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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The Great Steak Takeaway

By Chef John Reed, CEC, CCA, ACE

When I want to go out and enjoy a great steak, my family is sometimes reluctant. They are spoiled living with a culinary professional – they know what they eat at home is equal to the fine dining experience.

In Chicago, we are spoiled by the number of high-quality steakhouses here; from gold standard favorites like Gibson’s to the latest hot spots such as David Burke’s Prime House. These types of restaurants have walk-in coolers full of thick-cut, prime, dry-aged steaks. Chefs cook them at high heat with minimal seasonings to create a veritable crust, and the steaks come to the table properly cooked, well presented and pricey.

My family says I cook a better steak. Certainly they are prejudiced on my behalf, but I want to take this opportunity to share my take on great steak.

HomePageMeatPicIt’s all About the Cut

It starts with the meat. For those of us who can’t afford prime beef all of the time, I actually prefer a good choice grade for the majority of steaks I cook.

The tenderloin and its various classical cuts such as the Filet, Mignon and Chateaubriand, though tender, need a lot more thought put into them to get a great flavor. Rubs and wraps with bacon, fine cream-based forcemeat and sausage meats go a long way in that category, but that is another lesson.

Then there are the macho steaks, which include “The Cowboy,” “The Original Delmonico” and any of the other beast-named bone-in rib steaks found on today’s menus. Leave the rib whole, and don’t cut steaks. Slow roast the meat and carve it on or off the bone. Chefs know the bone is there for a reason: it keeps the shape of the steak, prevents shrinkage and if cooked right, makes a hell of a tasty piece to chew on.

If you have the desire to break down a whole rib, pull off the spinalis muscle. That, my friends, is the piece that has the best flavor of the whole muscle structure, and is also known as the rib-eye cap. Some Beef Marketing Boards are selling this as a new type of “value-added” steak. I think it is also a very expensive option unless you can trim down whole ribs. Try braising the rib-eye cap or quickly grilling it and slicing it thin. 

What’s left?

Best Pick

There is plenty of cow left, and many other cuts and steaks produced both in the retail and food service markets. These types of steaks all need some form of help whether jaccarding, marinating or under cooking to some degree. Regardless of what some catering companies and/or restaurants may say, the mock-tender or the teres major muscle will never taste or eat like a tenderloin.

Strip Steaks2If you want a steak that is synonymous with what a true “steak” should be, it is always going to come down to the strip, and a true strip is either the Bone-in Kansas City Strip or the Boneless New York Strip.

Look for a steak that is at least 1″ thick; these will range in weight from about 12 oz., for the boneless, to about 16 oz., for the bone-in. You don’t have to eat the whole thing, and you can get two very nice-sized portions from one steak.

Look for some good marbling in the heart of the steak. Ask for about 1/4″ of trim on the top and about 3/4″ tail. Always let the steaks come to room temperature or near there about 30 minutes prior to cooking. 

Select the right ingredients – they are vital: salt, cracked black pepper (no containers here), oil (not olive oil) and whole butter (yes, you read that right, whole butter). If you want to be more adventurous, fresh thyme springs, sliced shallots and cloves of garlic are excellent additions. There are no magic rubs, flavored oils or injections needed, and don’t even think about pulling out the circulating cooker or vacuum machine.

Perfect the Cooked Steak

Season the steak liberally with salt and pepper. Heat a heavy carbon steel or cast iron pan without any oil. Rub the steak with the oil to lightly coat. Place in the pan only when the pan is hot. Now leave it alone, turning down the heat ever so slightly. When you see little dots of blood coming through, turn it over and then leave it alone again. By now there should be some smoke in the kitchen. Have an adult beverage and relax. Let the steak get some color on the second side, and then the fun starts.

cast iron panAdd a good amount of whole butter and the aromatics if you are using them. Grab a spoon, and when the butter is bubbling and melted, baste the steak with the hot butter. Keep basting it to give the steak some more color. Turn the meat over again and cook that side for a few more minutes while basting continuously. If you are comfortable with doing so, press to touch for doneness (123°F). The shallots, thyme, and garlic should have perfumed the room and the steak. Pull the meat from the pan and place it on a rack.

Pour the aromatics over the steak on the rack, and walk away for a while. Entertain some friends set the table or take a few pictures to post on Facebook. Do anything you have to in order to resist the urge to cut into that thing. This is, to me, the secret of great steak: rest and patience. You need to be engaged in the cooking of the item. Don’t just throw it in a pan and let it cook by itself. You need to be part of the process.

After 10 minutes, you are finally ready! Trim the cap and tail off of the steak. (I am extremely cost conscious. If it was prime cut, would you throw that away? No! You might just eat it out of guilt.) Now, either serve the steak whole or slice it. It will be tender and perfectly cooked. Sprinkle a little sea salt over it and enjoy!

Wrap Up

That was a lot of words for the cooking of one steak, but it serves to describe what makes the difference in your cooking and approach to food.

Food doesn’t have to be “cooked at the speed of light”. Many restaurants are slowing things down now and taking the time to cook food properly – this makes me very happy. I urge other professionals to encourage young cooks to do the same. On a slow night, teach them how to appreciate the skills and patience it takes to make something perfect.

Slow it down at work, and at home – spoil your family and your customers.

Chef Reed is the owner of Customized Culinary Solutions and the current president of the American Culinary Federation (ACF) Windy City Professional Culinarians in Chicago. “The Great Steak Takeaway”  was adapted from Chef Reed’s newsletter, The Rubber Band Doorknob.

From the desk of  John Cecala   @BuedelFineMeats   Fan Page   Slideshare


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