I own a butcher shop and chewy steak is an all too common complaint I receive from my customers. It can be such a disappointment to prepare and cook a steak only to end up with a chewy chunk of food that you cannot enjoy.
In my experience, the most common cause of toughness in steak results from poor meat handling and using the wrong cooking method.
Understanding the characteristics of meat can help mitigate the common errors home cooks and amateur chefs tend to make when preparing steak. Read the article below to avoid these mistakes and make a better juicier steak.
Different parts of the steer have varying degrees of toughness and consequently, if you buy a steak from a part of the steer that is well-worked, the resulting cut will undoubtedly be a tough and chewy steak.
These cuts contain more connective tissue than others making them tougher and chewier if they are not cooked properly.
Some of the tougher cuts of beef are:
The amount of intramuscular fat or marbling contained in a cut of meat determines how tender and juicy it will be upon cooking. Cuts containing more marbling tend to end up juicier and easier to chew.
They are tender and have a great mouth feel because the fat in the cut keeps the meat moist during cooking ensuring a soft and flavorful steak.
Ribeye is the most tender and most marbled steak from a steer so go for ribeye if a juicy tender steak is what you are looking for.
That said, filet mignon or tenderloin is a close second in terms of texture and tenderness yet it contains very little marbling if any.
This is because tenderloin contains almost no connective tissue, ligaments, or tendons since the cut from which it is retrieved, the short loin, does not bear the weight of the animal.
The USDA grades beef on a sliding scale based on the fat content and the appearance of the marbling. This means that while a cut may have a high-fat content, the marbling score may be low since the marbling is coarse and unevenly distributed.
Such marbling may be on the outside of the cut in which case it is intermuscular fat and that is not the kind of fat content that we desire.
Beautifully marbled meat should contain flecks and streaks of fat distributed evenly all over the steak. Wagyu and Kobe cows make a perfect steak and globally recognized intricately marbled meat.
There are eight locally available grades of beef but you are only likely to encounter these three.
Prime beef is a near perfect steak. It is beautifully marbled and therefore very tender and juicy. You are not likely to find it in the supermarkets but your local butcher will have it.
Choice beef is the second-best grade and is abundant in supermarkets. While it has considerably less marbling than the former, it is a fairly good option and when prepared properly, it can be very tender and tasty.
Select beef contains very little fat or marbling and is tougher than the other two. It is an affordable option but requires some skill to cook into a juicy meal.
Proper steak preparation and storage will impact tenderness. If you do not intend to cook the fresh meat 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 and you will end up storing them without the natural juices they come with.
The steaks you buy may also have been in storage for over four months which would make them safe but tougher the longer they are refrigerated. Some, if not most supermarkets buy meat in bulk, and you may end up buying a steak that has been frozen for too long.
Such steaks are likely to be tough and chewy when cooked. Check the dates to ensure you are buying as current a steak as possible. Do not freeze your fresh steaks for more than four months no matter how good the packaging is.
Frozen steaks do not contain as much moisture as fresh steak so cook steaks as close to the date of purchase as possible. Fresh steaks are very tender.
Remove a frozen steak from the freezer a whole day ahead of cooking them. If you cook your steak while it is frozen you will end up with a tough chewy cut of beef that you will not enjoy.
The fibers of frozen meat are still contracted and stiff so they will not absorb heat or moisture. In an attempt to soften them you will either undercook or overcook the steak.
Defrost steaks overnight in the fridge and then thaw them further on the counter until the steak reaches room temperature.
This way, the steak will be soft enough to absorb moisture and heat and your steak will be tender and juicy.
How steaks are cooked is by far the most common cause of toughness in meat. Novice chefs cook their steaks the wrong way or use the wrong equipment which makes a tough and chewy steak.
You can either cook a steak using fast cooking methods or slow methods. The cooking process should be informed by the steak cut and the fat content in the steak.
Fast cooking methods should only be used to cook well-marbled cuts of beef rich in intramuscular fat. Open grilling and roasting are fast cooking methods recommended for cuts such as wagyu, Kobe beef, ribeye steaks, filet mignon, tenderloin, and any cut of US prime beef.
Slow cooking methods such as smoking and braising are recommended for the tougher cuts of meat such as meat from the chuck primal, round, shank, flank steak, and plate cuts of the steer.
