Just Say No to Airplane Beef: The Full Steak Report (with pics!)

In the comments to a recent post about food (in which I wax philosophical about chili coconut shrimp), Mike and kd5mdk engaged me in a lively (7 comments long!) discussion about steak on domestic airplanes.

My position is that steak on domestic planes is disgusting. It's overcooked, difficult to eat with the not-sharp-enough knife they give you, and is never a decent cut of meat. For all those reasons, the meat tastes crappy and results in an unpleasant eating experience.

Mike and kd5mdk argued that the steak is actually pretty decent given the context ("a 1980s era MD80"). They also claim that steak — because it is inherently delicious — pretty much always tastes better than the alternative.

On a recent flight from YYZ to LAX, a golden opportunity presented itself. When the flight attendant presented me with a menu, I found the following main course choices:

  1. Beef Fillet with Gorgonzola Mushroom Sauce: Grilled fillet of beef offered with a porcini mushroom and Gorgonzola cheese sauce, accompanied by wax beans and whipped potatoes and turnips.
  2. Stuffed Shells Pomodoro: Pasta shells filled with a four cheese blend, accompanied by a red roasted tomato sauce.

Of course I had to have the beef, if for no other reason then I wanted the opportunity to talk about it here on upgrd.com.

After greens topped with an "artichoke, wild mushroom and pea salad" and a chicken appetizer ("cajun-style roasted chicken breast offered on a fresh corn salad") this main course was served to me:

American Airlines Steak Dinner

Before I get to steak itself, I should address the accouterments. The wax beans were green and crisp and appeared fresh. And the potatoes were plentiful. That's about all I have to say nice.

The wax beans were steamed (presumably to keep them looking green and fresh-looking) so that the flavor was sucked out of them. They tasted like nothing. The potatoes were over-whipped. When you over-whip potatoes, the starches congeal and you're left with a pile of potatoes the consistency and flavor of paste. The menu listed turnips, and there may have been one or two little chunks, but I sure didn't notice them. Furthermore, the sauce — which was supposed to have porcini mushrooms and Gorgonzola cheese — was a sticky goo made from over-salted reduction of beef jus and a healthy dash of a thickening agent like arrowroot or corn starch. To top it off, the menu-recommended ONEHOPE Zinfandel didn't stand a chance. It tasted flat and boring.

As for the steak... A properly cooked piece of fillet should be seasoned, then cooked over high heat. This sort of treatment (on the grill or in a ripping-hot pan) allows the outside of the meat to sear, leaving a brown color that equals flavor. (Foodies call this the "Maillard reaction.") This also allows the inside to cook slowly, but not too much. A well-made steak is brown (even a little black), almost crispy on the outside, and soft and tender (and pink, if not red!) on the inside. The steak I got was well-seared, but that's the only nice thing I can say about it.

The plate was served piping hot right out of the oven/warmer, which was disastrous for the steak. First, steak (fillet no less!) should never be served well-done. Doing so results in a piece of meat that's gray and flavorless. It also leaves you with meat the texture of shoe leather. Second, steak needs to rest after it cooks and before it's served. This allows the juices to "chill out" so that they don't come gushing out as soon as you cut into the meat. It also allows all the flavors in the meat to sort of "come together."

This particular steak was pre-cooked at the catering facility. Then it was loaded onto the plane and reheated and immediately served to me. So I had a steak that was cooked twice and not allowed to rest. As a result, here's what I got (photographed after I cut off a chunk):

American Airlines First Class Steak

As you can see, the meat is gray in the middle. The picture doesn't do the texture justice, but trust me... it had the mouthfeel of a pair of Doc Martens. And see that watery puddle sitting on the plate? That used to be inside a juicy piece of meat.

I had to hack at the meat with the stupid knife they gave me. The resulting hunks of meat were misshapen and extremely chewy. One "bite" of steak took two or three minutes to chew.

I ate about three bites of this abomination and then signaled to the flight attendant that I was done. She asked if I'd like the pasta instead, but by then I'd lost my appetite.

Steak on a domestic airplane = fail.


Mike November 11, 2009 at 08:16 pm

lol, you missed a golden opportunity:

"She asked if I'd like the pasta instead, but by then I'd lost my appetite."

That is exactly when you should have tried the pasta. Once you had the mushy baby food like consistency of the "four cheese blend" you would have asked for your steak back! (Or at the least wished you had eaten on the ground)

Anyway, we can both agree that airplane food leaves a lot to be desired. If they can't get the steak right, what do you want them to serve? Are you happy with the lunch time chicken salad? Do you really like the pasta? Would you prefer a cold sandwich or something they can't overcook?

kd5mdk November 18, 2009 at 09:31 am

I'm looking for the picture and not seeing it.

I happen to be blessed with very low standards for my food, so it's entirely possible that your steak was the same as mine and I just don't care as much. Alternately, I could have gotten a better one those months ago. I haven't gotten a meal flight more than once since then.

