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The Food Lab: Slicing Meat Against the Grain

It's time for another round of The Food Lab. Got a suggestion for an upcoming topic? Email Kenji here, and he'll do his best to answer your queries in a future post. Become a fan of The Food Lab on Facebook for play-by-plays on future kitchen tests and recipe experiments.

So you already know how important it is to rest your meat, and you may have even gone and cooked your steak sous-vide. Surely, the only thing left to do is cut it and eat it, right?

Not so fast.

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One of these steaks is not like the other.*

*Okay, okay. For all you language and logic pedants out there, it's true that if one of these steaks is not like the other, then both of these steaks is not like the other. But you know what I meant, right?

Can you spot the difference between the two hanger steaks? They were both cooked to a perfect 130°F medium-rare in the same pan, they are both cut from the same piece of meat, and they both sport a beautiful brown, crackly crust. Yet one of them is more tender than Otis Redding on a good day, while the other has more in common with a rubber band.

What's the difference? It's all got to do with the angle at which it's sliced.

We read it in cookbooks all the time: "Slice thinly against the grain." But what does slicing against the grain really mean? Well, meat is made up of bundles of long muscle fibers that are laid out parallel to one another.

Take a close look at your meat, and you'll see that just like wood, it's got a grain. In some muscles, like the loin (where NY strip and rib-eye come from) or tenderloin (a.k.a. filet mignon), that grain is very fine: the muscle fiber bundles are thin enough that they don't form a significant grain. Cuts from weak muscles like these will be soft and tender pretty much no matter how you slice them.

On the other hand, cuts from harder working, more flavorful muscles, like skirt steak, hanger steak, or flank, have thicker muscle fiber bundles with a clearly defined grain. Take a look here:

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In this picture, I've labeled the three features you're most likely to notice on a piece of grilled meat.

You see, the fibers themselves are tough cookies. They have to be. Their job is to move all the moving parts of an animal that is much much bigger than you. Try and tear a single muscle fiber by stretching it along its length, and you'll have a pretty hard time. On the other hand, pulling individual muscle fibers apart from one another is relatively easy.

Try it: Get yourself a flank steak, cut off a small square of it, and try yanking it apart by holding it with the grain running between your hands. Can't do it, right? Now rotate it 90 degrees so that instead of pulling along the length of the muscle fibers, you are pulling them apart. Much easier.

So before putting a piece of flank, hanger, or skirt steak in your mouth, the goal should be to shorten those muscle fibers as much as possible with the help of a sharp knife. If you cut with your knife parallel to the grain, you end up with long muscle fibers that are tough for your teeth to break through. Slicing thinly against the grain, however, delivers very short pieces of muscle fiber that are barely held together.

Ah, tenderness...

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Really, that's about all you need to know, so you have full permission to stop reading right now.

But! For those of you, who like me, had the greatest geometry teacher in the world in 9th grade and have thus been instilled with a preternatural desire to draw triangles and measure stuff, well, in the words of Mr. Sturm, get your gas masks, because we are climbing Mount Elegance, and the air up there is quite thin!**

** These words were usually immediately followed by "Kenji, don't get too excited, or I shall be forced to deliver a spanking!"

So final question to answer: quantitatively, how much of an effect does this actually have my meat? I mean, how much does it really matter which way I slice it?

Let's set up some definitions:

Given a bit of high school trigonometry, you can quickly come up with the following formula: