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Loving underutilized cuts of red meat

To feed Americans’ never-ending appetite for beef, the cattle industry is making new and underutilized cuts more available to restaurateurs. This trend not only offers chefs and customers expanded and more varied entrée lists, it adds value to the menu. With beef prices continuing to be on the high side, these cuts generally cost at least 20 percent less—savings the kitchen can pass on to the guest. In addition to the well-known lineup of rib and loin steaks, over 20,000 restaurants now offer steaks cut from other parts of the cow...

To feed Americans’ never-ending appetite for beef, the cattle industry is making new and underutilized cuts more available to restaurateurs. This trend not only offers chefs and customers expanded and more varied entrée lists, it adds value to the menu. With beef prices continuing to be on the high side, these cuts generally cost at least 20 percent less—savings the kitchen can pass on to the guest.

In addition to the well-known lineup of rib and loin steaks, over 20,000 restaurants now offer steaks cut from other parts of the cow, according to stats from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a trade group. The NCBA’s research revealed many individual muscles within the chuck and round that are tasty, juicy and tender but haven’t been used extensively.

Flat Iron Steak or Top Blade
Cut from the beef chuck shoulder clod, this well-marbled, boneless steak is the second most tender beef muscle in the cow. The flat iron is showing up in center-of-the-plate applications in several segments—from Mexican fast-casual to casual dining to upscale steakhouses and contemporary restaurants.
Ordering specs: The whole, untrimmed flat iron weighs between 4 and 5 lbs. and can be cut onsite and merchandised in 3- to 10-oz. portions. Packed one per bag, 8 bags per box. Also available 11⁄2 lb. trimmed (one per bag) and individual 4-6 oz. steaks (one per bag).

Short Ribs
Beef short ribs contain at least two but not more than five ribs from the rib section of the cow. Beef chuck short ribs contain rib numbers 2 through 5, the meat between the rib bones and the muscle lying on top of the bones. Short ribs can also be cut from the plate. Braising is the best cooking technique for short ribs; the moist heat enhances their flavor and tenderness. They also adapt well to bold seasonings and sauces such as those used in Korean, Caribbean and Tex-Mex cuisine.
Ordering specs: Available 6-8 pieces per bag.

Flank Steak
A popular cut that’s often substituted for pricier steaks, beef flank offers great flexibility and ease of handling. The single flat muscle is cut from the flank section of the cow and ranges from 1-2 lb. in weight. It is available practically free of fat and requires little fabrication or trimming, meaning reduced labor costs in the kitchen. Flank has multiple menu applications: it can be marinated and grilled; cooked and sliced for salads, wraps and sandwiches; cut up for stir-fries and fajitas; or pounded and rolled around a stuffing.
Ordering specs: One bag contains two flank steaks, packed six bags to a box.

Ranch Cut Steak or Shoulder Center
Cut from the beef chuck shoulder clod, this
versatile piece of meat can be portioned into pieces ranging from 3 to 8 oz. and used as a breakfast steak, in a sandwich, sliced on a salad or on the dinner plate. The Ranch Cut is about 61⁄2 in. long, 21⁄2 in. wide and over 1⁄2 in. thick and can be shaped to resemble a pricier New York strip. Adapts well to marinades and mechanical tenderizing and tastes best when cooked to medium-rare doneness.
Ordering specs: Available as whole heart clod (4-5 lb., one per bag); usually trimmed and cut into steaks by the distributor or operator.

Western Griller Steak or Outside Round
Taken from the beef round, this new cut can be portioned from 4 oz. up to 24 oz.—big enough for a prime steakhouse serving. This very lean steak measures about 1⁄2-in. thick, takes well to marinades and is best cooked medium-rare, then carved into thin slices across the grain.
It is often mechanically tenderized to improve the texture.
Ordering specs: Available as whole outside round (6-8 lb., one per bag); usually trimmed and cut into steaks by the distributor or operator.

