As long as people have populated the land we now call Montana, they’ve hunted and eventually domesticated animals to grow this precious protein.
And while it’s not necessary anymore for Flathead Valley residents and visitors to procure their own meat through hunting, many of the basic traditions surrounding a good steak remind us that no matter how busy the world gets, sometimes all you need is a good cut of beef and a fire.
To help explain how best to prepare a steak, and which steak to choose, we called upon several meat masters in the valley and asked what they reach for when they’re feeling a hankering.
The responses from Sonny Johnson, lead meat cutter at Perfect Cuts in Columbia Falls, Aaron Felts, manager at M&S Meats in Rollins, and Jeremy Plummer, co-owner of Lower Valley Processing in Kalispell, are as illuminating as they are enticing; may they guide your journey to the perfect steak.
When you’re looking to cook up something delicious, what cut of meat do you reach for?
Jeremy Plummer, Lower Valley Processing: “I like a pasture-raised, grain-finished, local, dry-aged rib steak. It’s got to have choice-quality marbling, which means it’s a little fattier of a cut, but fat and bone are flavor. We dry-age our beef for 14 days in 38 to 40 degrees. I’m a hunter so I end up eating a lot of elk, so when I want a treat, I reach for beef.”
Pointing to an uncut steak in a side of beef he’d just sliced open with a saw and a knife the size of his forearm, Plummer noted the flecks of white fat in the redder muscle.
“That steak, 13 days from now, is mine.”
Aaron Felts, M&S Meats: “I’m biased toward rib-eyes, myself. Flavor-wise, the marbling in a rib-eye is the best. It’s choice quality, middle of the road where fat is concerned, and it’s definitely worth the extra couple of bucks. This is what I’ll be making for Valentine’s Day with my wife.”
Sonny Johnson, Perfect Cuts: “For me, I pick our flatiron steak. It’s our biggest seller, in front of the rib eye, and it’s a very tender piece of meat, very laborious to cut. It’s got a very robust flavor, and the distinct part of this steak is the fat interlaced throughout, without fat on the outside. Our needle-press machine perforates it, and then we trim it again – it’s already a tender steak but this puts it over the top as far as being able to cut it. It’s a very forgiving piece of meat. You owe it to yourself to try it at least once.”
OK, you’ve picked out the cut, so how do you prepare it?
Plummer: “Can’t beat the old barbecue low-and-slow, cooking it to medium rare. I like to season it up with Alpine Touch (a seasoning sold at Lower Valley, made in Choteau). When I make it, I don’t use gas or charcoal, I cook it on a grate over a wood fire in a fire pit I have near my house.”
Felts: “I have a Traeger Grill, I like a little bit of smoke flavor. I cook the rib eye to medium, pull it off the grill at 135 to 140 degrees inside the steak, and let it sit for five minutes. That lets all the fat that has melted and centered in the steak leach back out throughout the whole thing. Then I put a quarter-inch-thick pat of butter on top of it, and a little seasoning salt, but not a lot. I like the taste of meat, and that little bit of smoke flavor is just another step to goodness.”
Johnson: “Flatiron steak is best on the barbecue, and I prefer charcoal or gas because you can sear the steak. You want a 400 to 500-degree grill, five minutes on one side, five minutes on the other, and then let it rest for five minutes. I like to put our house rub on it, it’s made of 27 herbs and spices and very low in sodium.”
You’re all very busy, especially during grilling’s high time of summer, so what’s the best way to go about getting these steaks?
Plummer: “If folks want to try out the rib eye, they can call. I am contracted with local producers, they raise the beef to my specs and we buy it from them live and then age it. Mainly I sell those particular steaks with a half or quarter of beef. I don’t have a bunch of steaks in my case; there are a lot of small producers in this valley with beef; you buy the beef and pay us to cut it up. Or just call me, I can cut out that guess work.”
Felts: “Our choice steaks go pretty fast in the summer, starting in about May, because we’re connected to a campground. Everything we do is custom cut, so if a customer wants a 2-inch rib eye, I’ll cut a 2-inch rib eye.”
Johnson: “We cut them for about four hours a day in the morning in the summertime so we have enough to get through the afternoon. We usually run out on a daily basis. If people want to call ahead and order a day or two in advance, we always fill our orders first. And let us know how you want it – we can freeze it solid and have it wrapped up for travel or have it ready and fresh for that night.”
For more information on Lower Valley Processing, visit www.lowervalleyprocessing.com or call 406-752-2846. For more information on M&S Meats, visit www.msmeats.com or call 406-844-3414. For more information on Perfect Cuts, call 406-892-3718.