The Roast Beef Roast

If you frequently hunger for roast beef sandwiches, you need to read this. If you cut meat behind a full-service meat counter, you probably also need to read this.

I adore a good roast beef sandwich. One with horseradish and mayo and lettuce and pickled beets, or sliced tomatoes, or hard-boiled eggs, shaved fennel, and pickled onions. But procuring the meat to make such a sandwich is way harder than it should be. I stand at the meat counter and shuffle my feet with indecision, hem and haw, wonder if I could just step back there for a brief minute, make a few deft gestures at the subprimal, and guide him through the process. But no. I just order, and wait, and hope for the best, and almost invariably end up disappointed. This last attempt was the very last straw. I am going to unleash the full power of the internet and Sketchbook to try to make sure that this never happens to me again. A three pound roast isn’t the same as just three pounds of meat. If that were the case, we would just let very primitive machines, built by a collaboration of General Motors and Microsoft, do all the work.

A dry-roasted round needs to be relatively free of major veins of connective tissue, needs to be tied well, and it needs to have the grain running the length. That last is the essential, elusive quality of any great roast because when the cook, the consumer, the customer upon which this entire retail paradigm depends, goes to slice the meat they need to have a fighting chance of getting it right.

Here’s how they’re not going to get it right:

Sorry Mel E. Mel, I jacked your photo. Send a takedown notice.

Sorry Mel E. Mel, I jacked your photo. Send a takedown notice.

That is a London Broil, possibly the worst cut of meat in the case. It’s actually a hate crime against cows. At least it will be when I’m called upon to fill the Attorney General position for the (Barney) Frank administration. It’s bad because it gives top round a bad name, while allowing supermarkets to move massive quantities of this unpopular cut. I imagine the reasoning is that the London Broil, being an enormous steak, appeals to the barbecue bro crowd. Roasts are stodgy.

This also isn’t going to cut it:


I can’t even play like that, mail-order meat purveyor.

Especially not with your boner, mail-order butcher! The face of that looks like a craggy geological feature.

Uneven face aside, the main problem here is that the cut is diagonal to the grain, rather than directly perpendicular. Here’s what I would show him if I came behind the counter at the massive warehouse where he works in an enormous refrigerated room in Pittsburg:


This is your first lesson.

The curved line pointing down runs the direction of the grain. That’s where, if you want to make a roast, you should bisect it. The straight line that cuts across the perpendicular is the direction to run the knife. Preferably a bigger knife than that one.

Now, let’s look at another hideous example of roast-hate:


Dont panic, its organic!

I’m not really sure why you would use this image to advertise your organic beef—it’s a terrifying frankenroast. First, it’s got two separate flaps of meat. With a roast, this isn’t what you want. So just leave that nasty old thing at the club. Not only is the grain running wrong, it’s running wrong on both pieces of meat, in two separate directions.


I gave it an evil hipster mustache.

See, to cut your cooked roast across the grain, you’ll need to start at an angle perpendicular to this line I’ve drawn. Does the average consumer know this? No, they do not. So it’s up to the meat purveyor to cut the roast so that it can be intuitively sliced against the grain. Most people look at a roast and they think, I should slice that across the short way. And they are absolutely right. It’s easier to slice it across the short width, and one isn’t left with a gigantic chunk that just flops over on the cutting board when you get halfway through it. Furthermore, as any roast beef aficionado can tell you, you need to slice it thinly, for maximum tenderness, and into reasonably-sized slices, to fit it onto the bread. Top round, as the bros-and-hoes-barbecue crowd can probably attest, ain’t the tenderest cut under less-than-perfect conditions. This is because there’s a lot of very thin connective tissue that… well let me show you:


I love learning with you guys! You’re the biology study buddies I never had!

See how the muscles’ connective tissues run the same direction as the fleshy muscle fibers? We want to cut those things with our tools, not wear out our teeth breaking them down into a digestible mass. When you slice the meat across the grain, you’re slicing the connective tissues as well. The thinner you slice, the smaller they get. This is how you can cook a top round of beef to an internal temperature of 130°,  perfect for rareish medium-rare roast beef, but far below the 160° threshold at which the connective tissues begin to melt, and still chew the damn thing. How will you slice your Flintstone steak across the grain? On a bias? Oh, good luck with that.