These cuts contain more sinewy muscle and fast cooking methods cannot allow the cut sufficient time to soften and break down the tough fibers.
The meat from these cuts contains very little fat which means too much heat from a fast cooking method will dry out all the fat in the meat making the steak tough and chewy.
Leaner steak needs to be cooked slowly in a lot of moisture or a braise. Alternatively, you can tenderize the meat prior to cooking it. Both of these methods take a long time which is what tough cuts require in order to result in a tender delicious meal.
When you cook a steak correctly, you can turn even flank meat into a tender juicy steak. Patience and skill are essential.
Certain cattle breeds produce tougher meat than others. The different genetic profiles of the animal mean that different cattle breeds are likely to be very different in meat quality.
A good example of this is 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 thus producing incredibly tender beef.
Closer home, the Black Angus breed of cattle is the most widely bred for beef production and is known for desirable qualities of beef such as marbling and tenderness.
The age at which the animal is slaughtered can be a factor in the toughness of the eventual steaks.
If a steer is slaughtered well past the 42-week mark, the meat is likely to be quite tough since older animals will have well-worked and more developed muscle tone. This will make your steak tough.
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 occur if they are waiting for the animals to put on as much weight as possible.
Try changing your butcher shop to see if your steaks improve.
How animals are fed at the farm is a factor you have no control over but the resultant texture of the beef is something you may have to contend with.
There is intense 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, especially with regard to tenderness and texture quality.
The opposing school of thought argues that grain-fed beef is better than grass-fed beef since grain-fed cows gain fat which is an essential aspect of tender steaks.
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 the best of both regimens and all these programs use different feeds from farm to farm.
A tough steak does not necessarily mean a tough chewy meal is the plan for dinner. Simply tenderize the meat and you will end up with a delicious flavorful meal.
It may take you a couple of tries to get it just right but tenderizing meat is a necessary skill. After all, you will not always have ribeye for dinner.
The best way to tenderize steak is to cure or marinate the meat in salt or a salt-based cure.
A dry cure or a rub can be a simple mixture of kosher or curing salt and pepper applied and rubbed thoroughly all around a tough cut of meat. The meat is then allowed to sit for about an hour as the salt dehydrates and softens the muscle fibers.
This method works best when the meat is about to be cooked and the steaks are cut into smaller chunks of meat.
For larger chunks of beef such as a whole brisket, a wet marinade is the better method. The basic marinade can be a mixture of curing salt, black pepper, an acidic liquid such as apple cider vinegar, and enough water to submerge the steak.
The steak is left in the refrigerator overnight and after 24 hours the tough and chewy steak will be tender enough 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 should break and split some or most of the muscle fibers making the steak that much more tender and soft.
You can also poke holes in the steak using a fork or a Jaccard tenderizer which will allow moisture to reach the fibers of the meat more easily during slow cooking methods such as braising.
Buy prime beef. This way you are guaranteed a tender cut of meat which will spare you the hassle of having to tenderize meat before cooking it.
Select steaks from cuts that are tender and juicier such as porterhouse and sirloin steaks.
Store steaks as soon as you buy them. Do not let steaks sit out at room temperature and lose moisture.
Do not cook frozen steaks. Always allow steaks to thaw overnight before cooking them.
Once thawed, allow your steaks to reach room temperature before you cook them.
Cook steaks using the right cooking process. Tender steak cuts such as tenderloin should be cooked for a few minutes. Any longer and they dry out and become tough and chewy steaks.
Avoid cooking tough steaks using fast cooking methods. The minimal fat content will leave the steak tough and chewy.
Trim the meat and remove all the connective tissue, tendons, and ligaments. Connective tissue does not cook and break down easily. It will make your steak tough and chewy.
Avoid cutting into the steak as soon as it is ready. Cutting into a hot steak bleeds the steak of the moisture trapped within which should be reabsorbed into the thickness of the meat and not evaporate or flow out onto the plate.
Without this moisture, a perfectly cooked piece of meat will end up becoming tough and chewy.
Both. Tough and 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 tender juicy meal. If you are uncertain of the right temperature always use a meat thermometer to prevent undercooking or overcooking the steaks.