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Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2008 04:43 pm

RealCuisine

Buying prime: Top quality beef is hard to find

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Q. Why can't a decent steak be found in either store or restaurant in Springfield at any price? Springfield businesses are fond of complaining about locals shopping out of town, but no one listens when it is explained that I would rather buy my dry-aged USDA Prime beef locally, but I can't find it, let alone as an organic product. I know there is a market because I give out the Web site I use at least three times a week. Ken

A. It would be nice to hop in the car and buy top quality prime, dry-aged beef in Springfield whenever we felt like it. Unfortunately, while you're right that there is a market for it here, it's not a big enough market for stores to keep it on hand. Dry-aged prime beef – the crème de la crème of beef – isn't always easy to find in larger cities, let alone here. It's also expensive because of several factors. Some have to do with its being prime, others with the dry-aging process. To best understand why dry-aged prime beef is so hard to get – and so good – let's separate the two.

USDA Prime: The USDA grading system began in the early 1920s. It wasn't an objective government quality analysis, but a response to cattle growers in the Midwest and East who wanted to differentiate their animals from Western "scrub" cattle.

USDA grades are based on the marbling, or amount of fat distributed throughout the meat, which is the primary factor in determining beef's flavor, tenderness and juiciness, though there are other factors including breed, age, exercise and feed, slaughter conditions, and aging (after slaughter). Prime isn't what it used to be, either; the USDA reduced its marbling requirements in 1965 and again in 1975 in response to pressure from producers who, as cattle farming was becoming increasingly industrialized, wanted standards lowered to increase the amount of beef that could be labeled "prime."

Even so, the amount of prime beef is less than 2% of total U.S. beef production. So, there's not a lot of prime beef to go around, even at high prices. Peter Luger's, the venerable Brooklyn steakhouse regarded as America's finest, warns on their Web site that there is a "severe shortage" of prime beef. Dave Zier of Zier's butcher shop in Wilmette says, "There's always a shortage of prime – and these days it's very short."

Dry-Aging: Less than a century ago, most beef and virtually all steaks were dry-aged, or "hung" for several days to up to a month, because the grass-fed, pastured animals had had far more exercise than the CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operation, a.k.a industrial farm) feedlot cattle that supply most of America's beef. Dry-aging allows protein-breaking enzymes to tenderize the meat. It also concentrates the flavor, making for a wonderfully beefy tasting steak. Dry-aging has fallen out of favor with all but a few steakhouses and butcher shops because of its cost. There's the expense of longer-term storage, but the biggest cost lies in the loss of weight that occurs when the meat is dry-aged, and the extra trimming that must be done – as much as 20 percent.

Locally, Humphrey's Market (1821 S. 15th St., 217-544-7445) has a true butcher shop. They have some prime beef (usually frozen), and place special orders. Champaign's Ye Old Time Meat and Deli Shop (2018 S. Neil St., 217-351-9123) has several cuts of fresh prime beef available.

Sangamo Club manager David Radwine used to age steaks in-house for 12 days at his Crow's Mill School restaurant in the 1980s. "I still remember them as some of the best I've ever had." These days, Charles and Limey's (620 S. First St., 217-522-6300) features prime steaks that are aged in-house for 20 days.

There are numerous Web sites that offer dry-aged prime beef, and I'm sure many are excellent. A couple of years ago, however, I discovered a relatively unknown treasure: Zier's Butcher Shop in Wilmette, whose dry-aged prime beef compares favorably with some of the best known purveyors in the U.S. I found out about Zier's on a Chicago food blog. The blogger had ordered steaks from Lobel's, the famous (and famously expensive) butcher shop in Manhattan's exclusive Upper East Side that caters to the rich and famous. The blogger was dismayed by the quality and price of the Lobel's steaks and posted photographs comparing them with similar cuts from Zier's. It didn't take a meat expert to see that Zier's was far superior.

"Yeah, I couldn't believe those pictures," said Dave Zier when I told him that's where I'd found out about his shop. "I've got another customer who has an office in New York. He's bought meat at Lobel's and says, 'Dave, you wouldn't believe what they charge and it's not even as good as yours.'"

Zier and his wife, Denise, started the business 23 years ago, although the location has been a butcher shop since the 1890s, and looks it. The contents of the display cases are far more intriguing than those in my Uncle Ray's old butcher shop, however: wild game, housemade sausages, smoked meats (including salmon), Wagyu beef, and that wonderful dry-aged prime beef.

Everything I've had from Zier's has been wonderful. I've shopped there several times, as well as placing mail orders. Zier's has a Web site, but mail orders must be placed by phone. That's actually an advantage: Zier's has the personal service and custom ordering that comes with a small family-owned business. I called the Thursday before last Christmas to see if there was any way to have a prime rib roast shipped by the holiday. The woman who answered said no, but then paused. "Let me call you back," she said hurriedly. "I'm going to see if I can catch the FedEx guy." She was a bit breathless when she called back: "We can do it!" she said triumphantly. The (fantastic) roast arrived Friday afternoon. Zier's dry-aged prime beef certainly isn't cheap, but the roast was exactly half the price of the same size prime rib on Lobel's Web site.

Loading my purchases into the car on my last visit to Zier's, I saw a woman walking two large dogs coming down the street. A few yards from the shop entrance, the dogs began dragging her towards Zier's door – clearly they knew a good thing when they smelled it!

Zier's, www.ziersprime.com, 813 Ridge Road, Wilmette, IL, 847-251-4000

DRY-AGING BEEF AT HOME

I've been successfully using the following method of dry-aging beef since 1995 when I first read about it in the November/December issue of Cook's Illustrated Magazine in an article entitled "Perfect Prime Rib." Even if your beef isn't prime, it will make a noticeable improvement in its flavor and texture. It's easy – all that's really necessary is having enough room in your refrigerator. A second refrigerator in your basement or garage is ideal. After some brief preparation, the meat goes in the fridge and, except for making sure the humidity level stays high, you can ignore it until ready to cook.

I haven't dry-aged any beef at home since I discovered Zier's, but I'm excited about doing so with some of the locally grown, grass-fed beef that's available at places such as Sangamon Valley Cattle Company in Pleasant Plains (www.svgrassfedbeef.com, 217-487-7664) and Triple S Farms (sold at Wednesday Farmer's Markets, www.familyfarmersmeats.com, 217-895-3652)

Only large cuts of beef can be successfully dry-aged; individual steaks or portions would completely dry out before they could be properly aged. Choose a strip loin, sirloin, tenderloin, prime rib, or rib-eye, etc. that's at least large enough to serve six-eight people, remembering that the meat will lose weight during the aging process. Cook's Illustrated notes that a seven-pound prime rib will lose approximately a pound if dry-aged for a week; the meat will lose even more weight if aged longer – up to 20 percent. If I've aged more meat than I need for a specific occasion, I wrap the extra tightly in plastic wrap (after trimming) and freeze it for another meal or two.

Allow enough space in your refrigerator so that nothing is touching the meat and so that air can circulate freely around it. It's also important that your refrigerator be cold enough – between 34° and 38° Fahrenheit. A humidity level of between 70 – 80 percent is ideal, but it's not necessary that it be precise; I usually empty out the vegetable bin and put some water in it and refill as necessary. A small pan could also be used.

Pat the meat dry and place it on a wire rack. Set the wire rack on a platter or rimmed baking sheet lined with paper towels. Make sure that the towels aren't touching the meat – the goal here is to allow the cold air to circulate around it. Place in the refrigerator and let age for at least seven days and up to three weeks. The longer the meat ages, the more the flavor will develop and the more weight it will lose.

Before grilling or roasting the meat, trim off any of the exterior meat and fat that has dehydrated. Cut into individual steaks or portions as desired, and let the meat come to room temperature before cooking.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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