MY FRIEND Barbara Wagner gulped when the rib eye she and her husband recently ordered medium-rare at Wolfgang's on East 54th Street in New York came to the table.

"We gasped. The outside was seared - it looked like a normal steak - but when we cut into it, it was practically raw," says Ms Wagner, a real estate publicist. "So we sent it back." It was refired to perfection and she said she'll go back to Wolfgang's.

But chew on this, steak lovers: Your medium-rare cut is getting rarer, in both senses of the word.

A few days after my friend's experience, I ordered a boneless rib eye medium-rare at Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse in Midtown, New York. What I got wasn't remotely the medium-rare ideal of red at the centre fading to pink around it, but the near-purple hue known as "blue rare".

Both incidents reflected the new, medium-rare confusion. While getting an underdone steak has been a possibility for decades, what's really given the phenomenon traction is that chefs are under bottom-line pressure to reduce throwaways that occur when customers say a steak is too well-done. An undercooked steak, on the other hand, can always be salvaged with a touch more fire as my friend's was.

The medium-rare steak has changed over the years. Picture: iStock
The medium-rare steak has changed over the years. Picture: iStock

Most chefs regard beef cooked to medium-rare - with an internal temperature of 130-135F (55-57C) - as the best way to bring out flavour and retain moisture in tender cuts such as rib eye and top loin. Unlike rare, medium-rare allows time for the outside to caramelise and develop a sear.

It "maintains the most flavour and it keeps the juice in the meat," says Laurent Tourondel, the founder of the BLT Steak chain who's now a partner in Brasserie Ruhlmann and L'Amico.

At Porter House New York in Midtown, executive chef and co-owner Michael Lomonaco says more than 60 per cent of his customers order medium-rare.

Yet, the "medium-rare" rib eye that I had at salt-spewing Salt Bae's Nusr-Et was so red end-to-end, it resembled a bloody nose. Similar cuts that I braved in the last week, at STK in Midtown and at Delmonico's in FiDi, were nearly as rare. Only Bowery Meat Company nailed medium-rare as I expect it, although Porter House New York's slightly underdone, chilli-rubbed rib eye had the best overall flavour and char.

Mark Pastore, president of distributor Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors, which sells to scores of New York restaurants, says he first noticed the undercooking trend about a year ago.

"The norm has become [for customers expecting medium-rare] to order by a new term, medium-rare-plus, because people found their steaks were arriving undercooked - like rare-plus," Mr Pastore says.

Your steak is being cooked wrong on purpose. Picture: iStock
Your steak is being cooked wrong on purpose. Picture: iStock

I now ask for medium-rare-plus to prevent getting steak too raw and tough to chew. Even Bowery Meat executive chef Josh Capon says he now orders medium-rare-plus, rather than medium-rare, for himself when he's out, because "most steakhouses are undercooking".

Restaurateur Stephen Hanson says it's mainly about money. Every cent counts when eateries are under unprecedented strain from high rents, high labour costs and brutal competition.

"If a customer says their steak is overcooked, it can only be thrown out," says Mr Hanson, the owner of Henry at Life Hotel who previously ran four steakhouses under the BR Guest banner, including the Strip House chain. So kitchens err on the rare side, knowing the dish can always be rescued with a minute or two more heat.

Tony Fortuna, owner of the always-buzzing TBar Steak and Lounge says he spends $34 to buy a 24-ounce, dry-aged cut of rib eye, and if one customer finds their steak overcooked, "we lose money on the whole table".

Adding to the issue is the fact that many chefs have dispensed with using meat thermometers and just go by feel, says Mr Fortuna, who keeps a close eye on his steaks' outer char as well as on their inner moisture.

"[Using a thermometer] creates a hole, juice comes out and the meat gets dry," says Mr Fortuna.

Then there's the fad factor. Some chefs are swayed to undercook because rawness and near-rawness is seen as somehow superior.

"Overcooking steak is regarded [by some] as a greater moral and aesthetic sin than undercooking it," Mark Schatzker, author of Steak: One Man's Search For The World's Tastiest Piece Of Beef, tells The Post. "A rare steak is edgy … [but] an overcooked steak, on the other hand, is a criminal act, like putting ketchup on foie gras."

‘Overcooking steak is regarded [by some] as a greater moral and aesthetic sin than undercooking it,’ says author Mark Schatzker. Picture: iStock
‘Overcooking steak is regarded [by some] as a greater moral and aesthetic sin than undercooking it,’ says author Mark Schatzker. Picture: iStock

How to order steak properly

Getting steak cooked exactly as you want it isn't foolproof. Few eaters are willing to go as far as filmmaker Barry Sonnenfeld, who once brought a catalogue photo of a steak to Bowery Meat's chef Josh Capon when he was at Lure Fishbar to show him how he wanted it done.

But it's not difficult to try. Although it's theoretically a cinch to ask for more fire on an undercooked steak, a customer should nudge the house to get it properly medium-rare in the first place. Even a few minutes' lag for one person at a table to "send it back" can be awkward for others who don't. It's also bad for the kitchen - and for the steak.

"Our goal isn't to reheat or refire it," said Porter House's Michael Lomonaco, who turns out many cuts at around 120F (49C) before resting. "The result isn't the same when it goes back for further cooking."

The steak ‘Degree of Doneness’ chart. Picture: NY Post
The steak ‘Degree of Doneness’ chart. Picture: NY Post

So what should you tell the waiter? Once again, experts disagree.

"Tell them you want it hot in the centre, the colour pink, and red with some brown toward the edges, and with a crust outside," chef Laurent Tourondel recommends.

But Mr Capon laughs off the idea of telling a server, for instance, "I'd like it red-pink in the centre, fading slightly toward brown closer to the edges," he says. "If anything, I'd ask if they cook true to temperature."

I find nothing works better than to say "medium-rare-plus," and reinforce it with, "That's more than medium-rare but not medium."

Although at this rate, we soon might have to ask for it medium-well to guarantee it won't be raw.

 

This article originally appeared on the New York Post and has been republished with permission.



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