August 1, 2010

Artisan Filet Mignon Tasting

Four Artisan Filets for Steak Tasting

Dad Taking OverTurning

A few months back, I discovered the The Oliver Ranch Company's Artisan Steak Tasters Pack through a Twitter convo with CEO & Founder Carrie Oliver. The idea is basically like a wine tasting, but with steaks. Tasters have the opportunity to discover four unique styles of steaks from natural and organic ranches across the country, each specializing in a different breed, diet, geography and aging technique. While there were several cuts to choose from, I opted for the Filet Mignon taster pack. Little did I know, my whole understanding of steak was about to change. More pics and tasting results on the next page!

The Neat Package of Four "Mystery" Meats

The taster pack a.k.a. Oliver Ranch's Discover Beef Experience Pack was set up as a blind tasting, which might be the only situation where "mystery meat" is acceptable (ha ha ha). Inside the dry-ice packed box, each steak is tightly vacuum-sealed and color coded. Included in the package is a brochure that matches each color up with its representative steak. A blurb about the cattle's origin, feed, aging process, and owners awaits the taster at the end of experiment. Easy-to-follow instructions on how prepare and host the tasting are also included in the package, along with a handy rating worksheet that evaluates each steak by texture, personality, and impression.

It shouldn't be a huge surprise to learn that different breeds of cattle, raised in different regions and fed different diets, slaughtered and aged using different methods, will taste... well, like each is one of a kind! Unfortunately, consumers today have been marketed to expect a standardized product in taste and quality. We have been conditioned to perceive steak in one dimension. Thanks to factory farming, beef has been turned into a commodity. And the final product doesn't just show up at your local McD's, but at steakhouses as well. I can't remember ever stepping foot into a fine steakhouse and having any options other than the cut. Some restaurants will offer up premium "aged" steak or conscientious "grass-fed" steak, but the details usually stop at the USDA grade.

Carrie's mission at Oliver Ranch is to open people's eyes to the amazing variations of beef out there, by cherry-picking across some of the finest artisan cattle ranchers in America. Her motive for promoting this niche market? She is driven by the idea of creating great tasting food. But inadvertently, she is also perhaps reshaping consumer perceptions of beef—maybe someday resulting in a world where steak is just as seriously considered for its regionality and craftsmanship as wine.

In the meantime, I found the beef tasting experience to be a fun, interesting, and rewarding one. It also makes for a great Father's Day or birthday gift, for steak enthusiasts or casualists. So onwards into my steak adventure below!

Brushing the Olive Oil

I coated each steak with olive oil, but held off on seasoning. Similar to tasting oysters, it's best to taste the food plain in order to fully appreciate its natural flavors.

Ready for Grilling

After the olive oil was slathered on, labeled toothpicks (also included in the pack) were placed on each filet to differentiate the steaks. This is a crucial step, since all of them look about the same. The tasting would be completely useless if you couldn't tell one steak apart from another!

Perfect SizzleReady for Consumption

When it came to grill time I left it to my dad, the professional. My dad is an avid collector of tools, gadgets, and manly machinery; grilling equipment is no exception. The commercial-grade grill on my parent's deck was the perfect machine to help make all of the steaks at once. We wanted medium rare to medium filets, so I think we set the timer for about 4 minutes on one side and then 3 minutes on the other.

Once the cooked steaks were lifted out of the grill, we let them rest for about 5 minutes. It would have been even better if they could have rested on a hot plate, but it didn't make that big of a difference. I divvied up each steak into four slices and served it to each taster. Each of us ended up with four different slices, indistinguishable from one another. The only way to tell the difference prior to eating was by the markers.

Judging Steak

Upon the first couple of bites, we all could definitely tell a difference in each particular steak. Some were more buttery and sweet, while others were more gamy and grainy. To help build a frame of reference, it was easier to sample a little bit of each steak one after another (versus finishing a particular kind by itself before moving onto the next variety).

During the tasting, we also circled attribute scores on our rating worksheet. My parents, who have never participated in a evaluative tasting before, found the worksheet initially puzzling. They weren't used to a scale where there wasn't technically a "low end" and a "high end." There were no right or wrong answers, just specific preferences and observations. As a designer, I was also a bit thrown by how the scales were visually interpreted for each attribute (texture, personality, and impression). It may have made more sense if the "cow scale" had a color gradient to help signal that there is change, but not necessarily a progression from good to bad (as using a number scale may often cue).

The four of us came to surprisingly different conclusions about which was the best tasting steak. While I particularly enjoyed the Wet-Aged Holstein-Friesian from California and the Dry-Aged Charolais-Cross from Colorado, my dad preferred the Wet-Aged Wagyu-Angus Cross. I would say that the Charolais-Cross and Holstein-Friesian were both soft in texture (which is how I like my filet mignon) and had a savory and buttery flavor. Each steak had its own personality, but even now it's still difficult to describe them in detail. We're definitely not in the practice of thinking about beef this way, but it's a great exercise to help deepen your appreciation of it. Hopefully, the Artisan Beef Institute can help shed some more light onto the wonderful world of beef tasting in years to come.

Oh, and lastly: Carrie also threw in a few packs of the ground beef patties into the order and we had killer burgers the next day for lunch. Yum!

Click here for more pics!


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