We didn’t necessarily eat a lot of steaks or beef when I was growing up. We ate meat, but I don’t ever remember my mom having steak night where we would grill mid-rare pieces of meat. What we did have was fajitas. Mom would marinate and do a London broil. She would then slice it thin across the grain. If we had the opportunity to eat out at a fancy restaurant, I remember feeling lucky when I was able to order something like a prime rib.
As I started working in restaurants during high school and college, I began to experience more kinds of food, getting a bite here or there. One of the great things about being a chef or a butcher is that you have access to those things that you usually don’t have available to you, and you can try them for free.
In our new book, (Page 6, Lockeland Table Community Kitchen & Bar) I talk briefly about how I helped in the meat room of my local grocery store which was called Potomac supermarket. When it came to learning about beef, however, I would have to attribute that to the time I spent at my apprenticeship at The Greenbrier Hotel & Resort and, that with my butchering mentor, Larry Griffin, during the time I spent at his slaughterhouse. It was there I learned to work with deer, cows and pigs learning their anatomy and how to treat the specific muscles depending on their use in the animal’s body during their lifetime.
Tender vs. Tough
People don’t often understand or think about that fact and how it affects the tenderness factor of a piece of meat. For example, the reason the tenderloin is so tender is that it is a muscle that is not used a lot. Take your legs for instance. From your knee down, which is what we refer to as the shank on an animal, those muscles get a lot of use. Therefore, they’re tougher as they are used more. So, they have to be treated differently when you prepare them. You are going to have to braise that particular piece for about five hours just to get it tender.
Many of the steaks that come from the chest area are going to have different tenderness depending on how they were used during that animal’s life. We learn how to approach those pieces of meat, due to their size, shape, and character whether it’s something you’re merely going to salt, pepper and grill, or, marinate and then grill.
When meat has a higher fat content, like that of a Ribeye, you can afford to cook it a little more, like closer to medium. The fat content and the heat combination makes it eat very nice. If it’s lean, like a filet, you want to order rare to mid-rare. Regardless of the cut, however, I personally order and prefer my steaks mid rare
Cheaper Cuts of Meat
Obviously as a restaurant owner I need to make a profit on what we sell. But we also like to pass savings on to the guest. For our New Year’s Eve menu, we chose to do a filet of beef which is the tenderloin. It’s a wonderful cut and one of the best, but it’s very expensive. So, when pricing it out, I first priced out the whole filet. I then priced the center cut filet and the Metro cut (which comes from the Chateau end of the filet, where the two muscles come together). Some may view that option as being a little less desirable than the center cut, but the price difference is also about $10 a pound—which makes us able to pass the savings on to the guest.
In those types of moments, it just requires me to do a little more butchery work on our part. What I mean by that is, we tie the filet with butcher twine before we grill it in order to help it maintain the shape. The research also took quite a bit of time in regards from deciding to go from the whole filet, to the center cut, to the metro as a final decision. Again, it requires a bit more knowledge and ability in butchering. We would usually never sell the filet on the menu or for a special as it’s just too expensive.
Personally, I find the filet to lack character. There are so many other cuts out there I’d rather use. For example, the strip steak which is on our menu with the Chimichurri and is our signature dish (pages 17-19 in our book). I personally believe Chimichurri is the greatest steak condiment that exists. The Ribeye, which is my favorite steak, is our special on the weekends with the Arugula and Pomme Frites
Getting past those, you arrive at cuts like the Flat Iron, or the Hanger Steak, which was originally known as the Butcher’s cut. Butchers would save that cut for themselves as they knew how special it was.
Then there’s the Tri-Tip, the Skirt Steak, the London Broil, and the Culotte.These are the cheaper pieces of meat.They still have a lot of quality and character to them. Perhaps the addition of a marinade or just the right cooking technique and sliced thinly across the grain will make them work for you. With these options and with good marinade meat lovers can certainly find something that works for them.
Next time, instead of just taking the easy way out and spending a lot of money on a filet, take some time getting to know a few of these other cheaper cuts of meat that have integrity and flavor. Save your money and spend a bit less on the center of your plate item, as we refer to it.
Maybe the cut you decide on needs to be braised and not grilled. Perhaps it just requires a little more knowledge and labor. Regardless of your decision, the rewards will most certainly be delicious as well as worth the learning and the effort.
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