Why is it so hard to cut a thick steak these days?

With the bumper corn crop this year and record high cattle prices, feedlot operators are bulking up cattle to make more money. Great for them – not so much for restaurants.

buedel website steakWhile menu trends have “beefed up” in recent years, ‘bulking up’ makes it tough for restaurants that want nice thick steaks on plates while adhering to portion control sizes.

It’s important to know that restaurants don’t always have unilateral control over how thick steaks can be when cutting to a specific portion weight. This leaves many chefs wondering, Why can’t I get thicker cuts of my favorite rib eyes or strips in the portion sizes I want?

The Dilemma

Heavier cattle, also means larger muscles. Rib Eyes, for example, are commonly running over 16 pounds in size when in years past the average was 12 to 13 pounds. At the same time restaurants like to plate nice thick steaks, usually 1.5″ or thicker while keeping to the portion control weight that best controls their food costs.

The increased average size of cattle makes it harder and harder for restaurants to get the portion size they want in conjunction with the thickness they want. The dilemma leaves many to choose between serving thicker steaks that are higher in portion weight, or properly portion weighted steaks that end up very thin and wide making for a less than desirable plate presentation.

Why Size Matters

Let’s say your goal is to serve a 1.5” thick 14 oz portion cut steak. The size of the loin that you start with will largely determine if both your goals can be met.

14oz CutLineImagine you have two whole rib eye loins. One loin is smaller; one loin is larger. As you can see from the picture above, your cut line will be in a different place depending on the size of the loin to achieve a 14 oz portion. Consequently, the larger loin will yield a much thinner 14 oz steak, and the smaller loin will yield a much thicker 14 oz steak.

Price Buyers Beware

The obvious solution would be then to purchase smaller size loins, right? Technically yes, but smaller size loins, or “downs” as we call them in the meat industry, are getting harder to come by and thus, usually carry a higher price.

Price shoppers who buy the lowest cost boxed beef to cut their own steaks will likely be getting random sized loins. Lowest priced commodity boxed beef often comes with higher loin weights from the larger loins of heavier cattle as opposed to lighter loins harvested in years past.

The problem steakhouses then have in offering smaller (lower ounce) sized steaks like Rib Eyes and NY Strips, is that smaller sizes would look like pancakes on the plate because the muscles are so large. People are accustomed to large, thick and juicy steaks –thin cuts are just less impressive on the plate. Steakhouses would be embarrassed to serve steaks in this fashion.

Alternative Solutions

Hand Selecting

If you’re cutting your own steaks and want thicker steaks without giving away portion control, request that your meat supplier hand select lighter loins or pick lighter master case weights to fill your boxed beef orders.

RibEyeWhile hand selecting is sometimes impossible with large broad line distributors, specialized meat purveyors like Buedel Fine Meats can usually accommodate such requests. This helps you deal with the problem before your meat comes in the door.

You can also achieve a nice balance between price, steak thickness and lighter portion weights by being a bit creative with your trim specification and merchandising on your menu. Try using the Boston Cut.

Boston Cuts

You can take a large loin size, say 15+ lbs, and cut it in half lengthwise making two 7.5 lb pieces. From each half then you can cut a thick small portion weight steak.

Boston CutWe call them “Boston Cuts” and they make a beautiful plate presentation for smaller ounce steaks. Boston Cut steaks are becoming more popular for a la carte menus and banquets.

These cuts are trending now for several reasons. Diet conscious people who prefer eating in moderation can still enjoy a smaller portion size with the luxury of a hearty looking delicious steak. Chefs can enjoy consistent sizes and cooking times while having a more attractive way to serve smaller portion sized steaks.

Boston Cuts of Rib Eye and Sirloin Strip are also great alternatives to higher priced tenderloin filets for banquet menus and split plates.

ABF Natural Beef

Another way to battle record high beef prices is to retreat from commodity cattle weights – specifically those getting heavier due to the increased use of added growth hormones, antibiotics and beta-agonists in the feed. Consider purchasing beef that was raised without added growth hormones or antibiotics.

True All Natural Beef such as, Niman Ranch and Creekstone Farms Premium Angus, which come from cattle raised without added growth hormones or administered antibiotics and tend to be smaller in size.

Don’t be fooled by the USDA’s generic definition of “natural” [a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed] either. Pretty much all conventional beef fit this description today. Rather, look for brands that publish their handling protocols which specifically state never-ever policies.

The nation’s low cattle supply will portend the current state of all time high beef prices a few more years before things return to normal. Or, perhaps what is happening today may indeed be the new normal. The good news is, you do have options to get the thicker steaks you want.

From the desk of John Cecala || Website  LinkedIn  @BuedelFineMeats  Facebook

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