The most common causes of toughness in steak are buying the wrong cut or preparing the steak the wrong way. Cooking steak to the correct internal temperature will impact the meat’s toughness, too. I’ll cover 8 possible reasons why your steak is too chewy in this post and show you some solutions.
I own a butcher shop, and I want to make chewy steak a thing of the past. Steak is expensive. It’s important to get it right, or you’re wasting money. As a butcher, I know all about different cuts of beef. I’m also an amateur chef and outdoor cooking nut. I’ve cooked enough steaks to feed a small army.
I’m here to correct common errors home cooks tend to make when preparing steak. Keep reading to avoid these mistakes and make ultra-juicy and incredibly tender steaks.
Different parts of the steer have varying degrees of toughness. If you buy a steak from a part of the steer that is well-worked, it’ll be tougher (unless you cook it right).
These cuts contain more connective tissue than others making them tougher and chewier if they are not cooked properly. These cuts are best when cooked using low and slow methods like braising or smoking.
Some of the tougher cuts of beef are:
Tender cuts of beef can be cooked using a variety of cooking methods (more on those in a bit), though they’re usually cooked hot and fast. Tender cuts of beef include:
Now that you know some of the cuts of steak, it’s time for a crash course on the best ways to cook them.
Steaks that are cooked using improper cooking methods are one of the most common causes of tough meat. Don’t let that be your steak!
You can either cook a steak using fast cooking methods or slow methods. The cooking process will depend on the steak cut.
Fast cooking methods should only be used to cook well-marbled cuts of beef rich in intramuscular fat. Open grilling and pan-searing are fast cooking methods that work magic for cuts like ribeye, filet mignon, and tenderloin.
Slow cooking methods such as smoking and braising are recommended for the tougher cuts of meat. Go low and slow when preparing meat from the chuck primal, round, shank, and plate cuts of the steer. Smoking and braising take a long time, which is what tough cuts require in order to result in tender, delicious meat.
You can also tenderize the meat prior to cooking it (I’ll cover how soon).
Prime beef is a near-perfect steak. It is beautifully marbled and very tender and juicy. It can be hard to track down in supermarkets - most Prime beef is sent to restaurants - but your local butcher will likely have it. Some grocery stores carry Prime beef. It’s expensive but worth tracking down if you’ve got the dough.
Choice beef is the second-best grade and is easy to find in supermarkets. While it has less marbling than Prime, it is a fantastic option, and when prepared properly, it can be very tender and tasty.
Select beef contains less fat and marbling and is tougher than the other two. It is an affordable option. But you’ll never make a truly great steak if it’s got a Select grade.
Look at your steak before you buy it. The more thin strands of white within the meat, the better. Fresh beef is bright red. Fresh meat is better than 3-day-old stuff - dig around the cooler when you buy your beef.
Besides the three USDA grades of steak, there’s another type of beef known as Wagyu. True Wagyu is imported from Japan, and it’s difficult to find in the supermarket. It is ridiculously well-marbled and as rich as butter. Kobe beef comes from a breed of cow that is Japanese Wagyu.
American Wagyu comes from Japanese cattle that have been bred with American cattle. It isn’t as well marbled as Japanese, but it’s still incredibly rich and packed with flavor. Splurge on some sometime. It’s incredible.
Proper steak preparation and storage will impact tenderness. If you do not intend to cook the steak as soon as you have bought it then refrigerate it immediately.
Leaving fresh steaks sitting at room temperature for over two hours makes them lose moisture. It also exposes them to the “danger zone,” the temperature range between 40°F and 140°F, where bacteria reproduce like crazy. Keep your steak in the fridge until you’re ready to cook it.
Any steak that’s not getting cooked within 3 to 5 days should be stored in the freezer. It’ll taste best if used within 9 to 12 months, although that depends on how it’s stored. Cryovac and vacuum sealing are your best options.
Steaks that aren’t stored properly are more likely to be tough and chewy when cooked. Check the packed-on date to ensure you are buying a fresh steak.
Remove a frozen steak from the freezer a whole day before you plan on cooking it. If you cook your steak while it is frozen, you will have bad beef. The exterior will be burned, chewy, dry, and lifeless. You risk undercooking the interior. Don’t waste good steak by trying to cook it while it’s frozen.
Defrost steaks overnight in the fridge. You can also use the cold water method to defrost steaks that are sealed in plastic. Fill your sink with cold water. Add ice cubes every half hour to keep the water temperature below 40°F. This will keep the steak out of the danger zone.
Your steak will be thawed in 45 minutes to 2 hours if you use this method. Store the meat in the fridge until you’re ready to cook it.
While you can thaw steak in the microwave, I wouldn’t do it. Microwaves don’t heat evenly: some spots of the steak will cook while others remain frozen.
Overcooked steak is bound to be tough and chewy. Undercooked steak is soft and rubbery. Medium-rare steak is my ideal temp for most steaks. It’s perfect for all premium cuts like tenderloin and t-bone.
Here’s a table of steak doneness:
A mere 30°F will have a staggering impact on the tenderness of the meat. Taking a steak to 160°F will make it dry and chewy. I’d rather eat Elmer’s glue than well-done steak.
Certain cattle breeds produce tougher meat than others. The different genetic profiles of the animal mean that different cattle breeds are different in meat quality.
A good example of this is Japanese Wagyu beef which is produced from only four breeds of cattle, Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Polled, and Japanese Shorthorn.
These breeds carry the necessary genetic traits to create intensely marbled beef that yields incredibly tender beef.
Closer home, the Black Angus breed of cattle is the most widely bred for beef production. It’s one tasty breed of cow, known for its great marbling and tenderness.
The age at which the animal is slaughtered can be a factor in the toughness of the eventual steaks. Old cows have tough meat.
If you have been buying consistently tough beef, you could be buying from farmers who slaughter their animals late. Most farmers do not wait this long, but it can happen. Sometimes farmers are waiting for the animals to put on as much weight as possible.
Try changing your butcher shop or grocery store to see if your steaks improve.
Feeding practices impact the quality of beef.
There is vigorous debate about the effects of different feeding programs on the quality of beef. Some farmers feel that strictly grass-fed beef results in the best quality steaks. They argue it produces meat with exceptional tenderness and texture. I agree with them. I think grass-fed tastes better than regular beef. Give it a try sometime and see if you’re on team grass-fed!
There’s another camp that argues grain-fed beef is better than grass-fed beef. Grain-fed cows gain more fat, which makes them tender. Grill a grain-fed and a grass-fed steak side by side and see which one you like.
Most large-scale commercial beef producers start their cattle on a grass-only diet and finish them on a grain-based diet to benefit from both feeding regimens.
A tough steak does not necessarily mean you’re going to have a chewy dinner. There are a handful of tricks that work to tenderize meat. Let me show you how to prep your meat for a delicious, flavorful meal.
Tenderizing meat is a necessary and critical skill for a home chef. Use these techniques to transform cheaper butcher’s cuts into absolutely show-stopping meat.
Let’s take a look at some popular methods:
To dry brine, you’ll need Kosher salt or table salt. Use ½ teaspoon Kosher salt or ¼ teaspoon table salt per pound of meat. Let the brined meat sit uncovered in the fridge for 2 hours if it’s a smaller cut, and up to 24 hours for larger cuts like brisket. The salt adds flavor and helps the meat retain moisture. I dry brine almost every cut of meat before I cook them.
I don’t wet brine steak. Here’s how to do it if you want to. Prepare a basic marinade, mixing salt, black pepper, an acidic liquid such as apple cider vinegar, and enough water to submerge the steak. Toss in whatever flavorful herbs and seasonings you like. Feel free to try other liquids like beer, wine, or juice. Only use a wet brine or marinade on cheaper cuts of steak. It’s not for ribeyes or tenderloin.
Leave the steak in the refrigerator overnight, up to 24 hours. Once it’s done marinading, that beef is ready for a slow cooking method such as smoking.
Here, you simply go to town on a steak using a meat mallet or meat hammer, and the blunt force will break and split some or most of the muscle fibers. It will make the steak more tender. Cover the steak with plastic wrap first, or you’ll have meat juices flying everywhere. It’s a pain to clean up. You also risk cross-contaminating other foods if juice splatters all over your kitchen.
You can also poke holes in the steak using a fork or a Jaccard tenderizer. This will allow moisture to reach the fibers of the meat more easily during slow cooking methods such as braising.
Again, this is a technique that’s more common on cheaper cuts. Don’t wail on your strip steaks with a mallet.
Let’s review some keys to ultra-tender steak.
Buy Prime beef or Wagyu. These are rich and fatty and hard to screw up.
Select steaks from cuts that are tender and juicier such as porterhouse.
Cook your steak to the right internal temperature.
Do not cook frozen steaks. Always allow steaks to thaw fully before cooking them.
Cook steaks using the right cooking process. Tender steak cuts such as tenderloin should be cooked hot and fast for a few minutes.
Avoid cooking tough steaks using fast cooking methods.
Both. Tough, chewy steak may be the result of undercooking naturally tough meat or overcooking tender steak to the point of dryness.
Cooking steak to the right temperature is essential to making a good meal. A good instant-read thermometer is your best friend when cooking. A leave-in meat thermometer works if you’re old school.
So that’s everything you need to know about tough, chewy steak. Life’s too short to eat bad steak. Follow my steps for steak bliss. Know your cut. Buy the best grade you can afford. And cook your steak using the appropriate cooking method. These are the three most critical steps in making steaks that your friends and family will drool over.
Hopefully, you’ve figured out what’s going wrong with your steaks. Cooking is supposed to be fun. Screwing up your steak is a quick way for the fun to end. Every pit boss worth their spatula should know how to grill up a good steak. I hope this post has shined a light on how you can level up your steak game. Happy grilling!