By Scott Packard
on 10.22.12
Photo by Eric Yang

You know the rib-eye, T-bone, porterhouse and NY strip, but how about the tri-tip, bavette or flat-iron? Expanding your repertoire of steak choices graduates you from a one trick pony to a culinary stallion of meat mastery. The tenderloin, that prized cut from which the filet mignon comes, makes up half of one percent of Bos Taurus’ total weight — you need some other options. We’ve got them right here, beef brother.

In this Month of Beef feature, we explore alternative cuts of beef, including several gaining popularity amongst the foodie set, along with how to navigate the myriad names of each cut and how to cook them all. Bonus: Not only are many of these choices as good if not better than your “go-to” steak — they’re less expensive.

Break down this steer after the jump.

As we mentioned in our story on store-bought beef, a side of beef is divided into primal cuts: chuck, rib, loin and round. There are also the lesser primals: shank, brisket and plate. The ends of the animal, the chuck and round, do much of the work of moving and load bearing, and the meat from these primals is less fatty, more chewy and, often, more flavorful. The tender middle — the rib and loin primals — is marbled with fat because this section doesn’t see as much exercise (as many of us know all too well). With a little extra knowledge, we can find religious beef experiences from each of these parts of the animal.

A note on availability: This really depends on where you live. Short ribs are available at most grocery stores; The tri-tip is most commonly available in California. Mail-order is always a good option. We got the short ribs and tri-tip overnighted from Crystal River Meats. The other four (hanger, sirloin flap, flat iron, teres major) came in a “thin meats” set from Debragga, which is a good bargain: 24 steaks for $150.

Short Ribs

This cut often shows up on the menu of the nicer digs in town, plated on a bed of polenta or mashed potatoes with a velvety, rich sauce. The catch: You’ll pay up to $40 per serving for a dish you can easily make at home — for four people — for less than $20. Short ribs are part of the plate primal, cut from the meaty bone tips of the 7-bone rib roast. Braised in liquid (stock, wine, water), the collagen, marrow and extra fat melt, giving you a rich, buttery gravy to accompany tender meat that slips from the bone. Prepare them for your third date using Jacques Pepin’s traditional recipe, which involves a judicious amount of dry red wine, and there will be no doubt of a happy ending evening.

Tri-Tip

If you live out West, chances are you’ve had tri-tip as a roast or steak. It’s less common in the East. That’s a shame, because this cheaper, lean, flavorful hunk o’ meat stands up well to robust rubs and marinades, letting you explore the intensity of Asian, Southwestern and Latin American flavors without overshadowing the beef flavor. Cut from the outer hip or bottom of the sirloin section (the portion of the loin closest to the hardworking round, hence the extra flavor), the boomerang-shaped tri-tip roast can be cut into boneless steaks and grilled over high heat, or cooked whole with indirect heat for 30 to 40 minutes. Be mindful not to overcook this lean cut.

Shoulder Tender (a.k.a. Teres Major)

The teres major is exceptionally tender, perhaps second only to the tenderloin, at half the price — especially surprising given that it comes from the chuck. Be careful not to confuse this cut with the “mock” tender, which is cheap, but tough. Seldom used because it’s more difficult to extract, this meat often ends up in the scraps that go into ground beef or stew meat. It’s a damn shame. The shoulder tender is shaped like a pork tenderloin and takes nicely to the high direct heat of grilling, pan frying, or roasting.

Sirloin Flap (a.k.a. Bavette)

From the rear section of the loin, which becomes less tender and more flavorful as you near the round, sirloin flap is one of the so-called “bistro” steaks. Chewy and inexpensive, the cut is gaining popularity, particularly because the open-grained meat takes well to marinades. Cooked on high heat, the bavette is more chewable when sliced thinly across the grain like flank steak, manipulating the connective tissue that binds meat fibers.

Top Blade (a.k.a. Flat Iron)

Cut from the flavorful, sinewy chuck, the steak nicknamed for its distinctive shape is more like the shoulder tender — soft and nicely marbled — than the other parts of the chuck. The steak is a result of butterflying a top blade roast to remove the sheath of silvery gristle that runs through the middle, which won’t break down during cooking. Using a knife to raise an edge and holding the gristle while gently slicing it away from the flesh gives a nice piece of meat that can be cooked as a steak, or used for satay or kebabs.

Hanger Steak

Hanger steak is from the part of the beast hanging closest to the ground (besides the Rocky Mountain oysters, that is). Two thin skirt steaks flank the thicker hanger steak suspended in the middle. Coarse-grained, flavorful and chewy, the meat is strong and almost gamy. Like the flat iron, there is a line of gristle down the middle that can be removed before or after cooking. Hanger steak does well with marinades and grilling before being served sliced across the grain.

A Steak for All Seasons

These lesser known cuts don’t mean sacrificing flavor or eating pleasure; they open up a range of choices and options that take advantage of the other 1,180 pounds of a 1,200 pound steer, often with a price advantage. More flavor, more tenderness, more options? Even a meathead can appreciate that. Now get out there and take the beef path less taken.

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