Beef chuck is a marvelous thing. It can be turned into hamburger or pot roast or one of the tenderest of steaks depending on how this cut, the forequarter of a steer, is broken down — and marketed.
Take the flat iron, the best known and most popular of the steaklike cuts from the chuck or shoulder. Most people, if blindfolded, can’t tell the difference in flavor between it or a New York strip, one of the nation’s most popular and pricey steaks, says Pat LaFrieda, the North Bergen, New Jersey-based butcher who made a name for himself selling meat to the nation’s top restaurateurs and starring in the Food Network’s reality show “Meat Men.”
“That’s significant, as the flat iron costs 30 percent less,” says LaFrieda.
In his just-published book, “Meat: Everything You Need to Know” (Atria, $39.99), he calls the flat iron a “very good steak” but adds, “I also think it’s one-third the price of a strip steak for a reason.”
Maybe so, yet people are buying it. Flat irons are the sixth most popular steak at U.S. restaurants and 19th in grocery stores, according to statistics provided by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, an industry group.
Chuck cuts — like the flat iron, the chuck eye steak, the petite tender or shoulder tender — are called diamonds in the rough in beef circles, because they have helped make up for a drop in sales of the bigger chuck roasts.
Traditionally, the chuck has been cut into large pieces made up of various muscles and cooked long and slow until tender. People used to be willing to do this because these cuts were cheap and — as Lynne Curry of Joseph, Oregon, author of “Pure Beef,” notes — loaded with flavor. But people don’t have the time or the willingness to cook these big pieces anymore.
What we are eating are cuts that could be cooked quickly — like steaks. Taken from the tender rib and loin sections of the steer, these steaks are the most popular and well-known cuts. Demand for them is high; so are the prices.
“The shoulder allows us a little more variety from a retail butcher point of view,” says Ryan Farr, a San Francisco-based butcher, restaurateur and author of “Whole Beast Butchery.”
These shoulder steaks were initially identified in the late 1990s, as the beef industry sought to counter depressed chuck prices, but getting the word out has been slow. The flat iron took nearly a decade to catch on, according to Bridget Wasser, the beef association’s senior director of meat science and technology.
Consumer education about the cuts is needed, Wasser adds, pointing to an industry website, beefitswhatsfordinner.com, that offers an online “butcher counter” to help consumer’s identify cuts, learn how to cook them and use them in recipes.
“Consumers get so confused,” agrees Curry. She suggests asking your butcher: “What shoulder steaks do you have that I can grill?”
Curry also recommends looking to the top restaurants and chefs in your region for inspiration on what to buy now — and what may be coming to the butcher case soon. Curry, herself the owner of a new restaurant, Lostine Tavern in Lostine, Oregon, explains: “Chefs will be at the vanguard of what’s next.”
Flat iron: Created by splitting a shoulder clod’s top blade roast into two pieces that can then be cut into individual steaks. Can be grilled, broiled, stir-fried or cubed for kebabs.
Chuck eye steak: Also called a Delmonico steak, it is a boneless and tender cut from the shoulder. Grill or broil.
Ranch steak: The shoulder center steak. Grill or broil.
Petite tender: The shoulder tender; looks like a smaller version of the pricier tenderloin. Grill, broil, stir-fry or cube for kebabs.
Flat Iron Steaks
2 pounds flat iron steaks
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, or as needed
Zest and juice of 1 orange
1/4 cup thinly sliced shallots
2 tablespoons each: chopped fresh oregano, minced garlic, smoked paprika
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus more for brushing
1 tablespoon crushed red pepper flakes
Black olive tapenade
Place steak in a baking dish; season with salt. Stir orange zest and juice, shallots, oregano, garlic, paprika, 2 tablespoons oil and crushed red pepper flakes in a small bowl. Spread mixture over both sides of steaks; marinate at room temperature, 1 hour.
Build a medium-hot fire in a charcoal grill or heat a gas grill to high. Brush grill grate with oil. Grill steak, turning once, until nicely charred, about 5 minutes on each side for medium-rare. Transfer steak to a work surface; let rest, 5-10 minutes. Slice steaks thinly against the grain. Serve, drizzled with the tapenade. Makes 6 servings.
Per serving: 344 calories, 20 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 125 mg cholesterol, 1 g carbohydrates, 38 g protein, 0 g fiber, 197 mg sodium.
Source: Adapted from “The Grilling Book: The Definitive Guide from Bon Appetit.”