What’s Your Beef?

Mickey Beriau, C.E.C, A.A.C Comments
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September 2001
Culinary Caonnection

What’s Your Beef?



When I started working in foodservice back in the late 1960s, Ben, Hoss and Little Joe were roping steers on the Ponderosa, and, at least during prime time, Marshall Dillon was the law. Americans just couldn’t get enough of the “wild wild west” — and when it came to eating out, that meant beef. As a chef, I’d devote up to half of a 30-entrée menu to steaks and burgers. It was the era of the king-size prime rib and the 20-oz. Chateaubriand. And on any given night, beef items would account for about 70% of sales.


Where’s the beef?
Let’s face it: Times have changed and so have restaurant customers. But one thing has remained constant. More than 30 years later, beef is still the leading center-of-the-plate item in restaurants because people still crave its flavor, especially when they eat out. The challenge for chefs and foodservice operators in today’s market is giving customers the beef they crave at a profitable margin while dealing with the realities of an increasingly unskilled labor force. Fortunately, the beef industry is working hard to give foodservice manufacturers and operators more and more profitable alternatives — applying a new product model to one that was formerly commodity-oriented.


Those efforts actually began back in the economically uncertain 1980s and ’90s, when consumers began looking for a quality steak — and one that wasn’t chopped sirloin — for less than $10.00. Flank and skirt steak were not yet fashionable on dinner menus. Blade steaks, hanger steaks and coulottes (top sirloin cap steak) were completely unheard of in the Northeast.


Leading beef purveyors began identifying alternative cuts to meet the price demands of operators and consumers. The top sirloin butt steak, available either club-cut or sirloin-style, trimmed and defatted — which cost approximately $2.89 per lb. and menued under $10.00 — could still fall well within the 30% food cost targeted by operators. It was one of the first examples of an underutilized cut of beef stepping onto the menu.


As time progressed, chefs could clearly see the need for a more cost-effective way to handle the inventory and preparation to eliminate waste. Guests were almost always taking home “doggie bags,” and in response, portions began to shrink. Twelve-ounce filets became 10 oz. and 16-oz. sirloin strip steaks became 12 oz. To serve a petite filet as a luncheon steak, the chef merely cut the dinner portion in half. And menus were shrinking, too, typically downsizing to just 10 to 15 entrées, of which only two or three might feature beef.


Meanwhile the restaurant customer was evolving and becoming more and more sophisticated and demanding. As the demand for new tastes increased, products that had once been seasonal were quickly becoming available year-round, and the stage was set for a flavor explosion. Menus that had once served rice or french fries were now serving exotic pastas and healthy grains. Sauces rich in butter were being replaced with reductions, compotes, salsas and chutneys. Filet mignon with herb butter and fried onion rings gave way to mesquite-grilled top sirloin with wild-mushroom ragout and an aged balsamic reduction, or grilled New York steak with a pinenut and basil crust.

Beef: It’s what’s for dinner
Today, culinary experimentation and creativity is at an all-time high. Chefs are creating a new American cuisine — a melting pot of ingredients and cooking styles from their own regions, infused with flavors from around the world. Comfort foods that consumers grew up with are now back in style. And consumers are confident that moderate-sized portions of closely trimmed meat, regular exercise and a balanced lifestyle will allow them to enjoy beef as often as they please.


So, it should come as no surprise that beef demand has been on the rise for more than two years, according to the Beef Industry Demand Index. Meanwhile, chefs are looking for more profitable beef cuts to meet that demand. The answer lies in the underutilized and undervalued chuck and round cuts that go head-to-head with value-added chicken products for cost, versatility and convenience.


A cut above
In the year 2000, economic research reported by Cattle-Fax, Englewood, CO, revealed a 20% to 30% decline in the value of the beef chuck and round in the last 5 years. The beef industry responded by identifying new opportunities for the menu through Muscle Profiling research designed to find the optimal uses for each muscle and optimize the value of the carcass.


The research tested 39 primary muscles, including 27 muscles in the chuck and 12 muscles in the round. In all, more than 5,600 muscles were studied. Researchers separated muscles of 8 oz. or more from the chuck and the round. Trained sensory panels at the University of Florida, Gainesville, and Kansas State University, Manhattan, analyzed the muscles for a number of characteristics, including tenderness and other palatability traits. Tenderness also was measured objectively using a Warner-Bratzler shear force machine. In addition, the University of Florida measured muscle dimensions and yields at various levels of fat trim. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, measurements were obtained of muscle pH, expressible moisture, oil-binding capacity, connective tissue amount, objective color, pigment concentration, composition (fat, moisture and ash) and muscle-fiber-type profile.


The study includes an assessment of the effects of quality and yield grades on each of the traits. When this extensive research was completed, it became apparent which muscles could be grilled or roasted with dry-heat cooking methods and which had to be braised or stewed. Most cuts proved to provide a wealth of opportunities for new product development.


Six key muscles have been identified as alternative steak cuts for foodservice: ranch cut, flat iron, sirloin tip, Western griller and tender medallions. The ranch cut steak, from the shoulder/clod/heart, can be shaped similar to a New York strip and performs like a boneless, skinless chicken breast — excellent for sandwiches or served as a luncheon steak. The flat iron steak, cut from the top blade, the second most tender beef muscle next to the tenderloin, is a flavorful, well-marbled steak perfect as a center-of-the-plate alternative, or for use as an ingredient in a dish. Sirloin tip steaks, cut from the round tip center and side, perform well when marinated and grilled. The Western griller steak is cut from the outside round and can be portioned up to 24 oz. Tender medallions, cut from the teres major, located in the blade, is shaped like a pork tenderloin and can be roasted or grilled whole then sliced into medallions. This is one of the most tender beef muscles — definitely white-tablecloth quality.


New ways with beef
As an R&D chef, I was asked to develop recipe concepts to showcase many of these products, and I’m pleased to report that their performance was outstanding. They eat well and lend themselves to a variety of contemporary presentations, such as smoked Southwestern barbecue blade steak with roasted corn and black bean cactus paddle salad; five-spice crusted chuck tenders with sesame-braised red cabbage; gingered sweet potatoes and
ponzu sauce; and roasted ranch steak roulades with grilled pepper farci, toasted couscous and balsamic drizzle.


At Dole & Bailey, Inc., through training, tasting and demonstrations, we are seeing great movement on top blade steaks, shoulder clods and peeled knuckles. We went from selling 50 to 60 lbs. of blade steak a week to selling 1,800 to 2,400 lbs. per week. Fabricated or portion-control tenderloin steaks are our strongest sellers, followed by sirloin strips, top sirloin butt and ribs.


The days of “Gunsmoke” and rib roasts priced at 69 cents per lb. may be over, but beef is still “what’s for dinner” and still holds high value opportunities for operators. For manufacturers, it’s a question of joining the charge and giving customers new labor-saving, value-added beef products. Beef is here to stay. Our challenge is to treat an American favorite as a new product opportunity.


Michael Beriau, C.E.C., A.A.C., a graduate of the Culinary Institue of America, is corporate chef and sales manager at Dole & Bailey Inc., Woburn, MA. Beriau is an active member of several organizations, including the Research Chefs Association and the American Culinary Federation (ACF), where he has won numerous awards including two gold medals in the 1988 Culinary Olympics in Frankfurt, Germany and two ACF presidential medallion awards. Recently, he was honored with the title of ACF Northeast Regional Chef of the Year.


 

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