Sirlion Tip Steak
Despite its name, this cut comes from the beef round knuckle, which is separated from the top and bottom round along the natural seams. Two steaks come from this part of the cow—the “round tip center” and “round tip side.” Weights range from 5 to 8 oz. and thicknesses from 1⁄2 to 3⁄4 in. To increase tenderness and juiciness, the sirloin tip is often marinated prior to grilling and served with a signature sauce. It’s also well suited for Philly cheesesteaks and French dips.
Ordering specs: Available as whole peeled knuckle, weighing about 1 lb.; packed one per bag.

Petite Tender, Shoulder Tender ­or Medallions
Cut from the beef chuck shoulder clod, this tender beef muscle is similar in shape to a pork tenderloin and can be cooked the same way: rubbed with seasonings, roasted or grilled whole, then sliced into medallions. Each tender weighs between 1 and 11⁄4 lb. and measures about 10 in. long and 3 in. wide.
Ordering specs: Whole, untrimmed tenders are available 6-8 per bag and as steaks/medallions, also 6-8 per bag.

Skirt Steak
This is the long, flat diaphragm muscle cut from the beef flank and plate area. There are two types of skirt steak—inner (cut from the interior portion of the flank in the hindquarter) and outer (cut from the interior surface of the short plate in the forequarter). Thin and boneless, skirt steaks weigh between 1 and 4 lb. This cut is
typically used for fajitas, stir-fries and signature grilled entrees; marinating and scoring increase tenderness.
Ordering specs: One bag contains five to seven skirts; a box contains six bags.

Beef Tri-tip
Cut from the bottom sirloin butt, this triangular-shaped boneless roast weights 11⁄2-3 lb. and is about 2 in. thick. A whole tri-tip can be cooked by oven roasting, grilling, rotisserie or barbecue/smoking. Or the meat can be portioned into 3⁄4- to 1-in. thick steaks and grilled. Sliced or cubed, the tri-tip adapts well to stir-fries, fondue and satays.
Ordering specs: Vacuum-packaged six roasts per bag; four bags per box. Can be ordered defatted with all the surface fat and membranous tissue is removed.

There are only two briskets per beef carcass, both located in the breast section of the cow beneath the chuck and under the first five ribs. This boneless cut can be ordered whole (10-12 lb.) or as two separate sections—the flat cut (trimmed and of uniform 1⁄2 in. thickness) and point cut (thicker and slightly triangular in shape). Brisket appears most often on menus as a regional barbecue item, but it can also be braised, pot roasted, smoked or made into corned beef.
Ordering specs: Vacuum-packaged one per bag.

Storing beef
As soon as your beef delivery arrives, it should be inspected and refrigerated. Take these steps to ensure optimum safety:

  • Check the cartons for any signs of leakage or dirty or torn wrappings. Don’t accept packages with these signs.
  • Check the temperature of fresh beef products by placing a quick-read thermometer between two packages. It should register 40°F or below.
  • Date products and place immediately in the walk-in. Fresh beef should be refrigerated below 40°F and as close to 28°F as possible without freezing.
  • Use fresh beef within three to four days.

Beef in a box
The major meat packers (Cargill, Tyson, etc.) cut beef carcasses into primal or wholesale cuts—10 sections that include the round, chuck, rib, loin and short plate. “Only a few of our restaurant customers still buy primals that they then break down themselves,” says Andrew Malcolm, VP of SYSCO Corporation, the largest foodservice distributor. “These days, SYSCO sells mostly sub-primal cuts and portion-cut steaks in various size containers.” Examples of sub-primals are top rounds, rib loins and sirloin butts. Often, these subprimals are trimmed and broken down into pan-ready items by a meat company before they reach the restaurant, although some operators custom-cut their own. The more upscale American Kobe beef is sold by the box in primal cuts. Some distributors will further process it to a restaurant’s specs, but most will re-sell it as is and the kitchen will cut it down themselves.
Depending on the cut, beef is sold in these size containers:
• Large boxes:
  (60-80 lb.) with 3-12 pieces per bag
• Medium boxes:
  (30-40 lb.) with 2-6 pieces per bag
• Custom boxes:
  (10-15 lb.) with 1 piece per bag
• Steaks:
  10-12 lb. boxes with 10-30 pieces per bag

Beefing up Sales

While USDA commodity beef makes up the bulk of foodservice purchasing, premium and branded beef have been widening their niche on menus. Operators have discovered that they can upsell what is perceived to be higher quality or better-tasting meat.

