President Trump is not a man who seems to care too much about great cuisine. An avid consumer of fast food, he famously prefers his steak so well done that, his former longtime butler at the “Southern White House” says, “it would rock on the plate.” It was nevertheless shocking to learn this weekend that Trump ordered a $54 dry-aged strip steak well done, with ketchup. At every step, this is tragic.
Trump’s defenders might have you believe that ordering rare or medium-rare steak is an attempt to be trendy; it is not. Of course there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to cooking, or eating, and everyone has different tastes and preferences. There are also lots of cuts of beef that benefit from long cooking times. That’s fine, but the fact is that ordering expensive steak, cuts like rib eye, strip, or porterhouse, medium-well (when it registers roughly 155 degrees in the center) or well done, is a simple waste of money — an act that undoes the very characteristics for which you’re paying top dollar.
“If you have your steak too well done, what are you left with?” asks our resident restaurant critic, Adam Platt. “Where is the alchemy of the tenderness and the crunch and the salt and the sear and the umami?” Instead, overcooking steak means, “you’re just left with a hunk of beef which is burnt and which you put flavorings on. What’s the point of it? There ain’t no point.”
Aaron Foster of Brooklyn butcher and market Foster Sundry explains the science behind why overcooked steak tastes worse: “When you take a lean and tender cut past 130 degrees or so, the muscle tenses up and squeezes out moisture — read: flavor — like wringing out a sponge,” he says. “A steak cooked this way is basically one of those shitty bodega limes that you can squeeze and squeeze but no juice comes out.” He adds, “Don’t do that to your steak. Only schmucks and rubes eat steak well done. POTUS included.”
Broadly speaking, medium-rare — when steak is deeply seared on the outside and registers about 135 degrees in the center, which will stay rosy — achieves a kind of perfect sweet spot between eating meat like a caveman and a modern gourmet. As White Gold Butchers meat maven Erika Nakamura explains, cooking a steak to medium-rare gives the beef enough time for the exterior to caramelize (deepening the flavor) without drying out the meat inside. Basically, you get the best of both worlds.
At high-end restaurants, like the BLT Prime where Trump ate, much of the meat is also dry-aged, which is to say it’s left out for some degree of time to help meat tenderize before being cooked. If anything, dry-aged steaks require less cooking time, not more, since some of the breakdown has already occurred in aging.
Trump, of course, likely realizes that his steak is lacking in moisture, and so — at least according to the account of a server at BLT — “always” orders it with ketchup. The point of a sauce is to amplify the best qualities of the food to which it is being applied. Bordelaise sauce enriches a great steak’s deep beefiness. Bearnaise, on the other hand, amplifies a steak’s wonderful fattiness. Ketchup, which is great on things like fries, is too assertive for steak — it masks the flavor. There’s a reason McDonald’s uses it on cheap, low-quality burgers. But with steak, the value proposition makes no sense: Why spend $54 on a piece of meat, only to make it taste like something that costs far less?
“There is no sense in smothering a perfectly good piece of meat with tomato-flavored high-fructose corn syrup,” Nakamura says. “If you want to eat your meat with ketchup that badly, make a goddamn meatloaf.”