Where’s the Beef?

Design, Interests, Invitations, Packaging

beef1

It’s been a couple years ago now since I made this invitation, well before I started blogging about  my favorite projects, but I was going through some old stuff and realized this one was probably one worth sharing (not to mention writing down at some point so I don’t forget what went into it either).

Back in 2010, I co-hosted a beef tasting party. The idea being that I really had no idea what the difference between some very basic cuts of meat were, and while the idea of sitting down to a 12 course meal of side-by-side beef tasting sounds entertaining, it was simply going to be just too much meat for one person. SO…. why not throw a party?!

beef3Designing the invitations was an amazingly fun process. I spent a lot of time researching beef and what the different cuts were, as well as where on the cow they came from. I wanted to share a little of that knowledge with my invitees, hoping to entice them to participate in the experiment.

I made the invite itself into the shape of a cow, and cut 3 overlapping sections out of it to give the information what, when and where. I then included a vellum overlay with the cross section of the cow (I have a weakness for science diagrams – couldn’t resist).

For the envelope, I wrapped the invite into a piece of butcher paper, a kin to how apiece of meat from the butcher would be wrapped. I then created an address label that mimicked the pricing sticker that you get at the store, indicating weight, price per pound, sell by date (in this case, RSVP by date) and the barcode (which sneakily included the numbers of the date of the actual party), which then sealed the envelope shut.

BeefInvite-annonymous

MeatLabel

I also made a custom USDA seal of approval on each envelope, indicating it would be a swell party, as well as a return address sticker that had the “brand” from the “ranch” the meat came from. The one failing point of the project was that there were no beef-themed stamps available at the time I sent these out, so wasn’t able to complete the them as entirely as I’d hoped.

The party was a hit, I was able to enlighten myself, and a handful of friends about the different options we have for ordering and enjoying beef. I will admit, and I’m not ashamed to, this is probably the first of many parties I will host where the idea of how to design the invite was a strong driving force to make it happen versus just think about how cool it would be to do.

So anyway, I learned a lot about beef. All the research leading up to the day was more educational than just doing the tastings. I am happy to share a little bit about what I still remember (with the quick caveat that I am definitely not an expert, and if I got anything wrong, I’m happy to be corrected):

First off, there are 3 categories to grade the beef sold in the US: PrimeSelect, and Choice. They rate, in descending order, the quality and marbling (the fat:muscle ratio) of the meat. We aimed to get as many prime cuts as possible for our tasting, which we found to be somewhat difficult. Even Whole Foods carried mostly Select cuts. We ended up going to Los Gatos Meats (a disaster of a website, but a gem of a brick & mortar) for most of the meats. Also, to keep the playing field constant across the different cuts, I tried cooking them all with as simple a preparation as possible, allowing the flavor of the meat to be the only thing we were judging the taste by.

Now, where on the cow do the cuts come from? For this, I made a little cheat-sheet that outlines where a variety of the cuts come from on a cow. (Mind you, in Britain, they have very different terminology for all of this, so this is all American beef knowledge I’m dishing out.)

WheresTheBeef

So, I didn’t want to have a party with 50 cuts of meat, but did want to have a sampling from “all parts” of the cow. We didn’t get too crazy either – no organs or “non-standard” cuts were investigated; remember, we were hoping to understand our options when looking at a typical menu of meat options at a steak house.

For the tasting, we grouped the cuts into rounds of tastings based on which part of the cow they came from. We started on what are considered the cheaper cuts, and worked our way up, to what are generally considered the more expensive, highly desired cuts.

Kowal_LogoKowal_LogoFlank & Skirt Steak. This meat comes from the end of the ribs, called the flank or plate. It has a strong grain and should be scored and marinated for a while to be tenderized. This is your standard fajita or steak salad meat, and should be cut against the grain, or else you’ll be chewing it for a while. I did marinate these in some soy sause and brown sugar before broiling. The flank is typically thicker than the skirt, so cooks a little bit longer.

Kowal_LogoTri-Tip: The little triangle at the bottom of the sirloin diagram is basically where the tri-tip steak comes from, which is the piece we elected to try from this portion of the cow. Back in the day it was typically made into ground beef, but at some point, someone figured out that you could cook it low and slow and slice it thin for a low-fat steak option. I remembered having it as a kid smothered in barbecue sauce and sandwiched between french bread. I think for our party, we just did a dry rub and I seared and then baked it until it was medium rare.

Kowal_LogoPorterhouse: We’re moving into the short loin now. This is where you start seeing real steak names come into play. What is the difference between a Porterhouse and a New York strip?  Well, I’ll tell you. The porterhouse is your “t-bone,” the ubiquitous caricature for what steak looks like. You have a large cut of tenderloin on one side , and the other side of the bone is strip steak. Technically, a porterhouse is classified by having more tenderloin than even a typical “t-bone” but they’re hailing from the same part of the cow, so same cut of meat.

Bone-in New York: This is what is on one side of the porterhouse – the strip. It’s a muscle that is infrequently used on the cow, so still tender. It can be cooked bone-in, or cut away from the bone. We went with the bone-in option because we were told that those typically cook better because they retain the juices. No argument here.

Tenderloin: The tenderloin is a long a narrow piece that follows inside the spine and is very tender because it is not a used muscle. We took the more famous cut from there, the filet mignon. A medallion, sometimes wrapped in bacon, that is so soft you could sometimes cut it with a butter knife. We actually got a little extra experimental here and got one regular corn-fed cut, and another grass-fed to see if we could notice a difference. (the answer is yes).


Kowal_LogoShort ribs: These are typically braised. The cut is from the rib and surrounding meat, and they are cut into ~2″ chunks. You could also get them cut Korean-style, which is a much smaller slice and then it’s just marinated and grilled. We opted to try them the “old fashioned” Western way for our taste-test. After being braised, the meat is very tender and literally falls off the bone. It also really soaks up the flavors of whatever you braise it in, so the flavor of the meat is not typically standing on its own.

Bone-in Ribeye: This is the meat inside the rib bones, and unlike tenderloin, gets a fair bit of exercise in the cow, so is supposedly more flavorful. We went for the bone-in option again, like with the New York strip, but can also be cooked without the bone.

Prime Rib: This is essentially the same part of the cow as the ribeye, but cooked as a roast, with anywhere from 2-7 ribs wide. The main difference between the two cuts is how they’re cooked, and also a lot more fat has been removed from the ribeye than the roast.

That’s what we tried. I had my opinions, of course, on what the best pieces were. I made a form people could fill out as they tried everything so we could keep track of the different aspects of each kind of cut.

WheresTheBeef-SteakRater

Hopefully this was mildly informative. I look forward to the next food-themed party and invitation design. Also, the first photo in the post is credited to Carol Le, a terrific friend and photographer.

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