Kobe beef from Japan has long been the gold standard for discriminating chefs and wealthy connoisseurs. But for the last few years, imported Japanese Kobe beef has been banned from U.S. shores. (The ban was lifted at press time.) In the meantime, American ranchers have seized the opportunity to raise their own Kobe beef, and operators are responding with enthusiasm.

Several producers are raising Wagyu cattle—the breed associated with Kobe beef. The cattle are often crossed with top-of-the-line Black Angus cows and fattened about one year longer than most American beef cattle.

The resulting American Kobe beef is considered better than prime; it’s heavily marbled and during cooking, the melting fat results in a buttery-textured, very flavorful piece of meat. Since Wagyu cattle are genetically predisposed to a higher percentage of unsaturated fat, American Kobe beef is surprisingly low in saturated fat. It’s available in a variety of cuts, from the high-end tenderloin to boneless short ribs and ground beef. Prices can be double those of prime commodity beef, but far less than the $300 per pound fetched by authentic Japanese Kobe beef.

Certified Angus Beef is the most prevalent branded beef in the foodservice market. By itself, the word “Angus” refers to a breed of cattle and can be used by any producer. While Certified Angus Beef or “CAB” may come from the Angus breed, it can only be labeled as such if it meets certain USDA specifications. To begin, the beef must be graded prime or within the top levels of USDA Choice grade. It also must meet seven additional quality requirements based on marbling, maturity and leanness. Less than 8 percent of American beef meets these standards.

Certified Angus Beef is served in 70,000 operations nationwide. About 6,800 of these eateries are licensed by Certified Angus Beef LLC, the nonprofit marketing group, to label menu items with the CAB logo.

In line with its higher quality and selection process, prices for Certified Angus Beef run 5 to 20 percent higher, depending on the cut, says Mark Polzer, director of the marketing group’s foodservice division. Despite its higher cost and recent record low beef supplies, the CAB business has grown by 11 percent in the last year. “Restaurant patrons have spoken, and they’re willing to pay a slight premium for higher quality,” Polzer says.

Grass-fed or grass-finished beef comes from cattle that have been pasture-fed. Only a small percentage of American cattle are raised entirely on grass—the majority start out grazing on pasturelands and are moved to feedlots at 12-18 months to be finished on grain. Therefore, most of the 100 percent grass-fed beef available in the United States is imported from Australia, New Zealand and South America. Uruguay and Argentina have now been declared free of hoof-and-mouth disease, so exports are up from there.

Grass-fed beef tends to be lower in overall fat, resulting in an end product that is usually not as well-marbled or tender as its grain-fed counterpart. In tasting panels, grass-finished beef is sometimes characterized as gamier in flavor. But it cooks up moist and flavorful in burgers and braises and adapts well to marination and grilling.
Restaurateurs who prefer to buy local are increasingly patronizing small American farmers who are raising grass-fed cattle. Although many of them are turning out organic beef, not all grass-finished products can be certified anic; the animals may be given FDA-approved hormones and antibiotics.

Making the Grade

The USDA has developed specific grading standards to indicate the quality, tenderness, juiciness and flavor of beef. The standards are based on criteria such as ratio of meat to bones, maturity of the animal, marbling (amount and distribution of intramuscular fat) and texture and color of both the lean and fat. Government inspection of all beef is mandatory, but grading is voluntary. Meatpackers opt to pay USDA inspectors or third parties a fee out of their own pockets to do the grading. Although there are eight grades in use, only the top two—prime and choice—apply to the majority of restaurant beef purchases.

Prime is the highest USDA beef grade. Beef from young, well-fed cattle with abundant marbling (between 6 and 8 percent fat) earns this grade, guaranteeing the most tender, juicy meat. Almost all prime beef goes directly to restaurants and it is the most expensive to purchase—carcasses graded prime demand the highest prices.

