The Great Sirloin Taste-Off

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Lately, Whole Foods has been trying (and pretty much failing) to prove that it is a budget-friendly place to shop. But the majority of the items at Whole Foods can be found cheaper elsewhere—but I still shop there occasionally, mostly for meat and fish. And not just because the goods are from more humane or environmentally-friendly sources (although that's part of it). I perceive Whole Foods' (and to some extent Fairway's) meat and fish as higher quality and tastier. When I trek off to get my meat from Whole Foods, am I just getting sucked in by their slick marketing?

It made me wonder how much the setting in which we buy something influences how we think it tastes, later. Maybe the meat in my grubby local Associated is just as good as that at Whole Foods or Fairway, but I'm just not perceiving it that way. So I set up a blind taste test with four sirloin steaks from different grocery stores. I chose sirloin because it's common, and because the meat is relatively lean, it doesn't have a lot of delicious fat to hide behind, making it easier to tell which ones are really tasty.

Our criteria:
- Clean, robust, beefy taste
- Juicy, appetizing texture, not gristly
- Visual appeal

The contestants:
Associated (5th Avenue, Brooklyn), $6.99 pound
C-Town( 9th Street, Brooklyn), $4.99 pound
Fairway (Red Hook), $8.99 pound
Whole Foods (Union Square) $9.99 pound

I seasoned each one of them with 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and roasted them all in the same oven, on the same sheet pans, at 450 degrees. The Associated steak was cut super-thin, so I took that one out after 6 minutes. The others roasted for 11 minutes, until medium-rare. They all rested for 5 minutes.

A team of tasters came over, and with bottles of wine and Obama on the television, we started eating. Each steak was labeled with a letter A-D, so that we could keep them straight without knowing where they were from.

The results, winner first:

1. Whole Foods
Yes, this was the runaway winner, unanimously. I was actually hoping it would be one of the underdogs, but the WF sirloin was absolutely, far and away the best, cut nicely for the most visual appeal, with a very clean, strong beefy flavor. It was juicy, had a texture that fell nicely between tender and pleasantly chewy, and no gristle. "This is so good it doesn't need anything but salt and pepper," said one taster. "Even the fat tastes good," said another. No contest.

2. Fairway
The second and third place winners were pretty close, but Fairway came out slightly ahead. It was definitely the chewiest and leanest of the lot, but the robust taste made up for that—savory, salty (even though it had the same amount of added salt as the others) with a very clean, mineral flavor.

3. C-Town: Best Value
This steak was only $4.99 a pound, and it gave Fairway's higher-priced version a run for its money. It was very juicy, had an appetizing aroma, and was "chewy and sweet." It tasted like a good, everyday piece of meat. One taster said that it reminded him of the steaks he grew up on.

4. Associated
Surprisingly, this was not the cheapest of the bunch, although the particular supermarket is the most down-market of the group. It was definitely not worth $6.99 a pound. The ever-cheerful tasters tried to make the best of it: "It might make a good sandwich," said one. "Or a Chinese stir fry," suggested another. But after chewing for a while, we decided it tasted overwhelmingly livery, "a little dirty, "with a "smudgey aftertaste." "Could this be from some animal other than cow?" one taster asked. Mmmmm.

So there you have it. If sirloin is a good bellwether, Whole Paycheck's meat really might be worth the price. But C-Town wins on value.


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