Niagara may be wine country, it grows some of the most delicious fruit in the province and, ok it may make some of the best ice cream I’ve licked, but what many don’t realize is that Niagara is also famous for a fabulous steak.

I‘m not just talking about the Keg, although I have to admit they make a pretty mean steak, but I’m talking about the wide range of steak houses that dot the peninsula with many of them in Niagara Falls. Now I know what you’re thinking – “Niagara Falls is for tourists.” But the truth is, if that’s where some of the great steakhouses are, don’t leave them all for the tourists! Isn’t it time we all ventured out to taste the steaks at the Skylon Tower, Weinkeller, Remington’s, Sandstone or Canyon Creek?

Outside Niagara Falls, great steaks can be had at the Blue Mermaid, Wildfire Grill (both St Catharines), Liv (Niagara-on-the-Lake) or Taris on the Water (Welland). Heck, the sizzling excitement knows no boundaries as just on the other side of the border, the Western Door Steakhouse (Niagara Falls, NY) is a prime destination.

So what makes a great steak? Well that’s a matter of opinion, but because all of the above can make a steak infinitely more delicious than anything I can grill at home, I thought it was high time I asked for some professional secrets.

I met butcher at heart, Executive Chef of the Skylon Tower, Bret Cournoyea, cutting 400 steaks in his kitchen high in the sky. I asked him what was the secret to his amazing steaks and to my dismay he does something neither you nor I can do at home. He buys entire loins of beef only from suppliers he’s worked with for decades. He buys an annual supply to ensure consistency and only before he’s satisfied with what the animals are fed and how they’re treated. He visits abattoirs to inspect conditions and aging practices and when he’s completely satisfied, he buys only what he believes will be the most tender, juicy whole loins and then cuts his own steaks.

A skilled chef, Cournoyea can easily handle the seasoning, grilling and serving stage so he focuses on accessing the best quality meat North America can offer. A far cry from reading a package of meat from the grocery store shelf! How can I compete?

Try the Skylon’s Certified Angus New York Sirloin Steak. It’s well marbled, aged to perfection with a bold meaty flavour, peppery crust, almost fork-tender resistance and arrives at your table glistening in it’s own juices – whoa!

At The Blue Mermaid in St Catharines, House Chef Nick Kosilos has been making his customers steaks for over 30 years. “You gotta know what you’re doing if you last this long,” he laughs. Kosilos agrees with Cournoyea when he says, “it all starts with quality”.

Kosilos also cuts his own steaks and the thickness is reflected on the menu, if you know how to read it. The 8-ounce steak is three-fingers thick, the 10-ounce steak a little thicker, the 16-ounce steak a whopping three-fingers thick and the Chateaubriand (tenderloin) is a whopping 20 ounces! Anything larger than that is the entire loin! No, that’s not on the menu, but it is a lot of steak. Last time I saw a steak this large I was in Italy. I watched as it was delivered to the party of eight next to me and I wondered who could eat so much meat in one sitting. That was, until they cut it into pieces and shared, how civilized!

Because Kosilos cuts his steaks himself, “the customer can have it anyway he wants.” Thickness in a really good quality steak makes a difference. I like mine two-fingers thick and rare. I find this is the perfect combination, of thickness and cooking time for the best meaty experience. Because flavour in a good steak is everything at the Blue Mermaid you can have yours neat or with your choice of traditional sauces such as Peppercorn, Béarnaise, Bordelaise or Hollandaise or Fillet Dianne (flambéed in brandy). “We like to do things right here and no, we don’t serve garlic bread!” says a chef who refuses to walk down the road of common food, “we’re not fast food, we’re the best quality prepared very well.”

So after meeting with two chefs and swooning over two of the most amazing steaks I’ve had in a long time, I was still no closer to uncovering any cooking secrets I could use at home.

All the chefs I talked to agree that their efforts are more rewarding if they spend time sourcing a great quality product. What home cooks can do is to concentrate on learning the different levels of doneness.

First, start with a steak that is two-fingers thick, or 1½ inches. Lay the steak on a clean work surface and using your fingertips, get a feel of it. Uncooked, the meat will feel spongy and soft. The fat around the steak will be firmer. As the meat cooks, it becomes firmer and increasingly solid through the middle. The big question is, where in the journey from spongy and soft to firm is the perfect moment to remove your steak.

Some meat lovers swear by the “finger test” as a reference for checking doneness. There are a couple of ways to do it, from touching your arm or your face, but most popular is the hand test. Here’s where it pays to know what raw meat feels like. Pinch the flesh of your hand below your thumb, while your hand is relaxed. To know what medium-rare meat feels like, touch your middle finger lightly to your thumb and pinch the same flesh. To know what medium-cooked meat feels like, touch your ring finger to your thumb lightly. To know what well-done meat feels like, touch your pinkie and thumb together.

It takes some practice to master this touch-and-feel technique and it doesn’t account for the varying textures of different cuts of beef. So Executive Chef, Shawn Lane at The Wildfire Grill in St. Catharines says, “a good rule to live by is, the thicker the meat, the lower the heat.” Then he advises strongly to invest in a good meat thermometer. Not just for roasts, you can test the internal temperature of a steak or hamburger and serve your next steak with perfection – guaranteed!

So how do you like your steak? Medium rare? Then the internal temperature should be 145F (63C). If you like it medium, then cook it to an internal temperature of 160F (71C) and well done, 170F (77C). As your steak cooks, the colour will begin to change. Dark brown on the outside and varying shades of brown that turns to pink and even red on the inside.

The Wildfire Grill and Steakhouse cooks all their steaks over burning hot charcoal. Having a supreme sense of seasonings, Lane uses it to boost the flavours on all of the steaks he cooks. Lane agrees with starting with a great quality steak. Like the other chefs in this story, he locks his source in with ironclad contracts.

The Wildfire is a popular steakhouse in St Catharines. “During our busiest times we’ve been known to go through 900 steaks in a week. Valentine’s Day (last year) we grilled over 250 steaks of all kinds in one night all on the same grill!” Lane loves to pair his juicy steaks with seafood so if you’re in the mood for Surf & Turf, this is the place you’ll want to go.

Beef is 75% water and 25% muscle so it makes sense that cooking it properly will result in a juicy piece of meat. With all the complicating factors such as quality, cut of beef, size of meat and cooking method why would you want to attempt it at home? Check out some of Niagara’s finest steakhouses and you’ll never be disappointed.

By Lynn Ogryzlo