Despite tough economic times, beef is still popular among foodservice patrons.
In the face of soaring beef prices, operators have to make tough decisions between increasing menu price, decreasing portion size, or both. Some establishments have considered removing beef from the menu altogether. However, there is a hedge to the rising costs of many beef cuts; underutilized cuts of beef, which typically have lower market prices, greater availability, and higher margin potential than their “prime cut” counterparts.
Underutilized cuts are items other than the common middle meats—prime rib, sirloin, striploin, and tenderloin—that dominate restaurant menus. Sometimes known as retail cuts, and typically found in the supermarket meat case, they have been growing in popularity among foodservice operators and patrons. Even as the use of these cuts has grown, they remain an economical advantage to a menu that is challenged with escalating costs.
Traditional steaks such as sirloin or striploin can be substituted with “carving steaks” that are more flavorful and when cooked properly, equally tender. Minute steaks or sandwich steaks also provide low-cost alternatives to traditional steaks on a lunch or brunch menu. Traditional roasts can be substituted with pot roasts or other braises that represent some of the more exotic cultures that are influencing the foodservice trends of today.
The following is a list of some of the more commonly available underutilized cuts of beef:
Teres major, a.k.a. petit tenderloin, is a small cylindrical muscle found just to the side of the shoulder clod. Teres major is nearly as tender as filet mignon, but certainly more flavorful. It can be grilled or roasted whole and sliced like a chateaubriand, or cut into portion sizes for grilling or sautéing.
Top blade roast, a.k.a. chicken steaks or western-style beef ribs, is a large oval muscle located under the shoulder blade bone. This very flavorful and highly marbled piece of beef is quite tender except for the thick vein of collagen connective tissue that runs down the centerline of the cut. With the vein in, the top blade can be braised like a pot roast. Sliced and pounded, the steaks are prepared as Swiss steaks. In either case, the moist-heat cooking causes the collagen to convert to gelatin, leaving behind richness and succulence in place of the chewy vein. Removing the vein bisects the roast, yielding two pieces that are about 1-inch thick. These can be prepared as “carving steaks”—steaks that are cooked whole and sliced thin to order—or portion-cut as smaller steaks for sandwiches or for combos (with ribs, chicken or fish). Sliced very thin, this steak makes an excellent stir-fry or satay.
Flatiron steak, a.k.a. mush steak, is a thin, flat steak found on the opposite side of the shoulder blade from the top blade roast. It is a less-exercised muscle and therefore is quite tender, even more so than filet mignon. Its only disadvantage is its size. Most flatirons weigh in between 12 and 16 ounces, with little waste. They make very good carving steaks, stir-fries and individual small-portion steaks.
Skirt steak is an increasingly popular steak that comes from the diaphragm muscle. This muscle is well exercised; however, the work that it performs does not require as much strength as the arm and leg muscles. Therefore, it is a darker steak with a lot of flavor, but still tender. Skirts are typically grilled whole and sliced across the grain for fajita meat, or they can be marinated and served as individual portions. They are seen quite often in Latin concepts.
Short ribs, cut from the chuck or rib plate, were once used mostly for Southern BBQ applications. Today, food-service operations are braising them in a number of different ethnic styles such as the popular Korean braised short rib. Season heavily with onion, ginger and garlic powders and roast the ribs until they are deep brown. Then add brown stock and gently braise until they are tender.
Hanging tenderloin, a.k.a. hanger steak, was once ground into hamburger because it was unpopular. The hanger steak, which anchors the skirt steak to the spine, has now become one of the more sought-after cuts from the loin. It shares many qualities with the skirt steak—its meat is dark and flavorful, but still tender. The hanger steak is easily portion-cut and can be grilled or sautéed. Many operators use it as a premium sandwich steak with artisan bread and bold-flavored steak or BBQ sauce.
Sirloin flap, a.k.a. sirloin carving steak, is a tender, well-marbled cut from the bottom sirloin butt. Its triangular shape makes it difficult to portion evenly; hence most operators use it as a carving steak. The sirloin flap, when sliced very thin across the grain, is ideal for stir-fry or satay.
Sirloin ball tip, a dome-shaped cut, is the short end of some of the leg muscles that are split when separating the loin from the round. The ball tip is easily separated into three pieces appropriate for smaller luncheon or brunch steaks, sandwich steaks or combo steaks. They are invariably tender and well marbled, but inconsistent in size and shape.
Coulotte steak is the cap of the top sirloin butt. Large but irregular in size and shape, it’s a good grilling or carving steak, also popular in stir-frys. As a carving steak, it makes a delicious and inexpensive sirloin steak sandwich.
When introducing underutilized cuts to the menu, keep in mind today’s trend is toward bolder flavors and regional influences. Whatever your center-of-the-plate item is, it can easily be transformed to accommodate regional palates by altering the seasonings or marinades, sauces and cooking techniques. The same beef skirt steak that is used for a “Platter of Sizzling Fajita” can also be used for “Beef Hibachi” or “Beef Satay” simply by changing the sauce. The same “Korean Braised Short Ribs” can be made into “Texas BBQ Short Ribs” by altering the spice rub. Also, more operators are grilling or smoking meats to achieve the inherent bold flavors.
Many meat purveyors have done extensive menu and recipe research on the use of underutilized cuts for diverse restaurant concepts. Some offer value-added cuts that are pre-trimmed or pre-marinated with a variety of flavorings. It is wise to get your suppliers involved in making menu decisions. Experts on their products, they can provide valuable tips on cost control, while at the same time increasing business and profitability.