May 10, 2002
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Lincoln, Neb. — The flat iron steak and other new beef products that are sparking interest at restaurants and meat counters nationwide have their roots in Nebraska.
Research by University of Nebraska meat scientists provides the science behind a new generation of beef products from the chuck and round that the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the meat industry are developing.
Chris Calkins, NU Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources meat scientist, led research to analyze muscles in the beef chuck and round to identify which might have higher value uses. Nebraska scientists teamed with University of Florida colleagues to painstakingly characterize more than 5,500 muscles in the largest study of its kind. They found lots of untapped potential in cuts usually used for ground beef or roasts.
This research has provided comprehensive information about the chuck and round for the beef industry and is changing meat industry thinking about how best to cut and use some muscles. Results highlight the qualities and characteristics of individual muscles and suggest ways to boost their value through innovative cutting, fabrication or preparation techniques.
Collaboration with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the Nebraska Beef Council and the meat industry has been key to translating research findings into new products, he said.
"These muscles have been there for a long time. We identified their potential and called the industry's attention to muscles that are undervalued," Calkins said. "Industry is taking this information and making it work in the marketplace."
The flat iron steak is the best known outcome of this muscle profiling research and NCBA's broader efforts to introduce new beef products. It was among the pleasant surprises in the muscle profiling research.
"Some people knew this muscle was tender but lots of people either forgot it, ignored it or dismissed it," Calkins said of the flat iron steak. "It kept showing up tender in our tests so we've refocused industry attention on its potential."
The flat iron comes from the top blade muscle of the chuck. This muscle's looks can deceive even a trained meat-cutter's eye. A seam of connective tissue runs down the middle of it, making it appear tough.
"It's easy to look at this and perceive that this meat isn't tender, but you'd be wrong," he said. "If you remove the connective tissue, the rest of the muscle is exceptionally tender – one of the three most tender cuts."
Removing the connective tissue involves literally going against the grain – cutting the muscle lengthwise, contrary to meat cutters' training.
"It's like filleting a catfish," Calkins explained. After removing the connective tissue, the muscle looks like two fish fillets.
"Our local commercial partner, Meyer Foods, spent considerable time and effort to learn the most commercially viable way to cut the flat iron steak," he said.
Some people initially were skeptical about the new steak but a taste test usually convinces them. Consumers say the flat iron is tender, flavorful and similar to a strip or loin steak.
"The first time I went to a processor and pointed out that muscle, he looked at me like I was crazy," Calkins recalled. After tasting it, he became a believer. "He just didn't realize the sensory properties of that muscle."
Recent workshops hosted by the Nebraska Beef Council and IANR meat scientists to teach meat processors to properly cut flat iron steak and increase awareness of other promising undervalued beef cuts drew crowds, Calkins said. And consumers across the country are asking their butchers about the new steak.
For Calkins, it's rewarding to see industry turn his research into new products that boost consumer demand for beef and eventually should improve carcass value.
"I didn't imagine it would take off like this."
Consumers, beef producers and meat processors all will benefit from the flat iron steak and other cuts NCBA and industry are developing, he said. These cuts are boosting the value of the chuck and round. For example, the flat iron steak sells for more than twice as much as roasts or ground beef made from the top blade muscle.
"This is a good deal for consumers. It won't replace the top end steaks but it's a wonderful alternative for someone who wants to pay a little less."
Industry is developing other new products from promising undervalued muscles, Calkins said, and his research continues. He's assessing the flavor of value cuts and profiling muscles in older beef and dairy cows.
"We're again evaluating whether there are ways to increase carcass value and better serve consumer needs."
This research, conducted in cooperation with IANR's Agricultural Research Division, was funded by the Cattlemen's Beef Board through NCBA and by the Nebraska Beef Council.
Research Communications Coordinator