So, you paid good money for that steak from your favorite grocer or meat shop because the boss is coming over for dinner tonight and you need to impress the boss with a great dinner. Or, you just want to have a nice steak for the family. Whatever the case may be, you want the steak to be delicious and tender.
There are many factors that help determine tenderness of meat. Let's start with the age of the animal. Typically the older the animal is, the less tender the meat will be. The younger the animal is the more tender the cut will be.
And, in addition to age of the animal, the location of the muscle also determines the tenderness. By location I mean where the muscle is on the animal and how much work that muscle does.
BEEF EXAMPLE: The chuck (front shoulder) has muscles that help support the animal and help move the animal as it walks. These muscles work quite a bit so they will not be as tender as let's say a tenderloin (filet mignon) that does very little work. The more these muscles work, the thicker the muscle fibers get. Just like you and me. The more we exercise and lift weights the bigger and tougher our muscle fibers get.
Take a look at the difference of the muscle fibers in the two cuts pictured below. The flank steak has the thick muscle fibers while the tenderloin (piece of meat on top) has very fine muscle fibers. So we know which steak will be the most tender. The one with the thinner fibers - the one that does less work.
So now we know that the age of the animal and muscle location are two factors that will affect tenderness prior to cooking.
WHAT CAN US CONSUMERS CONTROL:
The U.S.D.A. grades take age into consideration so as long as you purchase a USDA grade of Prime, Choice or Select you will be buying meat that came from a younger beef. Ask the butcher if you are not sure.
You know that the more work the muscle does the less tender it might be. So, know where the cut is located on the beef to help you determine it's tenderness.
As we discussed in a previous blog, cooking methods will affect tenderness also.
And now as we first stated, we have purchased our steak and we know that it is USDA Choice and we know where it is located on the beef because we purchased a Flank Steak. And we know that this muscle does a good amount of work helping to hold the belly and this flank steak has thick muscle fibers.
One other factor that helps controls tenderness that we can control is the way we cut the beef steak after cooking. This is especially true with this flank steak. As we saw in an earlier picture of the flank and the tenderloin the muscle fibers in each are quite different. The flank has muscle fibers that are thick while this tenderloin (filet) has muscle fibers that are very thin.
It makes sense that if you try to chew muscle fibers that thick, they will be less tender than the muscle fiber that is a thin fiber.
Don't do this at home, but imagine trying to bite a section of clothes line off with your teeth. How would that compare to you trying to bite a piece of sewing thread off. Yes, the thread would be a lot easier .
So these thicker muscle fibers need to be cut into smaller pieces that will make them easier to chew.
That is where the term, "cutting across the grain" comes into play. The grain is the direction that these muscle fibers are aligned. As you can see in the diagram below the muscle fibers will be more tender if they are shorter fibers.
So let's cut this flank steak "across the grain" to help make sure that it is tender. This will hold true for any piece of meat but we use the flank steak because it is very easy to all of us to see the larger muscle fibers.
Looking at the two pieces of flank steak on the left we see long muscle fibers. They were cut with the grain. Meaning the same direction of the muscle fibers. The two pieces on the right were cut across the grain (muscle fibers). By cutting this way we have shortened the fibers and thus they become more tender.
In summary, we know that age of the animal, muscle location, cooking and last but not least, the way we cut the beef (across the grain) all determine the tenderness of the meat we eat.
Hope this helps. Like us on facebook.com/meatmadesimple