A little-known cut worth rediscovering
Below, we're sharing a sneak peek from Craft Beef: A Revolution of Small Farms and Big Flavors. Enjoy!
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If you’re like me, when you picture steak, you imagine a perfectly seared tenderloin, ribeye, or New York strip—the so-called “Hollywood cuts.” But as it turns out, those familiar, much-loved portions only amount to 12 percent of the cow, which begs the question: What are we missing out on?
Cuisines from around the world only increase the sense that we Americans are wasting an opportunity for gustatory delight. Walk into the most tantalizing-smelling restaurants in Hanoi, Osaka, or Mexico City, and you’ll find that many of the dishes reeling you in by the nose are centered on cuts of the cow entirely outside your culinary vernacular. Our situation in American steakdom amounts to nothing less than dinner-table tragedy: We’ve forgotten 88 percent of the cow.1
One summer day in Seattle, I found myself in a chilly butcher shop at the corner of Queen Anne Avenue and McGraw Street. The smell that hit my nostrils as I stepped toward the counter was rich and sharp—a little meaty, a little peppery—with just a whiff of antiseptic. I was at B&E Meats, a Seattle institution dating to the 1950s with multiple outposts across the city, including this one near my apartment. I was here because Joe and Ethan had advised that it was high time I reacquaint myself with the cow—the whole cow.
But before I did that, I wanted to understand how and why we came to snub the vast majority of the most important meat animal on the planet.
The Problem with Abundance
Our ribeye monogamy can be traced to America’s unique state of beef abundance. The United States is favored with vast grasslands and plentiful water, factors that make large swaths of the nation well suited for grazing animals. That’s precisely why buffalo herds thrived by the millions before they were hunted to near extinction. It wasn’t long after the first European settlers arrived that America became a place of “carnivorous abundance”—distinctly bovine abundance, to be specific.2 And that’s only become truer as the years have gone by.
But it’s not just natural resources that made us the world’s largest producer of beef, with an astounding annual production volume of 12.4 million tons.3 No, the more decisive reasons beef became as ubiquitous and accessible a part of American life as it is were railroads and refrigeration. They created this crazy thing called boxed beef.
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Subprimals or retail-ready cuts (primarily tenderloins, ribeyes, and New York strips) are packaged in vacuum-sealed plastic at packing houses, boxed, put in the back of semis, and sent to retail grocery stores around the country.
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By the 1960s, boxes packed with pre-vacuum-sealed, wholesale cuts like tenderloins or ribeyes began arriving at supermarkets4 and restaurants by the truckload. Boxed beef was a newfangled concept in those days, and it won the pocketbooks of shoppers because it was convenient and cheap, much more so than the offerings at a butcher shop sourcing its cows from a local farm.
The butcher shop itself started to change around that time too. Most butchery jobs migrated out of the neighborhood nook and into the grocery store, where the craft of cutting was reduced—to steal a great phrase from Kim Severson—to the art of slicing.5 And as for the butcher shops that did survive the advent of boxed beef? Many clung to life because they too started selling boxed beef. It was a pragmatic decision for a small business, in a time when consumers were being conditioned to pay dirt-cheap prices for protein. But it had a serious implication: Our collective forgetting of the cow was happening not only in hyper-modern grocery-store aisles but also at the very heart of the American meat tradition—the mom-and-pop butcher shop.
The crux of the problem was this: Boxed beef kicked off a new era wherein a few cuts could become popular, and the rest of the animal could be forgotten. Beyond the popular 12 percent—the tenderloins, ribeyes, and strips—all the other cuts went poof and dropped right out of our culinary imagination.
The rest of the cow doesn’t get thrown away, but for the most part, it doesn’t make it to American kitchens. What isn’t ground or shipped to grocery retailers finds its way into international markets like that of Peru, where high-end restaurants bid for American beef hearts and serve them up as entrees, or Egypt, where American beef liver is in high demand.6 Another final destination for forgotten cow parts (and of course, the truly inedible parts) is rendering plants, where industrial grinders process everything from cow leftovers to dead zoo animals to create “meat and bone meal,” which in turn becomes pet food, livestock feed, and fertilizer.7 The medical industry claims the rest, like the nasal septum.8 Yum.
But things are changing. Growing interest in whole-animal eating, local food, and international cuisine is amounting to a delicious and delightful rediscovery of underappreciated cuts from oxtail to tongue, even prompting a revival of the small-scale, custom slaughterhouse (a far cry from the industrial-scale ones that process up to 400 animals per hour) and the true craft butcher shop. That hot July afternoon at B&E Meats marked the beginning of my journey to eat what were then, to me, “the weird cuts” and what would become, in a few months, my favorite cuts.
