When you bite into a piece of steak, you expect it to be soft and tender. You’ve imagined those meaty juices and that glorious flavor.
But your first mouthful is dry, and you can’t seem to get it down. Why is steak sometimes tough and chewy?
Steak is tough and chewy when the meat is poor quality and not fresh, the cut is not ideal for the cooking method, the steak is too lean, or the steak has been undercooked or overcooked. Steaks will also be tough if they are not rested after cooking and sliced against the grain.
When you cut into a steak, you immediately know whether it’s going to have that mouth-watering succulence or you’re going to be chewing the whole way through. Even if it cuts easily enough, you may be left with a dry, stringy mouthful.
What causes a steak to turn out so badly?
Why Is My Steak Tough and Chewy?
There are several reasons why your steak may be tough and chewy. These reasons range from the quality of the meat itself to the way it has been stored, prepared, and cooked.
1 – The Quality of The Meat Is Poor
The first reason a steak may be tough and chewy is that it started with poor-quality meat. No matter how well you cook a poor-quality steak, it will never turn out perfectly.
Several aspects influence the quality of your steak.
Where Does the Steak Come From?
Meat quality starts with the animal itself and will depend on the breed, how the animal lived, and how it was slaughtered.
Best Steak Breeds
The best, most tender steaks come from the Japanese Wagyu breeds, although steak from Brahman, Gelbvieh, Limousin, Charolais, Simmental, and Angus cattle are also highly regarded.
Raising and Feeding Practices
The animal’s quality of life will also impact the quality of the meat. Grass-fed beef is arguably the best quality, while corn-fed beef produces more marbled meat, with fat throughout the muscles.
Age of Animal
The age of the animal is also important. Older cattle will have experienced more physical activity, developing more dense muscle fiber; thus, the meat will have a tougher texture. Meat from younger animals will be far more tender and less chewy, with more fat and marbling.
How an animal is slaughtered can also influence the quality of meat. In a healthy and rested animal, not stressed by the slaughter processed, the glycogen (sugar) providing energy to the muscles converts to lactic acid after death. This chemical process makes the meat tender and of good quality.
If an animal is stressed before slaughter, it uses up the glycogen in its muscles, so there is limited lactic acid in the meat, impacting the quality.
Was the Steak Aged?
The best quality meat can be improved or spoiled by how it is treated at a butchery or grocery store.
Most beef is either dry-aged by hanging in a cool place for seven to twenty-eight days or wet-aged for four to ten days.
Dry aging produces greater flavor and tenderness as the natural meat enzymes break down the tougher tissue. Aged beef has a characteristic firm texture and dark color compared to the bright red color of fresh meat.
What Grade Is the Steak?
In the United States, beef is graded by the Department of Agriculture (USDA), as follows:
- Prime beef is the highest quality of steak. This meat comes from young, well-fed cattle and is characterized by abundant marbling. In a steakhouse or hotel, you’ll be eating prime beef. You probably won’t find prime beef at a supermarket, but find a butcher that stocks it.
- Choice beef is still good quality meat but at a more reasonable price. Most home cooks will buy choice beef, which is tasty and tender but has less marbling.
- Select beef is third-grade beef, much leaner, and much less expensive. It’s not the best choice for steak.
2 – The Steak’s Cut Is Not Ideal
Not all steaks are created equal – different cuts of steak come from various parts of the animal’s body and will have varying proportions of muscle, bone, and fat. These elements will influence how tender your steak will be.
A big influence on a steak’s chewiness will be its amount of connective tissue (ligaments, tendons, and membranes). The more connective tissue between the muscles, the tougher, chewier, and stringier your steak will be.
Another aspect will be how dense the muscle fibers are. If a piece of meat is from a more active animal, it will have more muscle fiber and be tougher. That’s why meat from the leg, shoulders and upper back of an animal is best marinated and slow-cooked so that it becomes tender.
Steaks cut from the belly, thigh, rump, and flanks of the animal are more tender and flavorful, such as the tenderloin or filet mignon. Other cuts that are usually juicy and delicious are the ribeye (Delmonico steak), sirloin, T-bone, porterhouse, strip, and tri-tip steak.
3 – The Steak Is Too Lean
Whichever cut of steak you choose, one common factor will be how much fat the steak has – this will influence whether your steak will turn out tough or not.
In the United States, steaks are judged on how much marbling they have. Marbling is a term butchers use for the visible fat between the muscles. If you look at a raw steak, you should be able to see flecks and strips of white fat.
Other meat-loving nations, like South Africa, prefer the fat to be on the outside of the steak, leaving it leaner.
Either way, the fat is essential for tenderness because as it cooks, the fat melts into the meat, softening it and adding rich flavor. The fat also makes the meat that appealing golden brown color after cooking.
A lean steak needs to be prepared and cooked very carefully, as it doesn’t have lots of fat to keep it juicy, so it can dry out easily. Always cook a leaner steak at a lower temperature and for a shorter time.
4 – The Steak Is Not Fresh
Freshness in steak doesn’t necessarily refer to how recently the animal was slaughtered – some of the best steaks are well-aged. Freshness refers to how well and for how long a steak has been stored and frozen.
