What goes on the grill on the glorious Fourth? A glorious steak, if you're lucky.
Nothing's easier to find in a supermarket than steak, but there are steaks and then there are steaks ... and then there are still more steaks. If you go online, you'll be surprised how many Internet sites will overnight you a steak or two, and you can choose particular breeds of cattle (Angus, Hereford, White Park, Limousin, Piedmontese), raised in Montana, Nebraska, Iowa or California, and raised to be organic or nonorganic, cornfed or partly grass-fed, ultra-marbled or ultra-lean. There are places that will sell you a quarter, a half or even a whole steer.
Needless to say, you can also order over the phone. As for prices, they range from a bit above supermarket level to staggering.
We decided to try out a few online places, so we ordered porterhouse steaks from three of the fanciest steak suppliers in the country plus a well-known California feedlot and a meat company in central Montana. Porterhouse is the classic luxury steak, consisting of portions of both the strip (the New York steak) and the filet. Not every site sells porterhouse, though, and in one case we had to order separate strips and filets to get a sense of the meat. (We didn't happen to order from still another site that doesn't offer porterhouse, http://www.fairwaypacking.com, but it does have a great opening page showing a fierce-looking bull breathing jets of steam.)
* Harris Ranch runs a giant feedlot in Coalinga. If you drive Highway 5 to the Bay Area, you can see cattle lounging around on it clear to the horizon. Harris feeds on grain a minimum of 120 days and ages 21 to 25 days. It sells choice beef, the usual supermarket grade. Harris Ranch beef is available in quite a few markets around California.
* Livingston Meats is one of oldest businesses in Livingston, a town on the Yellowstone River in south-central Montana. It's a small operation that sells only choice grade Montana-raised beef, range-fed and finished on grain.
* M. Lobel & Sons, on the Upper East Side of New York, has been around since 1840. Stanley and Leon Lobel have published several excellent books on meat, the most recent being "Prime Time: The Lobel Brothers Guide to Great Grilled Meat" (Macmillan, 1999). Lobel buys prime Midwestern beef and offers porterhouse steaks in 22-, 36-and 48-ounce sizes. We ordered the 36-ouncer.
* Peter Luger Steak House, established in 1887 and widely considered the best steak restaurant in New York, has a resolutely old-fashioned attitude about meat. "Many meat companies claim to have only the leanest beef," says its brochure. "We find that this makes for the worst eating. In the Peter Luger world, fat is good." It also uses cornfed Midwestern beef and sells only dry-aged (36-to 38-ounce) prime porterhouse steaks and (25-ounce) sirloin strips. An order comes with two bottles of Luger's tomato-based steak sauce, which has a dash of horseradish, making it a bit like seafood cocktail sauce, and a package of milk chocolate coins.
* One of the two co-founders of Niman Ranch (no longer involved) was Orville Schell, author of a book opposing the use of hormones and antibiotics in raising animals and now dean of the graduate school of journalism at UC Berkeley. This Bay Area ranch (which also buys from other ranches around the country that follow its procedures) is the most politically correct of meat suppliers, donating to a list of eco-charities. It differs from most operations in slaughtering older animals (20 to 24 months, as against the more usual 12 to 14), so the prime meat is an unusually dark red. Niman also salts the carcasses after slaughter, which reduces the body weight 10% by drawing out liquid, and ages them as long as a month.
The taste comparison posed a couple of problems because the steaks weren't of equal thickness. The Livingston steak, cut half an inch thick, should be seared at a high temperature to brown the surface without overcooking the interior. The taller steaks, such as the Peter Luger (2 inches) and especially the Lobel (3 inches)--which the Times Test Kitchen staff nicknamed "Shaq"--should be cooked a little longer than usual (unless you like your steak not only rare but cold in the middle) and at a slightly lower temperature.
For the record, we grilled the Harris Ranch steaks 4 1/2 to 5 1/2 minutes on a side, the Livingstone 2 minutes. The Peter Luger took 10 to 12 minutes on a side, the Lobel a total of 30 minutes, turning it around on all sides. The Niman strip steaks cooked in 2 1/2 minutes to a side, the filets 12 to 15 minutes total, turning on both sides.
And here's the final roundup:
* Harris Ranch: Choice grade, not prime, so you had the usual steak flavor, a bit dry and chewy.
* Livingston Meats: A little more moist and flavorful, but it was so thin it needed careful cooking.
* Lobel: An excellent old-fashioned prime steak, juicy and flavorful, though it seemed not as marbled as the Luger steak. One problem: Its thickness made it a little hard to cook medium rare.
* Peter Luger Steak House: There was a subtle herbal flavor in this luscious steak, something almost like oregano. It was a very well-marbled piece of meat; every bite was juicy and the beef flavor spread and lingered in the mouth. The filet muscle was particularly buttery.
* Niman Ranch: The strip steak was well-marbled and flavorful, with a pleasing gentle chewiness. It was in the same league as the Lobel and Luger steaks. The filet was distinctive: marbled, though not as much as the Lobel or Peter Luger, with a velvety texture and a very beefy, almost bloody taste that practically shouted "steer." To several tasters, this was the best steak of the tasting; to others it was delicious but not exactly steak-like.