> Features

A farmer’s guide to the perfect steak (from start to finish)

A farmer’s guide to the perfect steak (from start to finish)

by Izzy Burton 14 September 2015

What makes the perfect steak? It's one of life's great questions, and the answer might just surprise you. Ben Ryall, a second generation cattle farmer from County Cork, takes us through the processes behind producing quality beef and shares his tips on cooking to get the very best from your meat.

There’s a lot more to achieving the perfect steak than knowing exactly when it’s cooked. Yes, there’s the crucial decision of whether or not to turn it during cooking - a debate that is still raging to this day in kitchens up and down the country - but, given that a piece of steak represents months of hard work, precision and expertise, our part in proceedings seems almost minor compared to what comes before it. Preparing the perfect steak is a team effort, like participating in a relay race where you never meet the other participants (with a big plate of juicy meat at the finish line). I spoke to a producer of quality beef to discover a little more about this process, and find out how a man who really knows his meat likes to cook his steak.

Breeding and feeding

‘The two most influencing factors of flavour,’ said Ben Ryall from Fellfort Farm in County Cork, ‘are breeding and feeding.’ Ryall himself rears Angus cattle, a breed known for their superb marbling of fat. His cows, like the vast majority of beef produced in Ireland, are grass-fed, and the farmer is adamant that this diet results in better quality meat: ‘grass-fed beef is definitely streets ahead of corn-fed beef … it’s a way nicer flavour.’ This is partly due to the lifestyle of the cow - grass-fed cows tend to be developed at a slower rate than their corn-fed counterparts - as well as the more flavourful yellow fat that runs through the meat.

Grass-feeding is also one of the most sustainable methods of farming. With grass so plentiful on the so-called Emerald Isle, farmers simply grow what they need on their own farms, buying in very little: ‘by doing this we lower our carbon footprint,’ said Ryall. ‘We don't import grain from around the world. We want to produce everything within the farm gates, and we can grow grass for ten months of the year.’ Cows are moved around from field to field to graze, providing not just a change of scenery (which, by the way, is stunning) but a chance for the grass to regrow. Grass will be left to grow for up to three weeks - overly thick or long grass is too tough and loses some of the nutritional value - with the cows expected to get through it in only three days of grazing, gaining between 1-1.5kg a day. Something tells me I’d be quite good at being a cow.

Grass feeding is a sustainable farming method, resulting in a lower carbon footprint per farm
A curious Simmental and Charolais cross demonstrates that it is ready for its close up

Size, shape and weight

The amount of weight a cow gains is monitored closely by the farmers. Cows that are too small or too lean will not fetch a decent price, but neither will cows that are too large: ‘consistency is the most important thing’ said Ryall. ‘If you take a sirloin or a strip steak off a 400kg carcass it’s going to be too big, and it’s not going to be useful for the supermarket or restaurant trade. At the end of the day, all you’re making is a lot of processing meat.’ While my naive instinct was that more meat meant more money, in the cattle world bigger is not always better. Suddenly, the uniform steaks available in supermarkets and butchers made sense - if a cow is too large a lot of the meat will end up in the mincer because the cuts will be larger than anyone wants to buy.

Humane slaughter

Once the right breed has been reared in the right way to the right size comes another incredibly important stage: slaughter. How - and where - a cow is slaughtered has significant impact upon the meat itself. Cows must be kept calm and treated very well in their last few days, as tense muscles do not lead to tender meat: ‘it works better for everyone - the cow is treated well, the meat tastes better and the customers are happier.’ Farmers tend to opt for slaughterhouses near their farms to reduce any potential stress a long journey might entail, and abattoirs, too, have worked to improve both condition and techniques to make a smoother, humane process.

This change in treatment has been strongly influenced by the research of scientist and ‘animal whisperer’ Temple Grandin, who demonstrated conclusively the link between stress on the animal and the flavour of its meat. Cows are kept in familiar groups to minimise stress, and pens have been modified to include curved walls and sloped floors (cows prefer to be walking on a gradual incline) with the intention being to keep them moving round with no idea of what lies ahead. In ideal conditions, a cow will be stunned and killed before it even knows what is about to happen.

Fat and marbling

This, at last, is where we come in. When shopping for your meat choose wisely, warns Ryall: ‘You need a good piece of fat around the meat to cook it. You don't need to eat the fat, but it's an integral part of the cooking process. I always say, trying to cook meat without fat is like trying to boil potatoes without water.’ Both Angus and Hereford seem to be popular varieties among the farmers themselves for a steak or roasting joint, whether cooking it at home or eating out in a restaurant. In Europe the tastes are a little different, with leaner meat generally preferred; continental breeds, such as Charolais and Simmental reflect this.

Careful cooking

With a deep freezer full of quality beef at his disposal, it seemed only fitting to ask Ryall for his advice on how to cook steak. ‘Don't waste your time cooking Angus beef any less than medium,’ he said. ‘There’s no point cooking it rare because you're not cooking it enough to break down the fat, which is what releases the flavours in the meat.’ Yes, as controversial as this might seem to those of us who view ordering anything over medium-rare as the height of culinary gaucheness, this seemed to be the consensus among the beef producers. The farmer also has some pretty stringent views on how to serve the finished dish: ‘Never use a sauce as a camouflage - give the option of the sauce on the side, but never put the sauce over meat. The meat should be presented on its own.’ You’ve heard the man - when you next cook steak stick to simple seasoning and have your sauce dishes at the ready. With the right care put in at every stage, from rearing the cow to cooking the beef, the final flavour of the steak will speak for itself.

As a lover of beef but a shameful, self-confessed townie, a lot of things about my visit to Ben Ryall's farm surprised me. Firstly it was the behaviour of the cows themselves. Docile, curious creatures, they would come forward and inspect us before trotting off once we were deemed unworthy of their interest - clearly they weren't threatened by strange visitors tromping through their field. Learning more about the slaughter conditions, too, was reassuring, with Ryall adamant that the cow's welfare was paramount throughout the process. Most of all, though, was that I came away from the farm a friend of fat. Not to say I was ever its enemy - not to look at me, anyway - but speaking to Ryall made it clear to how great an extent fat is the key to flavour. To perfectly cook the steak's fat is to cook the perfect steak, and if that means leaving it in the pan a little longer then I'll gladly do so - the extra time can be well invested in septuple-cooking my chips.

Get in touch

A farmer’s guide to the perfect steak (from start to finish)


Please enter text

The message must have at least characters

The message must be less than characters

Unfortunately, a problem occured and we are not able to send your comment. Please try again later.

Technical details: