A cut of beef once ground into hamburger has become one of the nation's most popular steaks, thanks to a processing method co-developed by a University of Florida researcher.
Recent figures show flat iron steak sales now top 90 million pounds a year, making the value-priced cut the nation's fifth best-selling steak.
Dwain Johnson, a meat science professor with the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences who helped develop the steak in 2002, said some consumers say the cut tastes better than a New York strip.
“The cut is as tasty and tender as more expensive steaks, yet affordable enough for the average family to enjoy on the regular basis, and it costs a lot less than a choice filet or strip steak,” he said.
Steve Wald, director of new product development for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association in Centennial, Colo., said 47 million pounds of flat iron steak were sold in 2005, increasing to 92 million pounds in 2006 and about 90 million pounds so far this year. He said the sales data was compiled by Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based research firm.
“In the food service industry, which includes restaurants, the flat-iron steak outsells T-bone and porterhouse steaks combined,” Wald said. “Strong consumer demand prompted several national retailers to introduce the steak during the summer of 2007.”
Johnson, who developed the steak in cooperation with the University of Nebraska and the cattlemen's association, said their research was aimed at identifying undervalued portions of the beef carcass. In the largest study of its kind, the researchers evaluated more than 5,600 muscles for flavor and tenderness.
He said the flat iron steak — also known as the top blade steak — is cut from deep within the shoulder muscle known as the chuck, traditionally used for roasts or ground beef.
“Although the cut is flavorful and relatively tender, the flat iron steak has a serious flaw in the middle of it,” Johnson said. “There is a tough piece of connective tissue running through the middle, but it can be removed to create an amazing cut of beef.”
By developing a method for cutting the connective tissue — similar to filleting a fish — the researchers created a steak that has the tenderness of a ribeye or strip steak with the full-flavored character of a sirloin or skirt steak. It's also perfect for grilling over medium high heat, he said.
“Supposedly named because it looks like an old-fashioned metal flat iron, the flat iron steak is uniform in thickness and rectangular in shape,” Johnson said. “The only variation is the cut into the middle where the connective tissue has been removed.”
Johnson said the research to produce leaner and more convenient beef products was initiated when demand for chuck, round and “thin cuts” — which make up 73 percent of total beef carcass weight — declined by more than 20 percent from 1980 to 1998.
“The Cattlemen's Beef Board realized that a more concentrated effort was needed to study the cause for the decreased demand in products from these carcass locations,” he said. “They also wanted to find out what could be done to reverse the trend and increase the demand for the chuck and round cuts.”
He said other value cuts such as the petite tender and ranch cut are starting to be used by the food service sector.