A Steak Named Flap
As I peered down into the glass case at B&E Meats, the rows of red meat arranged by cut and identified by small chalk signs with neat lettering, one steak arrested my gaze—it was huge. Large, several shades darker than the crimson of grocery-store ribeyes, relatively free of white marbled flecks, and with visibly thick muscle grains, it was the size of an oblong throw pillow. It was exactly the kind of thing I had no idea what to do with. So naturally, I had to have it.
Its chalk-lettered sign read “Bavette,” but when I inquired with Tim, the quick-to-smile young man behind the counter, he told me it also goes by sirloin flap steak, or just flap meat. I decided privately that I had never heard a worse name for a piece of meat, or for anything at all, as a matter of fact. But as I discovered after some arduous Googling, the ugly nickname is just the beginning of this cut’s singular nomenclature confusion.
Bavette is a French word applied with equal frequency to two different cuts that in America are called flank steak and sirloin flap steak, respectively. In France, there’s bavette d’aloyau, which translates to “bib of the sirloin” and really means skirt steak. There’s also bavette flanchet, or “bib flank,” which corresponds to the American flank steak. Both are sometimes incorrectly called hanger steak. To make matters more confusing, the sirloin flap, which for all intents and purposes we can call the correct name for the cut, is sometimes called sirloin tip in New England or is sliced into strips, cubes, or thinner slabs and inevitably referred to as bavette all over again as a catch-all name for any especially thin steak.
Steak names and pseudonyms can be enough to make your head spin. It’s a territory with few enforcers, because national and regional traditions of meat cutting have historically had so much overlap, evolution, and change. There may be as many as a few hundred cuts of beef on an animal, which you realize when you compile the cut plans from different cultures around the world.
But after all the hubbub and disagreement, I can say with certainty that the sirloin flap—and I mean the whole, five-pound thing, which is what I had—comes from the bottom sirloin primal. While the nearby flank steak has made something of a hipster comeback in the last couple years, its neighbor sirloin flap continues to fly below the mainstream radar and as a result is half the price of flank.
I got home with my butcher-paper-wrapped steak and began to realize I faced a dilemma greater than name confusion: preparation.
I put flap—or flappy, as I had re-christened it on the walk home—still wrapped, into my cast-iron skillet for fit. It hung defiantly over the sides.
I supposed I could cut it into more manageable slices; that would make for a bunch of small steaks. But, I decided with a confident nod, that was less adventurous, and thus unworthy. I would cook the whole dang thing.
I preheated my oven (taking a shot in the dark and setting it to 425 degrees) and retrieved a 9-by-13-inch glass casserole dish from the drawer below the oven. Flappy fit perfectly inside it.
I pulled out salt, pepper, and—feeling slightly giddy with the what-the-hell attitude I’d adopted to make light of my ineptitude—coffee. I rubbed the meat thoroughly with the grainy, spicy mix, thinking that if the coffee didn’t work, at least I’d get an early-evening hit of caffeine, and into the oven the casserole dish went.
Forty-five minutes of thumb twiddling later, I pulled the hulking beast out of the oven. Its red exterior had transformed into a formidable, coffee-scented crust and was swimming in an eighth-inch of brown-and-red juices. My tiny kitchen was filled with scents: beefy, caramelized, coffee, nutty, peppery.
Bearing Anthony Bourdain’s relentless, insistent, printed-in-every-outlet-on-the-internet admonishment in mind (“to cut into a steak before letting it rest is tantamount to mortal sin!”), I gave the five-pound meal a good 15 minutes to seal in its juices, while saying a prayer in my head that it would prove edible.
The wait period observed, I pulled out the biggest plate I could find and transferred the steak to it. I stood over the counter, the smell wafting up tantalizingly, and decided to dispose of the nicety of sitting while eating.
I sliced off a strip, sawing through the large, still-defined muscle fibers that, while stringy in appearance and suggesting toughness, gave way with little fight. I popped a bite into my mouth.
My instantaneous reaction was surprise: This piece of meat contained more juice than seemed possible.
I chewed and noted that it was not at all fine-grained yet was decidedly tender, each fiber distinct but soft. What overpowered my impression of the texture, however, was the depth of flavor: It was a warm, slightly minerally, malty beef flavor that lasted through to the final chew. With each bite, I got a quick burst of caramel, and the pepper-coffee-salt added a dash of heat that made the meat itself taste sweet by contrast. I was not entirely sure, after all, that I would have leftovers.
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