Choice beef has less marbling than prime. Nevertheless, choice beef is of good quality and produces tender, juicy results, especially with cuts from the loin and rib portions. Within the “choice” grade, there are three levels of quality; top choice is the best.

Getting to know lamb 

Beef may dominate American menus in the red meat category, but lamb has always held its own in upscale and ethnic eateries. Fancy restaurants offer the requisite rack of lamb or baby lamb chops, while French bistros and Middle Eastern, Indian, Greek, and Moroccan kitchens are frequent users of cost-effective shanks, ground lamb, and shoulder. But for the most part, the majority of operators are not menuing lamb to its full potential.

Jennifer Jasinski, owner of Rioja Restaurant in Denver, CO, is one chef who is trying to change that. She serves both lunch (avg. check, $24) and dinner (avg. check, $50) at her 110-seat Mediter­ranean-style place, and lamb figures into both dayparts. She likes to slowly braise the shoulder until it falls off the bone, then pull it off in shreds to use in pastas and sandwiches. Her Colorado Lamb “Dip” ($9.50)—a riff on the conventional French dip sandwich—is a popular example. Jasinski spreads goat cheese biscuits with garlic aioli, then layers the “pulled” lamb on top and serves the sandwich with rosemary jus for dipping. Crispy vegetable chips are piled on the side.

“My customers are quite receptive to different lamb cuts and preparations,” Jasinski says. “They’re very willing to try something new if the quality and flavor is there.” While the shoulder is gentle on her food costs, she likes to experiment with the more expensive loin and leg on the dinner menu. A Rioja special is Loin of Lamb ($29) marinated with rosemary and garlic and served with artichoke mousse, grilled artichokes, and pancetta-wrapped radicchio. And Roasted Colorado Leg of Lamb ($19.50) with tomato saffron sauce and seasonal vegetables is a menu staple and top seller.

“I find I can cross-utilize the leg meat, which makes it more cost-effective,” Jasinski points out. “I use the trim to make sauces, meatballs, and tacos and throw the bones into stock.”

At Lot 401 in Providence, R.I. (avg. check, $65), executive chef Rachel Klein prefers boneless loin of lamb for its versatility and more elegant presentation. “I can pan roast, poach, or sauté the lamb and there’s no waste or gristle,” she says. “Unlike chops or racks, there are no bones sticking out when I plate it. Some of my guests don’t want to lift up a bone and chew.”

A favorite menu item at her 46-seat upscale restaurant is Grilled Boneless Loin of Lamb with heirloom tomatoes, Nicoise olives, shaved red onion, and charmoula sauce ($34). Klein describes the sauce as a “Moroccan pesto”—a rough blend of parsley, cilantro, garlic, ginger, paprika, cumin, and lemon juice. “The dish is reminiscent of a high-end gyro, but with bolder, cleaner flavors,” Klein explains. Another of her loin preps features the boneless cut pan roasted, accompanied with smoked fingerling potato puree, yellow raisin emulsion, and almond- mizuna salad ($32). And earlier in the season, she poached the loin with marjoram and served it with fava beans, spring onions, and morels.

While these selections are on the pricey side, patrons respond well to their uniqueness and quality, says Klein. And Lot 401 also offers less expensive entrees, including a winter dish based on shanks, and appetizers focusing on thriftier lamb sausage (merquez) and lamb sweetbreads. “Although the sweetbreads are a hard sell, customer demand for lamb is definitely going up,” Klein notes.

Michael Psilakis, chef-owner of the 63-seat Onera in New York City, reports a huge groundswell of support for lamb. “It’s the most popular meat we sell by far,” he says. While that may be expected for a Greek-inspired restaurant, the lamb preparations on Onera’s menu (avg. dinner check, $55) are totally unexpected. Guests can start off with a meze of lamb carpaccio—paper-thin slices of raw lamb tenderloin garnished with feta cheese, kalamata olives, micro-arugula, crispy fried shallots, and artichokes confitted in duck fat. Then they can move on to a ragu of spicy lamb sausage with fennel, olives, and manila clams served under mint- and almond-crusted halibut ($25). It’s a take-off on the well-known Portuguese seafood and sausage stew—flavored with a Greek accent, Psilakis explains.

