There is a beauty in the beast. One of the toughest cuts of meat — the chuck— contains one of the most tender — the flat iron. The national beef industry is promoting certain muscle cuts from the chuck and round that produce tender, flavorful steaks. “The second most tender cut in the carcass sells for about half the price of ribeye,” says Clint Gehrke, AURI meat technologist.

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association check-off funded research at the University of Florida and University of Nebraska analyzed 39 individual muscles from the chuck and round. Tests showed several were tender enough to be sold as steaks, rather than as ground beef or arm and shoulder roasts. Flat iron, ranch cut, shoulder tender, petite medallion, top blade and ball tip are some of the new “beef value cuts” showing up in meat cases as low-cost alternatives to tenderloin, ribeye and New York strip.

Educating meat eaters

Many butchers and most consumers haven’t heard of the new value cuts, keeping the price low. “I bought a USDA Select top blade and a USDA Choice ribeye. I gave them to my family and asked them to guess which cost $3 a pound and which cost $6 — they all got it wrong. I feel there needs to be some more educational efforts,” so the beef industry can realize the full value of the little-known cuts, Gehrke says.

“If I say a steak has a tenderness rating of 5.5, that doesn’t mean anything to anybody. But if I told you it was more tender than ribeye at half the cost, you would pay attention.”

Carving out quality

Jim Slavik, who has 40 years meat cutting experience, the past 10 at Cub Foods in Stillwater, Minn., says the “new” value cuts aren’t new. “They’ve been in restaurants for years.” But it’s a new trend in retail meat to “take each muscle and turn it into a cut of beef.”

The flat iron “is the top muscle out of a chuck. It’s a lesser-quality muscle, but it’s good if it’s prepared right. You just can’t overcook it … it’s better on the pink side.”

The flat iron is about a six-inch long narrow cut. A tough connective tissue that runs through the filet has to be removed, so the flat iron is often butterflied or cut into smaller pieces, called “petite medallions.” Some cooks wrap the medallions in bacon and grill them like tenderloins.

Because it’s chuck, there is very little marbling in the meat, “but it has a lot of flavor because it comes from the shoulder. You don’t get that flavor in a tenderloin,” from behind the rib where it “doesn’t get any work, so it doesn’t have a real beefy flavor.”

Tender tests

Beef council research compared the tenderness of individual muscles to the primal cuts they originate from. Gehrke wants to take the analysis a step further to compare the tenderness of the new value cuts with traditional steaks. He plans to complete his analysis by the end of the year and design educational posters for consumers and meat cutters.

Gehrke will test 18 or 19 muscles that will be cooked to 160 degrees and cooled down. Then a coring device will cut six samples from each muscle. The testing machine’s quarter-inch steel plates will hit the samples to see how much force it takes to split the muscle fiber.

“After I run a mechanical test on all the different cuts … we’ll have five new or unknown steaks that will rank fairly high,” Gehrke says. “Nothing will outrank tenderloin for tenderness.” But he expects the second ranking cut will be top blade or flat iron. “Lonestar Steak House is already selling these for the price of ribeye. But the Marshall Hy-Vee sells the flat iron for only $3.19 a pound.”

Retail debut

Customers are starting to get a taste for the value cuts, but appearance may be a problem. Petite tenderloins, for example, are dense and deep red, with little marbeling. Consumers may be wary that they will cook up as juicy and tender as a well-marbled ribeye or Tbone.

Cub Foods started selling tender shoulder cuts last fall and buys the flat irons “in bulk so we can work with them more, package them ourselves. … When Cub cooks samples, customers like them and come back and buy them,” Slavik says.

“At 3.99 a pound, they’re a real good value. The problem is, will they stay a good value,” when more consumers realize what a great steak they can get for much less.

That’s what the beef industry is counting on.