Have you ever been to the 801 Chophouse in Kansas City? I was there 2 weeks ago and felt like it was about what I expected, but not spectacular. I don't know if this was because I got a bad strip or because I lack the development to appreciate it.

Mike November 18, 2009 at 12:12 pm

Sorry about the pictures, I made an update to the site yesterday that mistakenly removed the images. All fixed now.

kd5mdk November 18, 2009 at 03:57 pm

Ok, FWIW that's not the same steak I had on my flight.

Josh November 18, 2009 at 05:02 pm

@Mike - That's exactly right. I want them to serve dishes that can better stand up to the realities of food preparation at 35,000 ft. I want them to serve me food that can stand being pre-prepared at a catering facility, loaded onto the plane, reheated in the air, and presented to me on my tray table.

I think they keep trying to offer food that feels "luxurious", and someone once decided that steak is luxurious, so they serve steak. But in doing so they forget that steak at 35,000 ft is almost always crappy by definition (for the reasons I lay out above).

So yes... I'd prefer a well-made cold sandwich or a salad. I'd also be happy with hot food that can stand to be reheated. The pasta is a good example. I think it tastes pretty decent. Lasagna, beef stew (or even chili?), ceviche, braised meats... all of these could conceivably be delicious airplane food. These days restaurants are redefining "luxury" or "high-end" food to mean more than just steaks. ("High-end" mac and cheese has become a staple on restaurant menus these days.) Why can't airlines do the same?

Lots of restaurants so slow-cooked or reheatable items on their menus. If they have a small kitchen with limited space for cooked-to-order food (like steaks and chops), they balance their menu out with foods that can be prepared earlier in the day and kept hot. A lot of times, this is still high-end food. I recently had braised beef short ribs served over cheesy mashed potatoes. There's no reason a dish like this couldn't be served in the air. I'd also love to see airline caterers play with techniques like sous-vide, in which food is slow cooked under vacuum pressure.

@kd5mdk - I believe that your steak was different. I have a hard time believing it was much better.

HunterSFO December 1, 2009 at 10:43 pm

okay I know this is kind of an old post, but I disagree with it.

I just had "filet of beef wit morel sauce" on my JFK-SFO flight and it was NOT overcooked. It was absolutely medium-rare which is exactly how I would have ordered it. The sauce was also quite tasty. Now the quality of the beef was only so-so but it was properly prepared. I enjoyed it, and I think it was better than the vegetarian lasagne with alfredo sauce or the ricotta and pepper stuffed chicken breast would have been. Also note that my previous meal had been at the Waldorf-Astoria's restaurant in NYC (my friend is the chef) so that was a pretty tough act to follow. Of course Waldorf's beef wellington WAS about a million times better than UA's beef tenderloin filet... But the filet was perfectly decent.

I have also had delicious steak on a salad with UA and it was also cooked medium rare, tender, and well seasoned.

Perhaps the problem is AA rather than steak on an airline??? Also I am aware that UA doesn't rank particularly high compared to other foreign airlines in food quality...

Josh December 2, 2009 at 12:02 am

@HunterSFO You were flying UA? I'm assuming it was the three-class product, right? Were you in first or business? What was on the plate along with the steak? Was it reheated on the airplane? Was it juicy?

Maybe you're right that it's AA (or, rather, AA's caterers at LAX and JFK). Maybe it is possible to serve a decent steak on an airplane. I hope that's the case. I'm still kind of doubtful. I'd love pictures. Or maybe someone could preserve a hunk of properly-cooked airplane beef in a Ziploc baggy? Am I taking this too far?

Peter J. Evans-Rutherford III November 2, 2011 at 12:44 am

I saw the picture of the steak and thought "Awesome what they can do with a piece of meat in the air". Only obtuse arrogance and supreme ignorance would cause anyone to think you should feel a need for them to do better than that. Ninety percent of the world is lucky to eat a meal like that once a year, and you are complaining? I weep for you and especially for your children.

lance November 11, 2011 at 10:59 pm

I am lactose intolerance among many people in the world. I encountered less problem flying domestic because I could eat at airport restaurants. Even the food they sell in the plane nowadays contained cheese. I bought a sandwich ine time and I could peeled the cheese off. It was a hugh problem flying oversea. Most airlines serve diary products such as cheese or cream sauce with every meal; cheese omelets, cereal with milk for breakfast, sandwiches with cheese, pasta with cheese, chicken and beef with cheese, soup with cream sauce. I once starved for over 12 hours in an Air France flight because nothing they served was diary-free. I will have your taugh steak anytime. However, some Asian carrier would serve majority of meals with no diary products.

RDimperio April 8, 2014 at 12:55 pm

Want the steak to rest, than let it rest. You had the option. I'll take the beef or chicken entre over any pasta dish offered --- even in coach.