So when you head to the meat store, or to your job at the meat store, here’s what you need to know about cutting top round, and really all dry roasts:

  1. Get that thing down to one muscle mass. Management wants to save time and money by including that flap meat as part of the roast. Fuck that. Seam it out. Grind the rest or find some other use.
  2. Create a long piece of meat along which the grain runs. Sometimes this means bisecting it in the same direction as the grain.
  3. The first cut is often the best. The “front” of the top round, bottom round, and top sirloin are generally the densest in muscle fiber and sparest in connective tissues.

Here, I’ve used my newfound powers of graphic design to illustrate all of this in one handy image:


Print it out; take it to the store!

Wow! That is a beautiful image! The arrow shows the direction of the grain, and where the roast should be bisected. The lines crossing it show where most butchers like to cut, and where they actually should cut! Print it out, take it with you.

If all turns out well, and experience shows it rarely does, you’ll end up with something like this:Top-Round

Oh god, I’m sorry about that. I’m just really enthralled with this new drawing program. I’m also sorry to all the bloggers whose content I stole. But lets face it, you prolly stole it too.





Slumming Around the Carcass

As a meat-cutter trying to save money to travel, I took full advantage of my special position to make sure I could get my steak at least once a week. What kind of meat cutter doesn’t get his steak? For example, I could cut the flatirons out of the shoulder and wrap them up priced as ten percent grind, since that’s what the shop would do with them anyway. Eventually though, flatirons got popular, and management figured they were too valuable to grind, even though none of the other cutters could actually clean them up well enough to be worth grilling (except you, Kent). I don’t mean to be a braggart, that’s just a fact.

It was like having a decent little one-bedroom in the bad part of town, and they jack the rent. Now I’m eating pot roast and potatoes instead of rare beef and tomatoes. The price of off-cuts and what they used to call butcher’s cuts soared compared to the rest of the cow. Meanwhile, over in the poultry section, wings climbed to over three a pound, while management was falling all over itself to keep the price of boneless, skinless breast down. It’s the definition of gentrification, which is really just a dysphemism for trendy.

This “food gentrification” briefly became a hash tag a year ago after Whole Foods—in their stilted, white-people’s-overbite style of awe-shucks marketing—starting saying “Collards are the New Kale.” The mille feuille of absurdity inherent in this claim went largely unremarked upon, but collards seemed to strike a nerve with social media activists, probably due to their their race class connotations. Now, I know it sucks to see your old neighborhood—the place where you got your ass kicked on a regular basis growing up, where you learned to watch your back out of the corners of your eyes in the shop windows—being overrun first by a bunch of earnest and unafraid hipsters, and eventually by a bunch of Toyota yuppies, but you can’t gentrify a hardy, weedy, widely distributed green leaf. You can’t even gentrify pot (well, I suppose we’ll put that to the test here soon). But you can gentrify meat.

A cow only has two hanger steaks, two flanks, two outside skirts, two tri-tips, and four flatirons—and let’s be generous and say all that weighs twenty pounds trimmed—and you can’t just harvest cows like lettuce, on a cut-and-come-again basis, to get more trendy butcher’s cuts. The real tragedy though, has been for people who used to eat near the bottom of the price floor. Oxtails are like eight dollars a pound at the natural foods store now. Short ribs, six-fifty. Even beef bones, which I used to buy on the regular to fill up the freezer with stock, have been sucked up into the maws of pampered yuppy dogs and paleo dieters, to over three a pound. Never mind, I just use shank nowadays (three-fifty or so), while I still can. The boneless and trimmed rounds meanwhile, languishing from unpopularity, weigh about eighty pounds total. They don’t even stock half the cuts anymore.

I watched an old woman come into the store every other week or so for a couple of years, who always bought nearly all the wings we had for a buck-sixty-nine a pound. Expensive to her already, but she really liked our chicken—Petaluma Poultry free range at the time. She came in once after the price broke two a pound, got mad then laughed it off, bought some drumsticks for one-fifty-something I believe, and never came back. What I don’t think she noticed was that the boneless skinless breasts had stayed the same price: $5.99/pound.