You may have seen the phrases “cut across the grain” or “cut against the grain” before when researching steak cutting techniques. If you find yourself wondering what it means, why it matters, and how to do it, we’ll piece it together for you.
First things first, what is “the grain”?
A piece of meat is made up of a group of long muscle fibers that lay parallel to each other. The grain is the direction of those long parallel muscle fibers.
Take this flank steak as an example:
Do you see the long streaks on this flank steak? Those lines are the grain. The harder worked muscle cuts tend to be more defined than the weaker muscle cuts. You can see the grain on both raw and cooked cuts.
Is it easy to see the grain on all cuts of meat?
No, not all grain is the same. There are specific cuts of meat that are easier to identify the grain, and sometimes the grain can look different depending on how the butcher cut the meat.
The rule is the tougher the meat, the more clearly defined the grain usually is, like on a flank steak. It’s harder to identify the grain on leaner cuts such as the strip steak since it’s a tender/weaker muscle cut.
As you can see on this strip steak, the direction of the grain can change as well.
What does it mean to cut across the grain vs. along the grain? And how do I cut across the grain?
When you cut along the grain, it keeps all the long muscle fibers intact, which makes the meat tough. When you cut across the grain, it breaks up the muscle fibers, making the meat tender and more comfortable to chew. Cutting across the grain also keeps the steak juicy and tender by locking in the juices.
It’s also important to remember that you should cut thin slices across the grain. If you cut huge slices across the grain, it defeats the purpose of breaking up long thick muscle fibers. You’ll find yourself getting stuck chewing through tough meat if the slices are too thick.
Once you identify the grain, you cut perpendicular, or across, the grain. See below:
Lastly, why is it important to cut across the grain?
It’s important either way, but the level of importance does vary by the tenderness of the meat.
If you’re working with a weaker muscle cut like the tenderloin or strip steak, the steak will be tender no matter how you decide to cut it. But when you’re working with tougher muscles like flank steak or hanger steak, muscle fibers will be tougher and have a clearly defined grain. To make it easier to chew, it is best to cut across the grain with any piece of meat that has a clearly defined grain.
When it comes to grass-fed meat, you can have an even more difficult time eating a steak that wasn’t cut across the grain. Grass-fed animals are more active and tend to be a lot leaner than conventional grain-fed animals. Because grass-fed animals’ muscles are more developed, this naturally makes the meat a little tougher and less forgiving of cooking or cutting error.
Cutting across the grain will be the deciding factor of whether or not you eat a tender steak vs. a tough steak. No pressure as long as you remember to cut across the grain!