July 6, 2013 • By Dennis Beaver
“Mr. Beaver, your story about fake Omaha steaks makes me feel that you are the right person to speak with about my grilling disaster,” began a voice mail from Emily, a second-year student at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.
“I killed a very expensive steak. Well, to be more precise, according to my boyfriend, I actually murdered the steak! But it wasn’t really my fault. I bought a big, thick, expensive ribeye from a very high-end market, followed the grilling suggestions given me by the butcher’s assistant — who is a classmate of mine — and wound up with shoe leather!
“I believe that I am owed a refund, because it seems that what he told me to do with the steak ruined it. The market blames me. I want to show my boyfriend that I am not a total idiot. Do you have any suggestions?”
We grilled Emily
If you want a recipe which gets our attention, just add one part delightful Southern accent to a college student whose boyfriend is an unsympathetic moron. We phoned Emily and asked her what specifically the “butcher’s assistant” told her.
“He told me to stab the steak with a fork about 50 times on all sides so that it would not be tough. I had never grilled a steak before and went from happy to tears when my boyfriend took his first, and last, bite. It was tough, bone dry, cremated! But I did not over-cook it, I am certain,” she told us.
So what caused Emily’s grilling disaster? For an answer, we turned to Executive Chef Karl Marsh of Omaha Steaks.
“Emily was given horribly wrong advice on how to prepare a steak for grilling, especially with ribeyes, noted for tenderness and great flavor. In terms of the no-no’s of grilling, stabbing the steak tops the list for two reasons — potential bacterial contamination and loss of meat juices,” Marsh said.
I’ll have a side order of e-coli with my steak
Just ask Minneapolis-based food safety attorney Fred Pritzker about mechanically tenderizing raw meat — poking it with a fork at home or industrially through a machine that uses sets of needles or blades to break up connective tissue.
“Don’t do it! You are forcing e-coli or other bacteria on the surface to the interior, which is usually sterile. Grilling kills the surface bacteria, but if the interior temperature does not reach at least 155 degrees or more — which gives you a well-done steak — then the bacteria can survive.
“But it is not just steaks that we need to worry about. It is especially important that ground meat have an internal temperature of 160 degrees,” he added.
“Most of the steaks sold in this country are mechanically tenderized, including chain restaurants, hotels and supermarkets. It is a significant health issue and current law does not require informing the consumer.
“Yearly thousands of people become horribly ill — especially young children — and many have died from having consumed meat contaminated with e-coli. You need to be careful, even at home,” Pritzker cautioned.
Pritzker’s website, thefoodlawyer.com, is a great source of information on foodborne illness.
The correct way to tenderize
“The other main reason not to mechanically tenderize your steak — or flip it with a fork during grilling — is that the marvelous juices, rich with flavor, are lost and pushed out through the holes. You should use tongs, not a fork, when flipping,” Chef Marsh advises.
“There are some cuts of meat which are both inexpensive and flavorful — such as chuck or round steak — but not great on the grill unless tenderized. The best way is with a marinade, and the simplest one that has everything you need is a bottle of Italian salad dressing.
“All you need is right in that bottle: herbs, garlic, oil and vinegar. It’s the vinegar that has the tenderizing effect, and with red meat you want to marinate a minimum of six hours, and ideally overnight, in the fridge. Most vinaigrette salad dressings will also work well.”
Should Emily get her money back?
We asked Chef Marsh if, in his opinion, our reader is entitled to a refund.
“Omaha Steaks and other reputable companies like ours have a satisfaction guarantee. So, Dennis, it seems to me that if you were to speak with the management at that market, they would do the right thing. Clearly, Emily was given wrong advice.”
Next time, we’ll tell you what happened when we placed that call, and some of the other no-no’s of grilling that Chef Marsh shared with us, so bring your appetite!
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.