Even if you're vegan, steak on the grill is the smell of summer. But until recently, the steak on the grill probably had more to do with the store closest to you than any choice you made. Lately, though, there are more ranch options than in a Kansas salad dressing aisle.
With the spread of consumer-grade sous-vide cookers, you can now make a steak as good as anything you get at a steak house. Using the devices, which run about $100 and slow-cook vacuum-sealed foods at a consistent temperature, we can standardize the exact temperature at which a cut of meat is cooked and judge rib-eye against rib-eye.
So, on a single Thursday in May, we went to nine different butcher shops in Portland to get rib-eye steaks—Cason's and Old Salt were sadly out of rib-eye that day—and test their meat providers against each other. We seasoned each steak identically with salt and pepper, then bagged and immersed them for about 60 minutes till they reached 133 degrees, finally searing them in a hot carbon steel pan with grapeseed oil and a pat of butter. All were tasted blind, by a panel of five meat-drunk tasters. Here are the results.
Comments: "Beautiful, soft, velvet, perfect." "Goddamn—this is a steak! Incredible marbling." "This steak is the ugliest, it is the fattiest, and it is the best." "Beef bouillon pop. Sticks in your teeth in a good way."
Since it was founded two decades ago by seven ranching families in Fossil, Ore., Painted Hills has been our state's biggest name in natural beef—no antibiotics ("we're a never-ever program," says spokeswoman Jennifer Homer), no chemicals and no hormones.
Painted Hills isn't a ranch, as some might assume, but a cooperative raising Angus-cross beef all over the Northwest by hundreds of different ranchers according to strict protocols—grass-fed till 14 months, then finished for three months on a nutritionist-certified mix of corn, hay, alfalfa, oats, vitamins and minerals.
Well, goddamn. While we don't know which rancher raised this one, it was a great steak—ranked highest by all five tasters, fatty as hell, blooming with beef flavor, with fat marbled through the protein and not merely hunkered up next to it, a crescendo of umami that builds to an unctuous grace note that lingers in its beefiness. This is what steak tastes like and it's wonderful.
Comments: "This melts in my mouth." "OMG, butter. It's butter. "Nice cereal character." "Even marbling and good flavor."
Carlton Farms is much better known for pork in these parts—but if this steak is any judge, it should also be known for its beef. Like Painted Hills, Carlton Farms is in Oregon, and like Painted Hills it pasture-raises its all-natural cattle. But the character of the meat was dramatically different. Carlton's beef was a Nebraska-style butter-bomb, fatty throughout in a crazily silken way, while the texture in the Painted Hills steak was a bit more granular. It was so buttery, in fact, we mistook it for an Omaha Steak.
3. "Midwest beef" from Gartner's Country Meats
Comments: "Best-looking steak by far." "Texture looser than [Carlton], with a little less umami flavor. A good all-rounder." "Nice chew. So pretty."
Gartner's couldn't verify for sure whose steak we got–Nebraska Beef's or Cargill's out of Kansas—but either way, this steak represents a century of Midwest corn-fed tradition. Were our tasters biased toward the Midwest box steak because it was so pretty? Maybe. Because it was terribly pretty in the way that the Caribbean is pretty, and that people on television are pretty—which is to say, it corresponded perfectly to what you think steak should look like, a Norman Rockwell vision of perfect steak. Though some found it a bit less flavorful than a lot of the steaks, it had an even marbling and beautiful consistency that pushed it into the upper half of the rankings.
Comments: "Sharp taste I crave the minute I taste it." "Generic beef-stock, with no depth." "Beautifully fatty." "I just want to bathe this in salt and chomp on it."
Kansas beef is consistent—give it that! The natural, no-antibiotics, no-hormones Creekstone steak from Arkansas City, Kan., was also lovely, and also a bit generic in its beefiness—maybe not as intense in its flavor, but clearly expertly fed, cut and crafted Angus beef.
Comments: "Mmmm, just want to sink my teeth into this sucker. Smoooooth." "Grainy, beefy. Makes me feel like a cowboy. But maybe too grainy?" "A little bit flat, in flavor."
California's Brandt Beef was the pioneer in a barcode tracking system that, technically, would let you track your cow all the way back to the individual patch of grass it was named on—something we discovered too late to track our steak. Brandt corn-feeds the living fuck out of its steaks to fatten them up—365 days of corn, like a Joseph Gordon Levitt movie—and the result was smoothness. This proved strangely polarizing, with a couple of our blind tasters declaring the flavor flat while others loved the smoothness.
6. Grass-fed Carman Ranch from Sheridan Fruit Co.
Comments: "Has sort of a fish taste, which I don't understand." "A bit lean, but beautifully distinctive flavor." "Like eating a silk shirt."
Alone among the butcher shops, Sheridan carried two Oregon rib-eyes from two different providers—our winner from Painted Hills, and grass-fed beef from Carman Ranch. Grass-fed beef is divisive among steak lovers—it's acknowledged to be more healthy for the diner and better for the cattle, but often leads to unexpected gamey notes or even fishy flavors (rumored but not proven to be the result of fancy-schmancy omega-3 acids). With Wallowa's Carman Ranch, this was somewhat muted. Some judges praised the distinctive flavor and silkenness of the meat, but others decried the mutedness of lean beef and an ever so slight fishy note.
7. Grass-fed Pono beef from Pono Farm Soul Kitchen
Comments: "Great texture, but a little fishy." "Weird grain note?" "It's like a cow ate tuna."
Pono Farm in Bend combines American ranching with Japanese traditions, not to mention Japanese cows: Its ranch stock is a mix of Wagyu and Red Angus. Its rib-eye was the grassiest of grass-fed beef, the fishiest and the gamiest. It did retain quite a bit more fattiness, but the broken-down fat also led to more of that gamey flavor coming through.