It seems like just yesterday that the beef industry rolled out the flat iron steak, but it has actually been nearly 10 years. Time has been good to the flat iron, a cut of beef once ground into hamburger.

The flat iron is tasty, tender, affordable and popular. The retail and foodservice arenas have embraced it.

Also known as the top blade steak, the flat iron has not only invigorated the beef industry with its quality and consistency, it has given the industry more reason to pursue similar cuts, says Kari Underly, author of “The Art of Beef Cutting: A Meat Professional’s Guide to Butchering and Merchandising.” Underly, who helped research the flat iron, says the cut has set the stage for similar cuts to evolve.

“It opened people’s eyes to look at more single muscles that weren’t just the traditional steaks that most people are used to,” she says.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association led research aimed at identifying undervalued parts of the beef carcass when the flat iron was discovered. Researchers evaluated more than 5,600 muscles for flavor and tenderness, not to mention consistency. The research continues today.

“We’re very involved in scientific research to improve the quality characteristics of beef and also to identify the muscles within the carcass that have certain attributes making them superior to other muscles,” says Bridget Wasser, NCBA’s director of product enhancement.

The NCBA has identified some of the more tender muscles, such as the flat iron, in the carcass through muscle profiling.

“We use that science to suggest innovative fabrication to help us get at those muscles and create new cuts,” Wasser says.

New cuts require a change in fabrication, and butchery can be traditional, Wasser says. So the NCBA makes sure a new cut will provide a quality eating experience and makes sense from a value and business standpoint before pursuing it.

Underly says there is more demand for distinct cuts that have more value, such as the flat iron, the ranch steak and the bavette, which she describes as a thick skirt steak. The latter features long muscle fibers, which allow it to immerse well in marinade.

Steve Olson, the standard and specifications advisor for the North American Meat Processors Association and author of the US Dept. of Agriculture’s Institutional Meat Purchasing Specifications, says the beef industry is putting out the most consistent product ever. He credits research of beef’s sensory muscle characteristics in the late 1990s as a major breakthrough to deliver more consistent product.

“We’ve come a long way,” he adds.

Consistency equals quality
Consistency is crucial to the quality factor, Wasser says, noting the NCBA’s aim is for consumers to experience a consistent eating experience every time they consume beef.

“That’s the ultimate goal driving us in the work we do toward beef quality,” she adds.

Underly says beef producers and packers have done a good job of specing cattle and holding to those specs, which has resulted in more consistent product.

“Consistency is always a challenge, especially when you’re portioning,” she adds.

Tenderness is a major component of consistency, and the NCBA has been paying close attention to it for the last 20 years. The NCBA’s Beef Check-off, a producer-funded marketing and research program designed to increase demand for beef, conducts the National Beef Tenderness Study every five years. The study samples beef from retail and foodservice sectors across the country.

“Since 1990, we’ve seen dramatic improvements in beef tenderness,” Wasser says.

A big reason for that is related to aging practices in the beef industry.

“It’s probably the best tool we have to improve the tenderness of our product,” Wasser says.

The beef industry recommends aging beef for 14 days post-mortem. But the NCBA has discovered through survey data that the average is closer to 20 or 21 days.

“That’s a great thing for the tenderness and consistency of our products,” Wasser says.

Branded beef programs have also helped with aging.

“The branded programs usually have a minimum requirement for aging,” Wasser says. “They also usually have a minimum requirement for quality grade and the amount of marbling in the product.”

Underly recommends aging beef for a minimum of 14 to 21 days for consumers and up to 28 days for foodservice operators.

“Beef is pushed through the production cycle so fast that it’s really up to the end user to make sure it ages properly,” Underly adds.

Enhancing beef
Because beef is more consistent, it is more versatile. The opportunities to enhance beef have increased dramatically in terms of flavors and cooking styles, says Dave Zino, the NCBA’s executive chef.

“There’s a greater availability of ingredients to us,” Zino says.

Underly agrees that beef has benefited from enhancements, such as new flavor profiles and spices, to cooking styles, such as being grilled over wood smoke.

“There are so many ways to add enhancements and flavor to beef,” Underly says. “But just make sure you’re purchasing what you want your desired outcome to be. If you want to get loud and crazy with all these great spices, don’t choose a cut that already has a good quality flavor all by itself.”

Those cuts can be found in the chuck and the rib, Zino says, noting that beef’s flavor is more rich and hearty in those areas.

“But the flavor mellows in the loins, sirloin and round, [providing] the opportunity to use different flavor profiles for those cuts,” he adds.

“Other proteins like chicken are more mellow so it’s easier to use different flavor profiles on them,” Zino says. “You don’t want to mask beef’s flavor, but you do want to enhance it.”

Beef tenderloin is a good candidate of which to add flavor because of its blandness, Underly adds.

“But you wouldn’t want to add a lot of flavor to a juicy, ribeye cap steak,” she notes.

Jeff Cofer, the former corporate chef for AdvancePierre Foods and now a national account manager and chef for Blount Fine Foods in Warren, R.I., loves what his peers are doing to enhance beef. Cofer says he’s especially inspired with how some food truck chefs are presenting beef.

“Go with what’s hot and put a spin on it,” Cofer urges other culinologists.

Because of beef’s versatility, consumers have become more open to cuts they never would’ve considered eating 10 years ago.

“Consumers are more than open to [those cuts],” Cofer says. “They’re demanding them.”

Franklin Hall, CEO of Lone Star Foodservice in Austin, Texas, says his company is selling more cuts like beef short ribs and oxtails than ever before. Hall is impressed with how chefs are using the cuts.

“Chefs keep pushing the envelope to try and look for something new and different,” he says. “They’re not just taking the same cut and preparing it in the same way.”

Image upgrade
Beef’s image continues to improve among consumers, Hall says. A big reason for that is the continued success of branded beef.

Hall says his business was one of the early adopters of Certified Angus Beef. The company also has a partnership with Niman Ranch, a California-based producer that raises cattle with no antibiotics and hormones and its own special feed.

“Some people think of beef as a commodity,” Hall says. “I don’t think that way. Beef has so many variations to it.”

Hall believes consumers are willing to pay more for quality beef, partly because of branded beef.

Angus has had a tremendous impact on branding, which has transcended Certified Angus Beef. A reason for that is that consumers are often confused about beef grading, and they have easily identified with Angus as a quality brand, Underly says.

“But just because a product is Angus doesn’t mean that all Angus will be the same,” she adds.

Beef’s image will no doubt be affected by continuing trends on national and local levels. For instance, branded beef may flourish in smaller settings.

“I’m buying more from ranchers in our area,” Hall says. “I think that’s the way of the future. For those chefs that want local product, we have that available to them.”

Chefs can expect steaks to get larger as the primals and subprimals on animals get bigger, Underly says. That said, Olson believes the bigger the beef carcasses, the better.

“The consistency of quality in US beef today is because of what our fabricators have been doing with knives,” Olson says.

Speaking of fabrication, the grass-fed beef movement could gain ground if someone can figure out how to cut it correctly, Olson says.

“Beef processors need to cut it differently than traditionally fed beef,” he adds.

One thing is certain to Hall, the third-generation owner of Lone Star Foodservice, who has made beef his livelihood for many years.

“It’s becoming less about selling and more about trying to understand how we can help our customers,” Hall says. “We have to get in their shoes and walk a little bit with them so we can relate.”