So you made steak—and it came out tough and chewy?
Two traits can make your steak hard to eat: (1) the meat’s toughness from the way the cow was raised and slaughtered, and (2) its chewiness from how you cooked it.
If you want to make the most tender steak whenever you fire up the grill or cook on the stove, you need to know the difference between them. To avoid a tough steak, you need to pick a good cut of meat. To prevent it from getting chewy, make sure to cook it properly.
By the time you’re done reading this post, you’re going to know how to do both.
What Is It That Makes Beef Tough?
When it comes to tenderness, not all steaks are alike. The breed of the cattle, the cut of beef, and the amount of marbling on the steak in question will ultimately determine how tender it is.
Generally speaking, it’s hard to find non-biased, scientifically reliable studies about beef. The studies are typically sponsored by an industry association or a particular brand, making it difficult not to raise eyebrows at their objectivity.
Happily, a decade ago, a fellow blogger called Joe O’Connell sifted through the information available at the time and made an adjusted ranking of the beef from the most common breeds of cattle, which he posted on his blog.
Studies show that steaks from Brahman, Gelbvieh, and Limousin cattle tend to be the three most flavorful and best-marbled, followed by Charolais, Hereford, Simmental, and Angus.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, How the cow was slaughtered can play a more significant effect on the tenderness of your steak than you think.
“The energy required for muscle activity in the live animal is obtained from sugars (glycogen) in the muscle. In the healthy and well-rested animal, the glycogen content of the muscle is high. After the animal has been slaughtered, the glycogen in the muscle is converted into lactic acid, and the muscle and carcass becomes firm (rigor mortis),” the agency shares on its website.
“This lactic acid is necessary to produce meat, which is tasteful and tender, of good keeping quality and good colour. If the animal is stressed before and during slaughter, the glycogen is used up, and the lactic acid level that develops in the meat after slaughter is reduced. This will have serious adverse effects on meat quality.”
Steaks consist of muscle, fat, and, for some cuts, bone. “Marbling” is a butcher’s term for the visible amount of white fat on your steak. When cooked, the fat melts into the meat, adding tenderness and flavor.
Marbling, in other words, is an important feature when selecting steak. On any day, a well-marbled steak will come out juicier, more tender, and more flavorful than its less-marbled counterparts.
If you live in the United States, you know that the beef sold at the supermarket is labeled with one of three USDA-defined grades: Prime, Choice, and Select. As a general rule of thumb, USDA Choice gives you the most tender steak at the best price.
Here’s what you need to know about the differences:
- Prime beef is produced from young, well-fed cattle. It’s the highest-quality, most experience steak with abundant marbling that’s usually sold at steakhouses and hotel restaurants;
- Choice beef has less marbling compared to Prime. But it’s still of exceptional quality. It’s also less expensive, making it perfect for home cooks like you and me, who want to enjoy a great steak without having to break the bank to buy it;
- Select beef is the leanest and the least expensive. If you’re looking for my two cents, avoid it. Sure, you’ll end up saving money, but those savings will come at the cost of eating a drier steak.
To help you see the difference, I’m sharing this infographic created by the USDA:
Last but not least, the tenderness of your steak is affected by the cut of beef you’ve selected.
Though which cut of beef is best is a debate that will probably never end, T-bone, porterhouse, rib eye, filet mignon, top sirloin, strip steak, flank steak, and beef chuck are considered to be the best.
Regardless of which cut you choose, look for the marbling. You’re looking for an abundance of intramuscular fat. The more flecks and strips of white fat you can see between the muscles, the juicier and more tender your steak will be.
Another piece of advice is to buy your steak fresh. Though frozen meat can be preserved to taste as good as fresh, the reality is that that’s not always quite the case. Ideally, buy your beef from a butcher you can trust or from a good grocery store.
Publix, Whole Foods Market, Kroger, Trader Joe’s, and Wegman’s tend to have the best steak, says Jeff “The Grocery Store Guy” Campbell, an ex-grocery store employee who frequently shares insights on selecting the best food from the store on his blog.
How to Cook a Juicy and Tender Steak
Steak cooks best when it comes into sudden contact with a hot surface, like your outside grill or a cast iron skillet.
Cooking a juicy and tender steak comes down to two things: seasoning it properly and knowing when to take it off the heat.
As I recently wrote in “Should You Season Meat Before or After Cooking?”, when you add salt to raw meat, it first sits on the surface. After a while, a chemical reaction called “osmosis” starts to kick in.
The salt draws out the juices to the meat’s surface—and they combine with it, forming a brine. Rest the steak for enough time, and, eventually, it will absorb that salty brine back, turning naturally juicy and coming out well seasoned.
So what’s the best way to season a steak?
Season the steak with 1 teaspoon of kosher salt per 8-9 ounces of weight. For that extra kick, give it a generous crack of black pepper on both sides. Place it on a wire rack inside a baking sheet, and let it sit for up to 1 hour at room temperature before grilling or pan-frying.
Cook your steak just enough to your desired level of doneness, and quickly take it off the heat so that it won’t overcook.
In fact, one of the most common mistakes home cooks make is to cook their steak for too long. Beef is one of those meats that turns increasingly tougher the more you cook it, so be sure to watch the time.
Though the exact cooking time for your steak will depend on its thickness, here’s an approximate cooking time and internal temperature for a 1 – 1 1/2 inch thick steak (grilled or pan-fried over medium-high):
- For rare, 2 1/2 minutes per side to an internal temperature of 130°F (54.4°C)
- For medium-rare, 3 1/2 minutes per side to an internal temperature of 135-140°F (57.2°C)
- For medium, 4 minutes per side to an internal temperature of 140°F (60°C)
- For medium-well, 5 minutes per side to an internal temperature of 145-150°F (65.5°C)
- 6 minutes per side for well-done to an internal temperature of 155°F (68.3°C)
Though timing the steak will definitely help, the most accurate way to tell when your steak is done to the level of doneness you’re looking for is by using a meat thermometer.
So why did your steak come out chewy?
It’s probably because you picked a tougher cut that didn’t have much marbling on it, or the beef itself wasn’t of the highest quality. For some foods like beef, I go by the philosophy of buying it nice—or buying it twice.
The next time you cook steak at home, try some of the tips above to select it at the butchers’ or grocery store and cook it on your grill and stove.
And don’t forget to let me know how it went by leaving a comment below.