A steak that has been frozen and defrosted will never be as tender as steak that hasn’t. Unfortunately, restaurants sometimes buy their meat in bulk and freeze it until needed.
Buying frozen, vacuum-sealed meat doesn’t mean it’s going to be tough. However, a poorly defrosted steak will end up tough and chewy.
To defrost a steak correctly, you need to leave it overnight in the refrigerator to maintain the meat’s flavor and texture and prevent it from going bad through contamination by bacteria.
5 – The Steak is Badly Cooked
You can start with the best quality, perfectly aged cut of marbled steak, but if you don’t prepare, cook, and rest it correctly, you will end up with a ruined, tough, and chewy piece of meat.
You can grill, roast, or pan-sear steak in a cast-iron skillet.
Was the Steak Properly Seasoned?
Even if your meat is of a prime quality, you will need to season it before cooking.
One approach suggests seasoning the raw steak with salt and pepper and letting it rest in the fridge overnight. The theory is that although the salt will draw the juices out of the meat, the resting process allows the meat to reabsorb the liquid and remain juicy and flavorful.
Other chefs season the steak not long before cooking – but not during the cooking process. A bit of olive oil and lashings of flaked sea salt are all the seasoning you need.
Add pepper after the steak is cooked, if necessary.
Was the Steak Tenderized?
If you know you are starting with a less tender steak, your meat will benefit from tenderizing. Leaving out this step will mean a tough and chewy steak.
The best way to tenderize steak is to marinate it overnight in the refrigerator. The marinade usually contains an acid (like lemon juice, vinegar, or buttermilk) that helps break down the muscle fibers. Marinades also add a flavor punch to most meat.
You can also season your steak with commercial meat tenderizers, most of which contain MSG and are flavor-enhancers as well.
Manual methods of tenderizing steak are using a meat hammer or mallet or poking tiny holes in the eat with a fork, which will soften the steak, but you will sacrifice texture and flavor.
Was the Steak at Room Temperature Before Cooking?
Always allow the meat to come to room temperature before cooking it to cook more evenly.
If the meat is still cold inside, it will take longer to cook, which means you can easily overcook it.
Was the Pan or Grill Hot Enough?
Another reason steak comes out tough is that it starts in a pan or on a grill that isn’t hot enough. Steak can tolerate a sizzling hot pan that sears the outside of the meat, creating that delicious brown crust, allowing the inside to cook more slowly.
Starting the meat too slowly will mean it will either undercook or overcook, both of which can leave your meat tough and chewy.
Was the Steak Undercooked?
If a steak has been cooked too little, it can be tough and chewy because there has not been enough heat to melt down the fat and create flavor and juiciness.
It can also be dangerous to eat undercooked meat because of the possibility of bacterial contamination, which will lead to food poisoning.
Was the Steak Overcooked?
Overcooking steak is the main reason that steaks made by home chefs are tough and chewy.
Although cooking steak makes it flavorful and tasty, cooking a steak for too long destroys the fats in the meat and dries out the juices, leaving it hard and leathery.
Another way you overcook a steak is by pressing it down in the pan or on the grill with a spatula. Don’t poke it with a fork. Either way, you’re forcing the juices out of the meat, leaving it dryer and tougher.
Did You Use a Meat Thermometer?
The best way to ensure that your steak is optimally cooked is to use a meat thermometer, which will measure the steak’s internal temperature and indicate whether the meat is cooked or not.
This table gives the correct cooking time for a one-and-a-half-inch steak (no bone), grilled or pan-seared.
|Rare||2 ½ minutes per side||130⁰F/54.4⁰C|
|Medium-rare||3 ½ minutes per side||135⁰F/57.2⁰C|
|Medium||4 minutes per side||140⁰F/60⁰C|
|Medium-well||5 minutes per side||145-150⁰F/65.5⁰C|
|Well||6 minutes per side||155⁰F/68.3⁰C|
Was the Steak Allowed to Rest?
Even though it’s really tempting just to dig into a freshly cooked steak, the meat will be far more tender if you let it rest for at least five to ten minutes before eating.
Remember that a steak continues cooking for a short time after removing it from the heat. Resting allows the meat to reabsorb and redistribute the juices released during cooking, leaving the meat moist.
If you slice into your steak immediately, you’ll lose a lot of the juices to the plate or cutting board, and your meat will be dry and tough.
To rest a steak, remove it from the grill or cooker and place it on a plate or cutting board. Cover the meat with a tin foil tent to keep warm while resting.
If you’re worried about the steak getting cold, put it in a preheated oven at its lowest temperature or a warming draw.
Was the Steak Sliced Correctly?
The way a steak is sliced before eating will also influence how chewy it will be. If a steak is cut parallel to the muscle fibers, you will have to chew through the fibers.
Steaks that are sliced against the grain or across the muscle fibers are easier to eat as they come apart more easily.
To ensure that your steak doesn’t turn out tough and chewy, choose prime quality, well-marbled meat that has been aged correctly.
Allow the steak to come to room temperature before seasoning it and cooking it in a hot pan or on a hot grill. Use a meat temperature to check when it’s done, then allow it to rest before slicing against the grain.
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