When your steak is the wrong texture, it’s a disappointing experience. That’s true anytime your efforts didn’t yield the results you expected. If you grilled a steak only to have it turn out stringy, chewy, or tough, what went wrong? And what can you do to fix it?
Why Is My Steak Stringy?
Steak that has a stringy texture when cooked may have come from an older cow. Often, the problem comes about because the meat was of poor quality to begin with. There also might not be enough fat in the meat, or the steak may have been very thin, making it easy to overcook.
When most people describe their steak as “stringy,” they mean that it’s difficult to chew. Meat that’s tender enough to melt in your mouth wouldn’t warrant this adjective. But what’s the reason behind it?
Often, a stringy texture means that the meat contains a lot of connective tissue. This translates into a cooked steak that takes a long time to chew, because the meat is so tough.
A long, slow cooking process is the best way to deal with all that connective tissue. However, that’s not the ideal treatment for a good steak. In the section below, we’ll talk more about how you might avoid this issue in the future.
More often than not, a steak that turns out stringy was not high-quality meat to begin with. You can season and cook the steak to perfection, and the texture will still be off.
It could be that the cut you purchased didn’t have enough marbling. Most superior steaks rely on this intramuscular fat to contribute flavor and juiciness. If the meat is too lean, it will be tough and dry, which gives it a stringy texture.
The cut also may have been too thin. Thin steaks are easy to overcook, and when they’re cooked past a certain temperature, the meat resembles shoe leather rather than dinner.
The best way to avoid this is to purchase high-quality meat when you visit the supermarket–or better yet, the butcher shop. If you still haven’t formed a solid relationship with a knowledgeable butcher, now is the perfect time to do it.
Inspect the meat to make sure it has a decent amount of marbling. Look for thin white specks of fat throughout the steak. While some amateurs balk at the sight of all that fat, it should render out as the steak cooks.
On the other hand, it’s usually best to avoid steaks that have too many large ribbons of fat running throughout. The marbling should be well-distributed, and not concentrated in a single area.
Some cuts, such as the top blade steak, have a tough membrane running through them, but the steak can still turn out well when you use the right technique. If you have any questions, your butcher should be able to help.
Some cuts of steak are leaner than others. If you’ve bought tenderloin steaks, then there’s no reason why they should turn out stringy. The meat is taken from the loin section of the cow, which gets almost no exercise. As a result, the steaks are very tender, despite their lack of fat.
Steaks cut from the brisket, on the other hand, will be tough and stringy if you grill them the way you would normal steaks. They need to cook for a long time at lower temperatures in order to fully tenderize the meat.
Your best strategy would be to familiarize yourself with the various cuts of steak. Sample different ones to determine which ones you like best. We would recommend following recipes that call for specific cuts, as they’ll suggest techniques that allow the steak to shine.
A steer that was past its prime when it was butchered will produce steaks that are stringier than the ones cut from their younger counterparts. The older the cow, the tougher and chewier the meat will be.
The good news is that most steers are butchered at around 12 to 28 months of age, depending on what they’re fed. Age can also play a role in the grading process. For example, beef that’s labeled as “prime” is probably from a steer that was 12 to 22 months old when it was slaughtered.
When you buy steak from a reputable source, you shouldn’t have to worry about it coming from an older cow. If you raise your own cattle, make sure to arrange for the butchering within the recommended time frame.
Fresh beef has a superior texture to beef that was stored in a freezer for long periods of time. That’s not to say that all defrosted steaks will be stringy, but it’s a possibility if the steak was frozen for too long, or if it wasn’t defrosted properly.
To help frozen steak retain its integrity, thaw and consume it within 6 months of storage. Thaw it in the coldest part of the refrigerator, or use the cold-water method if you’re pressed for time.
Never use the microwave to thaw a frozen steak. Parts of it might cook through before the rest of it has thawed, which will ruin the texture.
Also, don’t be tempted to speed things along by leaving steak on the counter to thaw. When you do this, you’re inviting dangerous bacteria to set up camp, which could cause serious illness.
Even if you’ve purchased a mediocre steak, there are things you can do to improve the texture. Unfortunately, more often than not, it’s hard to tell whether the cut is inferior until it’s already cooked. We’ll talk more about this in Fixing The Problem, below.
If the steak is especially thin or doesn’t have enough marbling, though, you can try to avoid the stringy factor through one of the following techniques.
A meat mallet should be a key tool in every griller’s arsenal. Use it to tenderize the steak before seasoning, while you wait for the grill to heat up. If you’re marinating the steak (see below), it’s best to tenderize it before you add it to the marinade mixture.
An acidic marinade does more than boost the flavor of an inferior cut. It also promotes tenderness. You can easily make your own marinade out of pantry staples: balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, olive oil, Dijon mustard, Lawry’s Seasoned Salt, and black pepper.
Lowering The Temperature
Cooking the steak slowly over medium-low heat will help keep the meat tender and juicy.
Use an instant-read thermometer to check the internal temperature, and remove the steaks from the grill when they reach 130 degrees. At this point, they’ll be cooked to medium-rare, which is ideal for most steaks.
Don’t forget to let the meat rest for 5-10 minutes before serving. The resting stage gives the juices time to flow back to the edges of the meat, so every bite will have the same degree of moisture. If you cut into it too soon, the juices will run out, leaving you with tough, dry steak.
When it’s time to cut into the steak, be sure to slice against the grain. Otherwise, each bite will be tough and chewy. Just check to see in which direction the muscle fibers are running, and make your cuts perpendicular to this course.
Fixing The Problem
Knowing how to prevent stringy steak is one thing, but what do you do when you’ve finished cooking and the meat is already stringy and tough?
You could soldier through and eat it anyway, of course, but you also have other options. Let’s find out how to salvage your results so you can enjoy them instead of enduring them.
Return To The Grill
After carving the steak into thin slices, wrap it in foil and return it to the grill, setting the temperature to medium-low. Let them continue to cook for 10-15 minutes. The slices should steam inside the foil package, thereby tenderizing the meat.
Remember that the steak will be well-done if you choose to go this route. That may not have been your goal from the outset, but at least you’ll be able to chew the meat.
Cut leftover steak into thin strips and season them with cumin and hot red pepper flakes. Sear them in a hot skillet, along with olive oil, thinly sliced onions, and green and red bell peppers. When the vegetables are crisp-tender, add a splash or two of lime juice.
Serve the prepared steak and vegetables with warm tortillas, grated cheddar and pepper jack cheese, fresh salsa, and guacamole. When the meat is cut into small enough pieces, you won’t notice the stringiness as much.
Add To Stew
The meat we use to make stew is naturally tough, but the long cooking process breaks down the connective tissue, making it tender and delicious.
If your steak turned out stringy, cut it into cubes and add it to a pot, then add just enough beef broth to cover the meat. Bring to a simmer and cook gently for about 2 hours, until the meat is tender. Add carrots, potatoes, and turnips and cook for 45 minutes more. Season with salt, pepper, and fresh parsley before serving.
The Bottom Line
Stringy steak is no fun, but once you know how to avoid the problem, you shouldn’t have to deal with it very often.
If you do wind up with steak that’s tough to chew, you may be able to salvage it by creating an entirely different dish from the one you were going for. Is this ideal? Not by a long shot, but it’s better than seeing your hard work go to waste.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!