Chances are you’ve heard the term “against the grain” when it comes to cutting meat. It’s a common phrase used in cooking, but what does it mean? Are you really supposed to cut against the grain?
We need to first understand what the grain is and why it matters when you’re cutting meat to answer that question.
What Is a Muscle Grain?
To be clear, we are talking about muscle fibers, not cereal. In simple terms, a muscle is a bundle of fibers or muscle cells. Meat fibers are thread-like structures made up of protein and actin, which provide the fibers with strength and rigidity. Muscle fibers are surrounded by a thin layer of connective tissue.
They exhibit directionality, and when these fibers run in a different direction than the muscle itself, they’re known as a grain. The grain in a piece of meat is the direction in which the muscle is positioned on the animal, usually in the same direction as the muscle fibers.
How Do You Identify the Grain?
Muscle fibers work together to contract the muscle and make it move. They come together to form a line that can be seen easily. This line follows the muscle from end to end, and there’s usually a line through the center of a muscle that helps you identify the grain.
If you examine any cut of meat closely, you will see visible lines running across the surface in a given direction. The fibers are more discernible in tougher cuts like brisket and skirt steak than leaner ones like tenderloin. The reason for that is that the more a muscle is used, the more fibers it needs. The active muscles will also have more connective tissue, making them tougher.
Grass-fed animals normally have more pronounced and tougher muscle fibers than their grain-fed counterparts. Again, this is because grass-fed animals are more active and leaner than grain-fed ones. Naturally, their muscles will be tougher, and that’s why you need to slice them properly.
Does How You Cut Meat Matter?
Yes. 1000% yes, especially for tougher cuts of meat. You will not notice much difference when carving tender cuts like tenderloin or filet mignon, but you need all the assistance you can find for tougher cuts such as flank steak.
There are two ways of cutting meat: with or against the grain.
Cutting with the grain refers to cutting parallel to the muscle fibers (lines of tendons) while cutting against the grain refers to cutting perpendicularly to the direction of the fibers.
The idea of cutting with the grain of a muscle may seem like a reasonable approach, but when it comes to tenderness, it’s a big mistake. Muscle fibers have an inherent tension because of the functions they perform in a muscle.
Cutting a steak with the grain of a muscle, as some people do, makes for a tougher cut of meat. That’s because it allows the tough muscle fibers to remain intact. While that doesn’t mean the meat will be unchewable, it sure will be tiresome for your jaw.
The better option is to cut the meat against the grain. When you cut against the grain, you’re cutting through the muscle fibers, making for an easier chew.
To make it even easier, think of the muscle fibers as a rubber band. If you cut the meat parallel to them, you will end up with long, tough strings. On the other hand, cutting against the grain of muscle fibers will shorten them. That will ensure that the meat cuts evenly and won’t be full of stringy fibers.
How Do You Cut Against the Grain?
The first step is to identify the grain. As earlier stated, that should not be a problem for tougher cuts. However, examine your meat carefully to confirm the direction of the fibers because it’s different for different cuts.
Next, place the meat on a flat surface, such as a butcher block, and use a sharp knife to cut the meat perpendicular to the direction of the fibers. If the fibers run horizontally, cut vertically and vice versa.
Size also matters here. To get the best texture, ensure you cut the meat into thin strips. Muscle fibers run parallel to each other, so cutting into thick slices will leave quite a number intact.
Poultry and Other Meats
Though the grain is not as apparent in chicken, there is a foolproof way of ensuring you always get it right. Instead of using the traditional along-the-sides method of carving poultry, go in the opposite direction.
Disassemble the bird to make the work easier and work on one piece at a time. For instance, take the thigh and remove its bone. Instead of cutting from top to bottom, cut the meat sideways.
If you want a tender cut that is less chewy, you should cut your meat against the grain. Yes, it might not look as pretty as meat sliced with the grain, but it will shorten the muscle fibers, which will give you less stringy, less chewy, more tender meat.
Check out a few more steak articles here:
5 Steak Doneness Internal Temperatures & Times
The Way You Should Be Tenderizing Steak
How to Cook the Perfect New York Strip Steak
Here’s the Best Way to Tenderize Your Smoked Steaks
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