Loin of lamb also gets a lot of play at Onera. Right now, the boneless cut is being grilled with a crust of sundried tomatoes and pignoli, then served over wilted arugula and chickpea confit. A splash of tomato broth and a dollop of tzatziki (the garlicky yogurt-cucumber sauce) finishes off the $26 entrée.

Not only does Psilakis reinterpret traditional dishes in new ways, he uses every part of the lamb but its “baaaa.” “We buy the whole animal and break it down in our kitchen,” he says. “That keeps food costs down because we’re able to use it all.” Onera is one of the few restaurants that offers a “Mini” Offal Tasting” with grilled lamb heart and kidneys often making an appearance on the plate. And even the meat from the animal’s head is used to make head cheese. But when it comes to Onera’s moussaka—the layered classic made with ground meat, eggplant, and bechamel sauce—Psilakis takes another break from tradition. He goes with goat instead of lamb. 

Lamb Loin Marinated in Guinness and Clover Honey

6 cans (14.9 oz. each) Guinness beer
2? cups clover honey
6 tbsp. fresh thyme leaves
6 tbsp. black peppercorns
6 lb. boneless lamb loin,
cut into medallions
3 tbsp. olive oil
6 cups lamb or veal broth
6 oz. chilled butter, cut into chunks
1 ? tsp. salt
1 ? tsp. ground pepper
Braised cipollini onions
Roasted Yukon gold potatoes

  1. In saucepan, combine beer, honey, thyme, and peppercorns. Stir over med.-low heat until honey dissolves; chill. Reserve 4 cups mixture to braise onions and another 4 cups for sauce.
  2. Place lamb in non-reactive pan; pour remaining chilled mixture over lamb. Cover, refrigerate, and marinate for 2-4 hr. Remove lamb and discard marinade.
  3. In large skillet, heat 1 tbsp. oil over med.-high heat. Quickly brown lamb on both sides in batches, adding more oil as needed.
  4. Place lamb in shallow roasting pan. Roast in 400°F oven for 16-18  min, or to desired doneness. Cover and let stand 5-10 min.
  5. To make sauce, pour reserved marinade for sauce and juice from braised onions into a saucepan. Cook over med.-high heat until reduced to about 3 cups. Add lamb broth and heat through. Add butter and stir until melted. Season with salt and pepper; keep warm.
  6. To serve, divide potatoes among plates. Carve lamb and fan over potatoes; top with onions and drizzle with sauce.

Yield: Makes 12 servings.

Grill Thrills

Monday is usually a slow dining-out night, but Jim Gerhardt and Mike Cunha, co-owners of Louisville, KY’s Limestone restaurant, hope to change that this summer with their “Monday Night Grill Outs.” The promotion, launched to fill the void after the excitement of the Kentucky Derby and to celebrate Limestone’s new patio, gives customers the chance to order any grilled item on the menu at half-price.

Included in the choices are Filet of Angus Beef Tenderloin ($13 instead of $26), Fresh Grilled Grouper ($13 instead of $26), and Grilled T-Bone Pork Chop ($11 instead of $22.) An appetizer of grilled scallops and pasta topped with grilled chicken or shrimp round out the selections.

“It’s been phenomenally successful,” says Gerhardt. “We typically serve 40-50 people on Monday nights, but now we’re doing 150-200 covers. And 30-40% of our business isn’t going for the promotion.” Another surprise—wine sales are up to weekend levels. “People feel they’re saving on an entrée, so they buy more wine,” Gerhardt adds.

Beef with a Buzz

Red meat and red wine is a classic pairing, but at 26 brix, a 110-seat restaurant in Walla Walla, WA, the tradition has been taken up a notch. Chef-owner Mike Davis is serving meat from cows that have been raised on red wine. He gets the beef from a small ranch in the surrounding wine country that feeds its Angus cattle pomace—the skins of cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapes—mixed into an all-natural diet of grain, hay, wheat, soy, molasses, rolled corn, and flax.

