Budget Cuts

By Kristi Willis
Illustrations by Bambi Edlund

There may be no food more quintessentially Texan than beef, yet with cattle prices skyrocketing, consumers and chefs are having to get creative to keep steak on the plate. Many ranchers, like Debbie Davis of Bandera Grassland, sold off part or all of their herds because of the drought. “I’m going to have enough beef through 2012,” cautions Davis, “but 2013 is going to be pretty slim. There just aren’t that many animals out there.” 

Fewer cows means fewer and more expensive steaks. The more familiar cuts like rib eye, fillet and porterhouse are from the prized loin and rib parts from the middle of the cow. The tenderloin, from which filet mignon originates, represents only 2 percent of the meat on a steer, which is why it draws such a hefty price and will become even more costly with a limited supply.

Savvy chefs and consumers are turning to selections from the chuck, sirloin and short plate (under the rib) sections as more affordable options. Chuck has traditionally been used for roasts, stew meat and ground beef. In the hands of a deft butcher, however, the flat iron steak from the chuck shoulder and the Denver cut from the chuck under blade rival the fillet in tenderness and yield more flavor from their marbling. Chuck eye roll, commonly used for pot roast, can be broken down into juicy chuck eye steaks, sometimes called the “poor man’s rib eye.” 

Diners can increasingly find hanger, flat iron and tri-tip steaks peppering the menus of local restaurants like Olivia, BC Tavern and Lamberts as more economical choices than the prime cuts. Where a fillet or rib eye might cause a diner sticker shock at $35 or more, hanger and tri-tip are often priced in the more manageable $20 range. 

Butcher and author Kari Underly states, “With middle meat prices going through the roof, [chefs] are picking up these little diamonds. And more chefs are starting to do their own butchery in the back of the house as a point of differentiation. It’s handmade if you are cutting it yourself, and consumers really want that.”

To sell the lesser-known cuts, chefs often have to educate customers on their desirability. “When we have these really tender, less expensive cuts with great flavor, it makes sense to use them in that way rather than wasting them on ground meat,” says Mat Clouser, executive chef at Swift’s Attic. “Flat iron is a crazy name for a cut of meat, but if your server explains to you that it’s called the flat iron steak because it resembles the shape of a flat iron, comes out of the shoulder and is a really tender piece of beef, then the guest is more likely to buy it.” 

Unfortunately, once consumers are sold on new cuts, it can be a challenge to find them in the store. Many processors are hesitant to change as it requires additional time and labor. Davis recounts that, years ago, when she switched from a larger, more modern processor to a small operator, he had no idea how to cut flat irons. “I had to get him a video on how to do it, brought in a meat cutter from the other plant and he still could not do it to my satisfaction,” she says. “So I quit asking.”

“[Processors] automatically push back because there is extra labor involved,” Underly adds. “If you’re fortunate enough to work with a Whole Foods [Market] or a local butcher shop, then they’re getting more into these cuts because that is what consumers are asking for. The chuck, particularly for a small butcher shop, if they can’t sell steaks out of that, it’s just going to be more hamburger. There is only so much hamburger that you can sell.”

Bryan Butler, master butcher and partner at Salt & Time, says that some grocery stores, like Wheatsville Food Co-op, are starting to merchandise these cuts. Or, for the home chef, he suggests buying an entire shoulder clod or English roast, then taking a knife to it and breaking it down to maximize the value.

With the right knife and a little patience, even novices can learn how to create their own specialty cuts. Underly’s book The Art of Beef Cutting includes a step-by-step guide on breaking down sections, and the Cut Information section of the Beef Innovations Group’s website (beefinnovationsgroup.com) offers downloadable cutting guides.

In addition to alternative cuts, restaurants and consumers are also turning to smaller servings—opting for four- to six-ounce portions over hefty steaks. Underly says the right portion is sustainable. “Eat four ounces of meat, not twenty-two. You may live in an area that doesn’t have a farmers market, but you can still eat more sustainably by eating the right-sized portion.”

Beef may still be what’s for dinner, but the choice and size of cut is evolving as consumers and chefs make more sensible choices about what goes on the plate. With higher prices and smaller herds, expect more innovation at the meat counter.

Click below for recipes:

Blue Cheese and Mushroom Steak Alfredo, Courtesy of Mark Maddy, Wheatsville Food Co-op
Short Rib Sauerbraten with Spaetzle and Red Cabbage, Courtesy of Chef Wolfgang Murber, Fabi + Rosi
Moo Shee Beef and Mixed Vegetables
, Courtesy of Derek Sarno, Whole Foods Market
Hungarian Goulash
, Courtesy of Chef Wolfgang Murber, Fabi + Rosi
Grilled Flat Iron Steak with Red Curry Skyr, Courtesy of Chef Mat Clouser, Swift’s Attic