Oh, the things a child brings home from school. My son, a third-grader, came home yesterday begging for "royal meat" on his birthday. He insisted that sirloin meant Sir Loin, that it had been knighted by a gastronomically whimsical king. That sent me scurrying through the Kelly files, looking under "M" for "medieval urban legends." Ah, there it was. Henry VIII was supposedly so impressed by the cut that he gave it a royal title. Other legends had James I and Charles II doing the dubbing. Not so outrageous, when you recall that Caligula made a senator of his horse.But A.S.E. Ackermann's Popular Fallacies Explained and Corrected had the last word. I learned that "sirloin" had appeared in the English language as far back as the 16th Century. But up until the 18th, it was generally spelled "surloin." According to Ackermann, this meant that the word hailed from "the middle-French ' surlonge ' (' sur ' meaning 'over' and ' longe ' meaning 'loin')."
Now I was curious; now I had a beef with the butcher. I'd seen "sirloin" on several cuts at the grocery store, and I couldn't have given you a stronger common characteristic than "they all came from a cow." So I sought out master butcher John Haedrich, who has spent the past 36 years running the show at Tip Top Meats European Deli and Eatery in Carlsbad. Haedrich invited me up to the shop to watch him butcher a cow's hindquarter. Haedrich told me he was a big fan of top sirloin. "By taste, in my opinion, it is better than most. You can make it into chateaubriand or stroganoff, but it's best when barbecued. I cut my top sirloin steaks one and a quarter inches thick. For medium-rare, you cook them for a total of 15 minutes on the grill."
After I arrived, Haedrich and I were joined by Bill Guffey, who said he was the left hand to Haedrich's right. Guffey hoisted a hindquarter onto a hook, noting that few markets today hang their own meat. "We leave these hanging for two weeks before we put a knife to it. That's called dry-aging." Explained Haedrich, "That dries out the moisture in the meat," which intensifies the flavor. "Also, the enzymes in the meat help to break it down, to make it more tender and tasty."
"Major supermarkets talk about wet-aging," continued Guffey. "That's when meat comes packed in a bag with its juices. It doesn't work; they cut the meat on Monday and ship it to the store on Wednesday. It's not really aged. They do it because it's faster and cheaper. They don't want to dry-age, because on the first day of hanging, you lose 2 percent of the weight, and a half-percent each day after that. You can lose up to 12 percent of the total weight of the hindquarter, so when the meat is sold, you don't make as much money."
The two started work on the hindquarter while discussing the general meat market. "They get it in boxes, already cut up. They don't know where each cut comes from." Added Haedrich, "Nobody does it like this any more. They hack it up, but it needs to be seamed out, muscle by muscle." Guffey pulled back the fat from the inside of the leg with a hook and removed a triangle of muscle. "This connects the sirloin tip and the top sirloin. It's called the bottom sirloin butt -- or tri-tip [ $5.79 a pound]. The sirloin tip can be turned into cube steaks [ $5.49 a pound] or roasts." Sometimes it is cut into sirloin steaks, but he warned that they should not be confused with steaks cut from top sirloin. As he spoke, he took a hacksaw to the pelvic bone; by the time he was finished, he had removed the entire loin from the hindquarter. Then he cut the top sirloin away from the loin below.
"The loin will be cut into Porterhouse steaks and T-bone steaks as the filet" -- the tenderloin -- "tapers down," said Haedrich. "If we bone out the filet, it can be turned into filet steaks and New York steaks. Sometimes, we bone out the whole tenderloin." Then he moved on to the sirloin. "What we do with the sirloin that nobody else does is remove the top sirloin cap [ $5.79 a pound]. It's a triangular piece of meat that sits on top of the top sirloin. This lets us get at the heart of the top sirloin, the prime part. The cap makes an excellent roast; sometimes, we cut it into stroganoff [ $5.49 a pound]."
Haedrich's first cut into the top sirloin was to remove an end piece laden with gristle -- destined to be turned into ground beef. Then he began slicing the one-and-a-quarter-inch steaks ( $8.99 a pound), until he arrived at the opposite end -- the baseball steak ( $8.99 a pound). "This is the best-quality top sirloin steak," he marveled. "It is so tender. It comes at the end of the top sirloin, where it's connected to the tenderloin."
I was beginning to wish I lived in Carlsbad -- was this why the housing market was so outrageous in North County? I asked for tips on buying steaks at other markets. "Go to a quality market that specializes in beef," answered Guffey. "And look for marbling in the meat -- the veins of fat. They're a flavor enhancer. If it hasn't got marbling, it probably isn't Choice. The order of meat quality is Prime, Choice, Select, Cutter, Canner. Prime and Choice come from cows that are about 24 months old when slaughtered, and which have spent 90 to 120 days in a feedlot. The other grades are given to older animals. Most major supermarkets sell Select. Cutter meat is used in fast-food restaurants, and Canner is boned out, cooked, and canned."
"Prime is number one, Choice is number two, and everything else is less," concluded Haedrich, who sells only Prime and Choice at Tip Top Meats. "Remember, price is forgotten. Quality is remembered."