Not every steak is naturally tender. But with the right preparation, you can bring out the best qualities in any cut. That’s why it’s so disappointing when you wind up with tough, chewy steak.
Let’s find out what went wrong—and how you can prevent this from happening again.
Why Is My Steak Tough?
Depending on which cut of steak you’re dealing with, it might have been naturally tough to begin with. Cuts from the chuck and the round, for example, are low in fat, which can make the meat too dry. Steak could also be tough and chewy as a result of overcooking.
A Guide To Tender Cuts of Steak
One way to avoid the dreaded tough steak phenomenon is to start with a cut that’s naturally tender. Of course, even these cuts can toughen up under certain circumstances, as we’ll discuss later on. But you’ll be in better shape if you use one of these cuts.
The tenderloin, located along the cow’s upper spine, produces the most tender steak on the cow. These can be marketed as filet mignon, tenderloin, or tournedos, depending on which portion of the loin they came from.
Tenderloin steaks have an almost buttery texture, but thanks to the low fat content, they don’t have much to offer in the flavor department. Grilling them over an open flame can help with this. You can also add a compound butter to the grilled meat to boost flavor.
Flat Iron Steak
Flat iron steak isn’t as well known, but it’s generally considered the second-most tender cut you can buy. This is a rectangular cut taken from the chuck, or shoulder, of the cow.
When butchers separate the top blade roast into two pieces, removing the connective tissue that runs through the middle, it results in the flat iron steak and the top blade steak. To confuse the issue, the flat iron is sometimes labeled as the top blade filet.
The cut takes its name from the fact that it resembles an old-fashioned metal flat iron. Unlike the tenderloin, flat iron steak is very flavorful, making it an excellent choice for the grill.
One of the most recognizable and sought-after steaks on the market, the ribeye is taken from the rib primal. It’s tender and beefy, with tons of marbling to provide richness and moisture to the grilled meat.
Though ribeye steaks are usually cut very large, it’s hard to cut the meat down into smaller portions. Due to its popularity, it also fetches a high per-pound price. When entertaining, we only serve ribeye if we know all the guests are dedicated meat lovers.
Why Is My Steak Chewy and Tough?
There are several reasons why your steak might have turned out tougher than you expected. In this section, we’ll explore them all.
Unless you’ve purchased one of the cuts we discussed above, there’s a chance that it might have a tough texture to begin with.
As a rule, steaks are naturally tender when they come from a portion of the animal that doesn’t get much exercise. The tenderloin, for example, doesn’t move much. But the flank and skirt steaks, which are cut from the abdominal region, have chewier textures.
With the exception of the flat iron steak, cuts from the chuck will be tough to begin with. The cow’s shoulders get a decent workout, which toughens up the muscles. Ditto for the brisket, located down in the lower pectoral region.
It’s possible to prepare tougher steaks so that they melt in your mouth. But you can’t just cook them any way you’d like. Grilling them over high heat usually won’t do the trick, as we’ll get into later.
Strangely enough, most lean steak cuts are tougher than the ones that contain a lot of the intramuscular fat known as marbling. The tenderloin is an exception, but steaks cut from the round and the chuck are very lean and can dry out if you’re not careful.
When a well-marbled steak is cooked correctly, the fat will melt into the surrounding meat, giving it a juicy and tender texture. Those leaner cuts don’t have enough fat to lubricate the meat’s fibers this way.
We should point out, though, that even fatty cuts like ribeye can be tough if you overcook them. That brings us to our next point.
Preparation and Method
No matter which cut of meat you’re dealing with, preparation is key. As long as you work to bring out the best qualities of the cut, you’ll be in good shape.
By way of example, New York strip should be tender and juicy when it’s cooked to a perfect medium rare. But if it’s overcooked, the fibers will dry out, resulting in a piece of meat that’s difficult to chew.
On the other hand, a chuck steak will turn out mouthwateringly tender if you tenderize the meat and subject it to a nice low-and-slow braise. The long cooking process breaks down the muscle fibers, resulting in a softer texture.
To prevent your steak from toughening up, bring it to room temperature for 30 minutes before cooking it. This will allow it to cook more evenly. If the meat was frozen beforehand, it’s better to thaw it completely before subjecting it to the heat, for the same reason.
A good marinade will promote tenderness in steaks that are lean to begin with. Try to include an acidic ingredient like vinegar to help dissolve the tough muscle fibers. Using a meat tenderizer before adding the steak to the marinade will also help.
Most steaks that are naturally tender will benefit from grilling or searing over medium-high heat. Tough cuts from the chuck and the round are better when they’re stewed or braised.
If you want to serve your steak medium rare, it’s just as important not to undercook it. Steaks that are “blue rare” can be just as chewy as steaks cooked to medium well or well done.
A steak that’s been hanging around in the fridge too long will be tougher than a fresh one, even if you follow all the guidelines regarding proper preparation. For optimum results, cook off steak within 2 to 3 days of the initial purchase.
You can also freeze the steak, but if you do, try to thaw and cook it within a few months. When meat stays too long in the freezer, it dries out, which will make it toughen up as it cooks.
Grass-Fed vs. Grain-Fed
What was the cow’s diet like? If it was grain-fed, it dined on corn and soy products. Grass-fed cows are fed on grass and other vegetation. This discrepancy has sparked a debate as to which diet results in better beef.
Proponents of the grain diet insist that this strategy promotes tenderness, owing to the fact that the corn makes the cows fatter. As we’ve established, fatty beef can have a more tender mouthfeel than leaner products.
On the other hand, grass-fed beef is more flavorful. Feeding the cows this way may also be more sustainable, so this movement has gained traction in recent years.
Young steers will produce more tender steaks than older animals. As cows age, their muscles harden up, so the resulting steaks are tougher to chew.
Fortunately, this isn’t usually a problem, as most of the beef that’s sold commercially comes from younger animals. As long as you buy your meat from a local butcher or from the supermarket, you should be all set.
Why is My Rib Eye Steak Tough?
We’ve established that ribeye should have a tender texture, thanks to all that luscious marbling. But what if yours comes out chewy and tough?
When this happens, it’s usually because you’ve overcooked the meat. To avoid this in the future, try following one of these two sets of directions.
On the Grill
1. Take the steak out of the fridge 30 minutes before you want to start cooking.
2. Heat the grill to medium-high (425 to 450 degrees Fahrenheit).
3. Coat the steak with a thin layer of neutral oil, such as canola. Season with salt and pepper.
4. Grill the ribeye for 4 to 5 minutes per side, or until it’s cooked to 130 degrees. Remove from the heat.
5. Let the steak rest for 5 minutes before serving.
On the Stovetop
1. Take the steak out of the refrigerator 30 minutes prior to your planned start time.
2. Set a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Rub the steak all over with a neutral oil, such as canola, and season with salt and pepper.
3. When the pan is hot, add the ribeye. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes per side, adding a couple of minutes per side if the steak measures more than 1-1/2 inch thick.
Pro Tip: If desired, you can baste the ribeye by adding a tablespoon or so of butter to the pan, then spooning the melted butter over the steak as it cooks.
5. When the steak has achieved an internal temperature of 130 degrees, remove it from the heat. Let rest for about 5 minutes before serving.
The Bottom Line
There are several reasons why your steak might have turned out tougher than you’d like. Often, improper preparation plays a role. You can circumvent this issue by familiarizing yourself with the various cuts and their recommended cooking techniques.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!