Americans love steak.
Well, nobody could afford it in the 1930s, and the government rationed steak in the '40s. In the 1970s, Californians took over cuisine, substituting tofu and such for red meat. And in the '80s we considered it a deadly, artery-clogging abomination. But, damn it, in the '90s we loved steak.
In fact, in 2001 Americans purchased 68 pounds of beef per capita, according to Kansas State University, and total spending on steaks, burgers and meat by-products hit $52 billion. We order it ground, chicken-fried, shredded and tartare. A few people even order steaks well-done: cooked thoroughly to an internal temperature of 140 degrees or more.
According to local restaurateurs, between 5 and 25 percent of patrons order well-done steak--more on weekends, fewer during the week. Yet at steak houses serving prime beef, evenly marbled and carefully aged, asking chefs to char the meat beyond recognition ranks up there with other major faux pas: demanding ketchup for your pomme frites in a French restaurant; besmirching the honor of a Sicilian "businessman;" asking your priest about his sex life...no, wait...that's a criminal investigation, not a faux pas.
So why do chefs cringe when we order well-done steaks?
Chefs and steak aficionados generally compare the texture of a well-done hunk of beef to anything from huarache sandals to extra-firm breast implants. "It's like taking something moist and flavorful and turning it into a flip-flop," says Travis Henderson, chef-partner at Perry's. "You're cooking all the juice and flavor out of it," agrees Bob Sambol, owner of Bob's Steak and Chop House.
"You're paying a lot of money for even marbling, and well-done just burns the marbling out of steak," complains Al Biernat, owner of (you guessed it) Al Biernat's. "You might as well buy choice or select."
Prime is the top U.S. Department of Agriculture grade for beef, based largely on fat content, otherwise known as marbling. Only 2 percent of all beef produced in this country receives the prime designation, and it costs up to 30 percent more than choice, the next highest grade. About 45 percent of beef submitted to inspection grades in at choice, and another 35 percent ranks select, the last truly digestible grade.
"I'm not saying people can't order well-done," Biernat continues, "but why pay $39.95 if you're going to burn all of the marbling out?...Go to a place where you get a steak for $8.95; the only flavor will be seasoning."
People who order well-done steaks tend to favor additional seasoning, from steak sauce to ketchup. "They've burned out all the juice and natural flavor," reiterates Carlos Rodriguez, executive chef at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse. It's difficult to imagine someone summoning enough courage to request A-1 at an upscale establishment, especially considering that touchy chefs carry large meat cleavers.
Actually, few chefs really flare up when a patron asks them to destroy a perfect hunk of red meat. "It hurts me," Henderson admits, "but you give the people what they want."
The typical steakhouse patron orders medium rare to medium. Irving resident Kurt Mosley favors medium rare "because it's cooked enough to kill bacteria and still leaves the taste of the meat." Fears of food-poisoning outbreaks, like the one in 1993 that killed four people, generally involve ground beef rather than prime steak, so restaurateurs consider the threat of illness from undercooking minimal. The Iowa Farm Bureau--a subsidiary of the Bush administration--claims that consumer confidence in beef safety soared to a record 89 percent recently, although we're not quite sure if beef safety means fewer cows are subject to physical and emotional harm (from cars, priests, frustrated deer hunters) or that it's safe to chow down on the reddest of red meat.
"With internal cuts there is almost no chance of E. coli, [a microorganism] which likes to reside in the outer layers of meat," Rodriguez claims. "For ground beef, I could see ordering medium well and well-done because they use more external cuts." Otherwise, chefs say, choose medium rare.
"Everybody has a different opinion, but medium is about the limit. You want to see some pink," Sambol says. (The Burning Question crew so wanted to take that comment out of context.)
The real problem with ordering well-done involves time. It takes 25 minutes to carbonize a small steak, and when a four-top orders several dishes, including one well-done steak, kitchen timing crumbles. Chefs recount horror stories about frustrated diners waiting and waiting for their food because of one well-done order. As cooks huddle around the kiln, checking to see whether their expensive cut of beef has reached cinder-block status, others stand poised to finish the remaining order. Meanwhile, the guests grumble about service. "People who order well-done don't understand what they're doing to the table," Biernat says. Henderson tries to counter delays by requiring the waitstaff to inform the chef of well-done orders even before they yell out the appetizers. The staff at Al Biernat's will suggest that fans of well-done steaks give medium a try.
"You just have to try medium well," Henderson agrees. "And if you like it, then try medium. If you like that, try medium rare."
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Before we answer this week's Burning Question, we should point out that no member of the Burning Question crew could bring himself to destroy a $30 steak, even for research purposes. In desperate circumstances, we're told, people will resort to curious or even uncivilized behavior: befriending volleyballs, riding aimlessly in Ford Broncos, boxing another media icon on Fox. The truly hopeless--those trapped on mountaintops, for example--end up munching on anything from roasted human quadriceps to raw shoe leather.
We just weren't that desperate.
And given the recurring comparison to shoe leather, we figure that the answer to this week's Burning Question is obvious. Chefs cringe because well-done orders conjure up disturbing mental images of cannibalism and survival. Either that, or cooking a prime steak thoroughly destroys a delicate piece of meat, turning it into Sperry Topsiders.
No wonder steak house devotees stare incredulously when someone orders well-done.