilled, then slice it thinly like at Japanese yakiniku places. For beef liver, I like to tenderise it overnight with milk and shaoxing or sherry wine to remove the iron bitterness. Simply drain it the next day, dry it and slice. Dredge it in some flour and cook it on medium heat. It’s delicious with some onion and aromatic vegetables.
DT: My favourite is book tripe, also known as omasum. I like the crisp snap you get when it’s quickly blanched.
SB: Choosing the right cooking technique that will bring out the best in the offal cuts is important. Calf liver, for example, is a perfect cut for pan-frying. If your butcher is slicing the offal, ensure that the skin and veins are removed well. The cheek and oxtail are both offal cuts that are great for braising, while the sweetbread and tongue – the latter which you should get skinned and pre-sliced by the butcher – is perfect for stir-frying on high heat.
Season with fermentation
PL: I like to serve our meat with a lacto-fermented pickle that can be eaten whole or made into a sauce. Currently on our menu we serve with a Korean style jjangaji with celtuce vegetable that is a bit tart and savoury, and a spring onion oil pesto that is slightly fermented. This cuts the richness of the meat, allows the diner to eat more and aids with digestion. This is the same idea with fermented ingredients made into sauces. It lends good bacteria, and the savoury-sourness cuts the richness of meat.
DT: Ingredients go through fermentation to release natural glutamic acids, which add umami. At Rosemead, we created an anchovy rub for our steaks. Salted anchovies are dehydrated and powdered, then mixed with sea salt, black pepper, paprika, onion and garlic powders. We season our steaks generously with this rub before cooking over charcoal at the hearth, resulting in an irresistible salty, sweet and nutty bark on the beef.
Essential equipment before you start cooking
MT: It is important to invest in a good meat thermometer so you can check the internal temperature of the meat when you are cooking at home.
PL: For me, I like to use a cake tester pin, and put it below my lip to test how hot is the meat. I don’t think the home cooks should go out and get equipment to cook certain things. There’s a lot of material online on how to cook meat and steak these days and there are certain techniques like reverse searing which can minimise overcooking. So find method that works for you.
DT: I would recommend home cooks to purchase a heavy cast iron skillet. Stoves can vary in power, but cast iron absorbs and holds heat well, and can help give steak a better sear.
Top tips for cooking
MT: You should thaw the beef and allow it to be at room temperature before cooking it. The pan should also be sizzling hot before searing your meat.
PL: Char the steak on one side, then turn it the other side. Lower the heat, flip it again and constantly test it with the cake pin against your lip. It should be at room temperature and just warm.
DT: I would focus more on the perfect char than the doneness. Achieving a good char will bring more flavour than achieving a particular doneness. For 1 to 1.5 inch-thick steaks, I would recommend 4 minutes per side. If the steak is under an inch, consider searing only one side.
SB: Season the meat prior to placing it on the pan. Rub the beef steak with olive oil instead of directly on a pan for more even cooking, salt and pepper, and give it time – at least 40 minutes – to penetrate. Preheat the pan to hot before placing the meat onto the pan and set the cooking time depending on the cut, then reduce to medium. Always rest the meat between 10 to 20 minutes depending on the cut, and allow the steak to stand for 3 to 5 minutes before serving.
To judge the doneness, master the touch test. Towards the end of cooking, press the outside centre of your beef lightly with tongs or your clean pointer finger. Soft means it’s within the rare range. Springy is medium, and firmer is well done.
Slice the right way
MT: To identify which direction the grain of the meat is running, look for the parallel lines of muscle fibre running down the meat, and slice perpendicular to them. For those cuts that have fibres running in different directions, adjust the direction in which you’re slicing.
PL: Take note of the thickness of the cut when slicing. If using an offcut like a bavette or flank, try not to cut it too thick as it will still be tough.
DT: Most beef cuts available at the market are butchered into manageable pieces and the direction of cut will not affect quality. For cuts like the flank and brisket, the muscle fibres can be clearly seen facing the same direction, and these cuts should be sliced across or opposing the grain.
Chefs’ go-to Valentine’s Day beef dish
MT: Braised beef cheeks would be my go-to dish. It’s a dish that takes lots of time and effort as you need to sear the beef cheeks, then braise it for a long time so it’s nice and tender.
PL: I would like to spend as much time on the table, therefore I would opt for something braised that allows me to pre-cook it with little time spent in the kitchen and more time at dinner with my loved one.
DT: Beef Bourguignon. It’s an approachable dish and always delectable. Red wine, mushrooms, butter and added smokiness from bacon is difficult to resist.
SB: Valentine’s Day is a tribute to love, and there is no better way to mark the celebration than with memorable moments of sharing. So I would always opt to prepare a nice sharing meat platter. A big Australian tomahawk or rump cap as the hero, with a variety of sauces like red wine jus or chimichurri, and a selection of you and your partner’s favourite sides to accompany.
Cloudstreet is located at 84 Amoy St, Singapore 069903. Book here
Morsels is located at 25 Dempsey Rd, #01-04, Singapore 249670. Book here.
Rosemead is located at 19 Cecil St, Singapore 049704. Book here.