Onglet à l’échalote. A staple of French brasseries.

The unsung heroes of beef cuts

Go to any UK supermarket meat section, and you’ll find the same old cuts over and over again: Fillet, Sirloin, Rump and Ribeye. That’s for the steak section. And then – most of the time – you’ll find the stewing beef section. This is where you will find the Holy Grail, the Definitive one, the Meat-Lover’s paradise. There are a few cuts that you would never find in that category in France. Namely, these are Skirt, Flank and Hanger steaks. If you’ve ever travelled to France and eaten in Bistros and Brasseries, their French names would probably ring a bell. We call those respectively Onglet, Bavette and Piece du Boucher. Quite recently, a number of supermarkets in the UK started offering some of these cuts. Morrison’s has Bavette in their steak section – as a sous-vide -, and skirt at the counter. Waitrose also offers what they call Bavette at the counter, which for me is wrong, as they mention it’s a skirt, therefore it technically is an onglet. I’ve personally never seen any other supermarket offering these cuts, but I might be wrong… Obviously, the best alternative would be to use a proper local butcher, but they’re not that easy to find.

So, considering that they are cheap (your wallet will appreciate that), lean (your waistline will thank you), flavoursome (your tastebuds will enjoy that) and – in a way – quite environmentally-friendly, as you’re using more cuts of the animal (your eco-conscientious child or teenager will respect that), how does it come that the Brits don’t know more about these cuts? There are probably many reasons. The most obvious being that this type of meat has to be cooked medium-rare at the absolute max. If you like your steak well done (what we call badly-cooked in France), forget about it. You just can’t. It will be tough, chewy, anything but nice to eat. No. These cuts are for the REAL meat lovers! That’s probably why they are so popular in traditionally meat-loving countries such as Argentina and the USA. You’ll find a plethora of recipes on American websites and other blogs, but it invariably involves marinating the meat beforehand to tenderise it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s delicious, but it means big, bold flavours such as spice rubs and Chimichurri types of sauces. But traditionally, French don’t use marinades for steaks, only for stews, so we use other cooking techniques to avoid these cuts going tough. To achieve this, you don’t need to be an Oxbridge graduate, but there are a few very important rules to respect. And when you apply those – simple – rules, you will soon find out that these might well be the best steaks you’ve ever experienced.

So, what are those rules ? I’ll divide them into three categories…

Temperature: For most people, pan frying a steak means high temperature. With these cuts, it probably is the biggest mistake you can make. These cuts are very fibrous, which means they need to be cooked gently at mid temperature, and for longer. As for the ongoing debate about how long you should have your steaks at room temperature, it appears that the only part that changes temperature is the surface, so what’s the point? The only proven thing is that bacteria will develop rapidly on the outer part of your steak, so take it out of the fridge just before cooking.

Resting: The other important rule is to let the meat to rest after cooking. It actually applies to any steak, but especially when it comes to these cuts, and for quite a long time. We’re talking about 10 minutes here, but if covered with foil, it won’t go cold, and it also leaves you time to prepare any sauce you want to pair it with. My favourite way is to lay the steak(s) on a wire rack placed on top of a plate or oven dish, and loosely foil the lot. Trust me, it works wonders, and your steaks won’t be swimming in blood.

Drying: No, no… not drying AFTER cooking, I mean drying BEFORE! Simply pat your steak(s) dry with a kitchen towel before cooking. We want these babies to have a lovely crust on the outside. This is achieved by drying, not by how hot your pan is; another myth goes up in flames!

So now, you know a bit more about these beauties. And if you’re not sure about how to cook them, have a glimpse at my recipe for Bavette á L’échalote! An absolute marvel.

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