http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/29/dinin ... l?_r=2&hpw
Same Cow, No Matter How You Slice It?
By KIM SEVERSON
ON a stainless steel table in the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association test kitchen, a meat scientist named Bridget Wasser began dissecting a piece of beef shoulder as big as a couch cushion.
Her knife danced between long, thick muscles, then she flipped the whole thing open like book. After a tug and one final slice, she set before her visitor the Denver steak.
The three-quarter-inch-thick cut is an inexpensive, distant cousin of the New York strip. And it didn’t exist until the nation’s 800,000 cattle ranchers began a radical search for cuts of meat that consumers would buy besides steaks and ground beef.
The idea was simple. Dig around in the carcass and find muscles that, when separated and sliced in a certain way, were tender and tasty enough to be sold as a steak or a roast. “People know how to cook steaks,” said Dave Zino, executive director of the cattlemen’s Beef and Veal Culinary Center.
The Denver was invented after meat and marketing experts spent more than $1.5 million and five years on the largest study anyone had ever done on the edible anatomy of a steer.
The point was to increase the $15.5 billion a year that people spend at the supermarket buying beef. The association thinks consumers may pay $5.99 a pound for a Denver steak. As ground beef, it’s about $2.99.
“This has been an evolution in the way we think about taking apart that beef carcass,” said Chris Calkins, a University of Nebraska professor who was part of the muscle study. “It’s a profound shift.”
This year, the Beef Check-off program, which financed the meat study, will introduce five new cuts from the chuck. Four cuts from the round will be rolled out next year. A handful are already on the market. All of them have new names that are sure to confuse some shoppers and challenge butchers.
Selling the new cuts will mean persuading more than 600 meatpacking plants, thousands of processors and supermarket managers and, at the end of the chain, consumers who are already baffled by the names in the meat case.
Skeptics, who include old-fashioned beef cutters and a new breed of professional cooks who know European butchering techniques, say there is nothing new in a carcass.
Mike Debach, who runs the Leona Meat Plant in Troy, Pa., reviewed the cutting schematics for the Denver. His analysis: “This is just a glorified chuck steak that they cleaned the junk off of.”
Tom Mylan, a butcher who breaks down whole carcasses at Marlow & Daughters in Brooklyn, says the cattlemen are not inventing anything.
“The old Italians and French butchers have been doing this forever,” he said. The surprise, he said, is that it took the big producers this long to figure out how to process and market off-cuts.
“The difference in a good name is worth $3 or $4 a pound,” he said.
Of course, the names have to be good. One wonders if America’s beef roast, the name a focus group has given a new cut of chuck steak, stands a chance of becoming as familiar as prime rib.
The move to remake the supermarket meat case began in 1998, when meat scientists in Nebraska and Florida began pulling apart the chuck and the round, looking for diamonds in the rough.
The researchers studied 39 muscles, isolating ones that had enough tenderness or flavor to sell as inexpensive steaks or roasts.
In one tenderness test, researchers cooked muscles to medium, punched out half-inch plugs of meat and set them in a machine that measures the force it takes to shear them in half. Promising cuts were given names like the Sierra, the Western Griller and the Petite Tender.
“If we can dig out a muscle and use it in a new way that hasn’t been done before, it seems to me we are obligated to give that muscle an identity so someone can understand what it is,” said Dr. Calkins, the Nebraska professor.
Naming cuts of beef is a murky pursuit that is only lightly regulated by the government. Industry guidelines and even some local laws prevent butchers from calling a cut from the shoulder a flank steak or a piece of round a tenderloin. But there is no harm (except perhaps confusion) in giving the name Delmonico steak to any one of several cuts.
The Delmonico was once a rib-eye, but now it can mean a cut from other spots on the same long muscle, including a slice of top loin or, in the new naming conventions proposed by the beef industry, a piece of chuck.
In the case of the flatiron steak, the industry borrowed an old name for what it says is a new cut. The association claims it developed the flatiron as one of the first products to come from the muscle study. The research showed the cut, from the top of the steer’s shoulder, was the second-tenderest part of the carcass, right after filet mignon.
But the name is familiar to people who have been cutting meat for generations. The cut, also known as chicken steak, butler’s steak or top blade steak, fell out of favor because the traditional butchering method left a tough line of connective tissue in the middle, which consumers didn’t like.
The cattlemen’s team developed a standard for cutting it, which strips away that layer of gristle.
Meat processors began shipping flatirons in 2002. In 2007, restaurants sold 83 million of them and butchers and grocery stores 13.2 million, according to the cattlemen’s association figures.
Not so fast, argues Bill Niman, a rancher. He says he started selling trimmed flatiron steaks to high-end restaurants in the late 1990s.
At the 74-store QFC chain in the Pacific Northwest, managers are eager to sell the new cuts, but they’ve taken naming matters into their own hands.
Oscar Blaser, the senior director of meat and seafood for the chain, put one of the new cuts — the boneless country-style beef chuck ribs — in his meat cases a couple of months ago. The “ribs” have never seen a bone. They are cut from the chuck eye roll to resemble ribs and are intended to be braised, like a short rib. They can be finished on the grill with barbecue sauce.
Mr. Blaser thought the new name just didn’t work. So he christened them bistro braising strips, which builds the cooking method into the name.
But even with a new identity, there is no guarantee anyone will buy them without in-store demonstrations. “We’ve got to get it into their mouths,” Mr. Blaser said. “Then we have to walk them over to the case and show them the package. It’s difficult, even if you’ve got the best name in the world. People still want steak.”
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