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:

how-to-cook-a-top-round

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:

How-to-cut-a-top-round.

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:

Another-bad-top-round-roast

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.

evil-hipster-roast

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:

muscle-fiber-anatomy-tender

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:

buying-a-good-roast

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.