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Mail-Order Strip Steaks

By Cook's Illustrated Published March 2003

How we tested

To connoisseurs, steaks are the stars of the beef world, and strip steaks are the divas. Long and lean, with a heartier chew and a lot more flavor, strip steaks put their more popular brethren, filets mignons, to shame. Beef is a tricky business, however, and too often you can find your steak more dud than stud. To guarantee quality, more and more people are looking beyond the confines of their local supermarket butcher case and buying their steaks through mail-order sources. These outlets promise all-star beef with a price tag to match. But do the mail-order steaks really outshine the ones you can get around the corner?

We gathered seven widely available mail-order strip steaks and two from local supermarkets. Among the group was a Wagyu steak from Australia. Wagyu steak comes from cattle raised according to the specifications dictated in Kobe, Japan, for its Kobe beef. Considered the foie gras of beef, Kobe steak is extremely well-marbled, tender, and rich. Wagyu is the more generic name for the same type of beef, although it is not raised in Japan. Though few of us could afford the hefty price tag for Wagyu beef, we wanted to see if the beef was indeed worth the cost.

After pan-searing three dozen steaks (four of each type for perhaps the largest tasting turnout in America's Test Kitchen), we found that money can buy you happiness, if happiness for you is the best steak you ever ate.

"Wow," wrote one happy taster of our first-place steak. "This is unlike any strip that I've had." Others deemed the winner "tender like a filet" and "very rich and meaty." The overwhelming richness, however, which one taster likened to "foie gras-infused beef," was not everyone's cup of tea. A minority of tasters agreed with the one who wrote, "This doesn't taste like beef at all."

Three steaks shared the spot for second place, being praised for their “robust,” beefy flavor and “nice texture.” One of the country’s most popular mail-order steak purveyors took the last two spots in our tasting. Tasters detected "off flavors" and described the steaks as "grainy tasting” and “dry.”

The good news is that you don't have to spend a small fortune (or pay for shipping) to get a great steak. One of our store-bought offerings tied for second place and was a comparative bargain. For true steak greatness, however, we recommend splurging on our first-place steak… at least once.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*