Steak – A Book Review

In BEEF, Book Reviews, Nutrition by James2 Comments

What exactly makes a memorable tasting steak so memorable? What are the components from cow to plate that set the stage for such an experience? In Mark Schatzker’s book Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef  the author travels to six different countries, and raises his own cow in order to unlock the secret to what makes a great steak so great. This is Mark’s first book, prior to his latest, The Dorito Effect , which I recently reviewed – a book that goes deep into unpacking the relationship between flavor and food. In this book, as the title suggests, Mark’s primary concern is in finding phenomenal tasting steak and gaining an understanding of what makes it so.

What’s in the Book? 

The Problem with Steak
Chapter One: Texas
Chapter Two: France
Chapter Three: Scotland
Chapter Four: Italy
Chapter Five: Japan
Chapter Six: Argentina
Chapter Seven: Fleurance (name of cow Schatzker raises)
Chapter Eight: A Return to the Heartland

What is the Criteria for Judging Steak Greatness?

Most people, including myself, have never experienced what steak conosoures define as a top-tier steak. Like wine, there are objective metrics people use when evaluating steak:

Using the senses of taste, smell, and feel, evaluators break each steak down into attributes, each of which gets a number. Juiciness ranges from extremely dry (1) to extremely juicy (8), and it comes in two forms: “initial juiciness” and “sustained juiciness.” The same is true of tenderness – initial and sustained, which likewise ranges from extremely tough (1) to extremely tender (8). There is also cohesiveness; springiness; beef flavor; flavor intensity (extremely bland to extremely intense); overall beef mouthfeel (extremely non-beeflike mouthfeel to extremely beeflike mouthfeel). “Off flavor” goes from 1 to 3 (none to strong off flavor.) The most interesting category is “characterization” – 1 is sweet; 2 is acid; 3 is sour; 4 is rancid; 5 is warmed over.

If you retained that, the next thing to remember is all of this to some extent is subjective. If you examine the United States beef grading system you’ll find three levels of grade starting from select, choice, and the “best” being prime. What sets the three apart? It’s not flavor. It’s fat. Fat does not add flavor unless the animal was 100% grass fed, and U.S. commodity beef is finished on corn, which makes them fatter, but that fat doesn’t add any flavor to the steak. It is primarily amino acids and sugars – not fat – that are the responsible for Maillard reactions (The Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that gives browned foods their desirable flavor)

But fat deserves some share of the credit, although it is incorrect to think of there being a single kind of fat in steak. There are at least 25 different fats, and more may yet be discovered…. The fourth most prevalent fatty acid in beef is called linoleic acid, and the heat of a grill or pan turns it into a substance called hexanal, which tastes “green” “fatty,” and “oily” and, despite these less than appetizing associations, it is considered delicious by food scientists. Hexanal is one of steak’s many “flavor compounds.” According to the food science database Volatile Compounds in Food, 340 such substances have been identified in grilled or roasted beef…. Consider for a moment that red wine – a substance that has launched an entire genre of magazines, Web sites, and books devoted to printing descriptions of its flavor – has 386 flavor compounds, a mere 46 more than steak.

What determines the flavor of a steak?

“Terroir” is a word anyone interested in where flavor comes from should be familiar with. Basically, terroir is the idea that you can taste the geography – meaning, whatever the animal that you’re eating was eating (various plants, nuts, roots, and type of soil) will come through in the flavor of the meat. A classic and often repeated example of this would be a cow who gets into the onion patch producing fowl oniony tasting milk.

In British meat and flavor science faculties, it is grass that equals flavor, not marbling. Mottram described the relationship between grass and flavor as “one of the few correlations we’re sure of.” All marbling adds, he told me, is succulence. Succulence is good, of course. Marbling adds richness to a steak the same way butter adds richness to pastry. But succulence without an underlying flavor to enrich is, basically, lard.
Harold McGee, the author and expert on the chemistry of food, supports a different theory. In “On Food and Cooking”, he claims that what gives grass-fed beef its flavor is a substance called terpenes. Microorganisms in a cow’s rumen convert chlorophyll into these aromatic chemicals, which are related to the aroma compounds that give herbs and spices their intense flavor. (When people sprinkle spice rubs on feedlot steaks, they’re applying terpenes that should have been there in the first place.)

Despite the difference of opinions on the precise mechanics of what gives beef its flavor the bigger picture consensus comes down to three factors that determine flavor with little disagreement: Diet, age, and processing conditions. What the beef you eat was eating affects the flavor as I mentioned. Younger animals have less flavor than older ones, and most livestock people eat from commodity markets is young. The processing of the animal including the kill and post kill handling of the carcase will effect the meat to a large extent.

What did Schatzker find in his travels?

Briefly, in Texas he was not impressed by the famous steak houses, all of which served beef with little flavor as they all got their beef from corn-fed feed lots. In France he found beef with more flavor, and an ancient breed of cattle that had been resurrected from extinction. In Scottland Schatzer discovered Highland cattle, a grass finished cattle, and loved them. In Italy he found an Italian breed of cattle living on snake infested hills in southern Italy, and discovered what terroir really means. In Japan he found thinly sliced beef, Wagyu, that melted in your mouth because of the world class marbling, but the flavor was lacking. In Argentina he found some great tasting steaks, but also discovered they were disappearing with corn and soy fields slowly taking over what used to be the country with the best grass-fed steak in the world. Argentineans are the world’s biggest beef loyalist, as they consume more beef per person than any other country in the world.

Final Thoughts of a Wannabe Farmer

For any foodies or people who enjoy a good steak this book is a great read. If you’re a farmer or wannabe farmer like myself who wants to produce nutrient dense food that has emotionally satisfying flavor both of Schatzer’s books are must reads. The big take away for me as someone who wants to produce pasture raised livestock is the emphasis on the importance of the quality of forages your livestock are consuming, and the handling of the processing. In the book Schatzer tells the story of a man in Texas who was producing grass finished beef who shared some of his beef with Schatzer. The beef tasted like a swamp he recalls. He didn’t know the man’s productions methods or what the cattle were eating exactly, but the end result was not a pleasurable flavor experience. Variations in flavor in grass finished beef is a challenge when compared commodity corn-fed beef that pretty much has the same uniform flavor every time – or uniform non-flavor is more accurate. However, there are master graziers who do produce consistent flavor in their steak, and as more people get back to nature’s model and produce grass finished beef we’ll see more consistency, and higher quality grass finished steaks. Steak is like a wine when we look at the flavor notes, and the variety of amazing tasting, nutrient dense beef, that will be available in the future is something to look forward to. I know I look forward to cutting into the first steak I finish on pasture. Here’s to hoping it doesn’t taste like a swamp.

Here is Mark being Interviewed about his Book 


  1. Addye Thole

    Enjoyed this review!! And here’s to your friends & family being there to cheer you on when you take that first bite!!

  2. James

    Thanks! Hopefully we can all share the first bite together. On separate forks of course. 😉

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