“We’re using the ultimate wine country beef,” says Davis, who bought the first two “wine cows” to be sold commercially. He features the meat in a steak salad with baby frisee and tomatoes ($10) and in a “Cow-bernet Burger” with Point Reyes bleu cheese ($12)—both on his bar menu. “It’s not that you taste the grapes, but there is a definite richness to the meat,” Davis claims.

Although he is still crunching numbers, Davis feels food costs will be competitive with most top-quality, free-range beef. Plus, his customers are loving this taste of the wine country. Now they just have to be patient until supply catches up with demand.

Cooking with underutlized cuts 

The Branding Iron
Merced, California
Branding Iron Steak Teriyaki
The Branding Iron steakhouse opened in 1952, with current owners Greg and Kara Parle running it for 17 years. Recently, they swapped out the top sirloin cut for the flat iron on several of their steak entrees. “We found the flat iron to be consistently tender and tasty, while the top sirloin turned out tough on occasion,” Greg reports. “Plus, with the flat iron, there is no waste and better cost control.”

The Parles order 3,000 pounds of Certified Angus beef each month for items that comprise about 44 percent of their menu. Top-selling flat iron preps include Steak Teriyaki ($21.95), Bleu Moo (covered with melted bleu cheese, $19.95) and Smothered Steak (topped with sautéed onions, bell peppers, mushrooms and melted Monterey Jack cheese, $21.95).

Mortimer’s Restaurant
Boise, Idaho
Cabernet Braised Snake River Farms Kobe Zabuton
Jon Mortimer, chef-owner of Mortimer’s, is a stickler for using top-quality, regional ingredients. His upscale menu is permeated with local flavors, like Idaho trout with morel mushrooms, pepper-crusted elk loin and a tart made from Idaho potatoes and goat cheese. So it’s natural that he would turn to a local producer of American Kobe beef and a rancher who raises grass-fed cattle for his dinner entrée list (40 percent of which is beef). 

“American Kobe beef runs me about 20 percent higher than USDA prime beef,” Mortimer says, “but I’m able to keep my food costs down to 26 percent by balancing steaks with some of the more economical cuts.” A favorite is the zabuton or “cushion”—a boneless, well-marbled piece of American Kobe beef better known as the chuck plate.

Since the fat distribution of this cut is similar to that of short ribs, Mortimer likes to braise the zabuton in Cabernet to remove some of the fat and leave the “tremendous” flavor behind. He then chills the meat, cuts it into a perfect cube and reheats it briefly in a bain marie coddled by the wine-and-herb-infused cooking broth. The result is exceedingly tender and rich in flavor.

Churrascaria Tribeca
New York City
Skewered Steak Brazilian-Style
“Churrasqueria” is the Brazilian word for rotisserie, so it makes sense that the meat-centric Brazilian steak houses known as churrascarias focus on that cooking method. Specialties include skirt steak, short ribs and picanha, a top sirloin with the fat cap intact (also known as “coulotte” steak)—all presented “rodizio”—style on long metal skewers.

“We season with sea salt, cook only the outside, then slice the cooked portion onto the plate and bring the meat back to the rotisserie to cook some more. That way, everything is always fresh,” says Marcio Lorenzi, the restaurant’s meat chef. Sea salt is the only seasoning used; the rotisserie seals in the flavor and juices.

Cambridge, Massachusetts
Tamarind Glazed Beef Short Ribs
At her small indy restaurant, chef-owner Ana Sortun transforms top quality local ingredients into vibrant Mediterranean-inspired fare. Exotic flavorings like za’atar, fenugreek and tamarind
join with more accessible ingredients to create a roster of mezze, small plates and mains.

For her Tamarind Glazed Beef and Smoky Eggplant Puree with Pine Nuts—also known as “Sultan’s Delight”—Sortun oven-braises bone-in short ribs with diluted tamarind paste, balsamic vinegar, wine and brown sugar. “Sultan’s Delight is a classic Turkish lamb dish,” Sortun says. “Short ribs adapt equally well to long braising and this puts more beef on my menu.

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