Obviously, we love a great steak as much as anyone.
And there is nothing we dislike more than when a simple mistake ruins a fantastic, tender steak.
So as a bit of public service, we want to make sure that you are aware of one of the most common errors that can transform a melt-in-your-mouth steak into something akin to chewing a rubber boot.
So once you cook your steak to your preferred level of doneness — although we don’t know why anyone would eat a steak cooked anything but medium-rare — you should first let the steak rest for it to maintain a perfect tenderness and its juices.
And now comes the part that is easy to screw up: Cutting the steak.
You should always cut a steak against the grain, which means against the direction that the muscle fibers run.
This is true of all cuts of meats, but it is most vital in some of the unique cuts that we include in our ButcherBox shipments like flank steak and Tri Tip. These and cuts like skirt steak and hangar steak have more pronounced muscle fibers (the grain of the meat) because they come from parts of the cattle where the muscles work harder.
Our in-house ButcherBox chef Yankel Polak said that to dig into the reasons for this more, it’s important to consider what beef is. “It is muscle, and muscle consists of fiber and connective tissue,” said Yankel. “Depending on where the cut is harvested, the muscle may be tougher with more connective tissue or tender with very little. Cuts from the loin and rib — such as New York strip, filet mignon, or ribeye steaks — are quite tender because those are less used muscle groups. Cuts from the chuck, round, and flank tend to be tougher with more tissue due to their high usage.”
The more the muscle is used according to Yankel, the more apparent the grain. “On a tender steak, like the filet or strip, it really doesn’t matter how you cut it, it will pretty much be tender no matter what,” he said. “However, a steak with a distinct grain will be inedible unless cut against the direction the grain runs.”
If you do cut with the grain of the steak, you will often find the meat more gamey and tougher to chew. The reason? It is because the longer muscle fibers remain intact and haven’t been cut. Cutting against the grain breaks up the muscle fibers making the steak much more tender.
This is even more true with grass-fed beef. “Grass-fed will be significantly less forgiving to an improper cut,” said Yankel. “It’s leaner, to begin with, and the cows have lived more active lives meaning their muscles will be more developed than grain fed cows who spend a significant portion of their lives cooped up in a feed lot,” he added.
That’s why it is essential for you to cut against the grain and why most restaurants cut their flanks, hangars, and skirts before delivering them to your table.
Not only is cutting against the grain crucial, but the thickness of the slice is important as well. “Considering the muscles fibers run parallel to each other,” said chef Yankel, “cutting thick slices against the grain still leaves a significant amount of tough muscle to chew through.”
“Keep the slices thin,” he added, “as thin as possible.”
Lastly, consider the knife you use.
While most steak knives are serrated, the best knife for a steak is actually a flat blade, a chefs knife, or slicer. “At least double the length of the width of the meat,” is chef Yankel’s rule.
“This will allow you a smooth motion while slicing,” he said. “Don’t press down hard or struggle with the meat. Using a sharp knife, draw the blade smoothly across the surface. Allow the knife to do the work, not your strength.”
“A clean cut retains all the moisture that reabsorbed during the resting period,” Yankel said.
So, to sum up, always rest your steak for ten minutes or more, use a wicked sharp knife, and cut THIN against the grain.
Think this is nonsense? Well, Cook’s Illustrated did an interesting test that discovered that even steaks that many people consider to be “tougher” cuts were actually as tender as the traditionally better known and more widely considered “tender” cuts, if cut the correct way. You can watch a video of the experiment and its results here.
Our taste buds and science concur: Cut your steak against the grain and you will have a mouth-watering, tender steak every time.
Oh, and whatever you do, don’t cook it medium-well. But we’ll get into that another time.