OMAHA, Neb. – It started with a search for a cut of beef as tasty and tender as the choicest steak, yet affordable enough for the average family to eat every day.
Researchers soon discovered the flat iron.
The steak, cut from deep within the shoulder muscle known as the chuck, is rather tender considering it has little fat. It tastes like a New York strip but costs about half as much as a choice filet or strip.
The cut was discovered during a three-year study by the University of Nebraska's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the University of Florida.
What researchers came up with was not just one new cut of beef, but five, from the chuck and round sections - cheaper parts of the animal usually used for inexpensive roasts, stew pieces and ground beef.
The hope is the new steaks will increase the value of beef for everyone from producers to retailers. At the same time, industry officials say, consumers will have a high-quality product that falls somewhere between high-priced steaks and relatively cheap boneless chicken.
Two new cuts found in the chuck, called tender medallions and ranch cut steaks, can be marketed at a price competitive with pork and chicken. Two other cuts, the sirloin tip and western griller steaks, come from the round - the cow's hindquarters.
But the flat iron is getting most of the industry's attention.
``I can't believe we haven't sold this steak before,'' said Carl Blackwell, director of new product development with the National Cattlemen's Board Association in Chicago. ``It's amazing how we've overlooked these steaks since ... well, the beginning of time, I guess.''
Old habits are hard to break, however, and meat cutting has been done the same way for generations. Some enterprising butchers, however, say they've been offering the flat iron cut for years.
``I call it a Swiss steak,'' said Roy Toy with Leon's Food Mart in Lincoln, who said he came up with the cut while experimenting on a carcass. ``It's not new, it's just that other retailers will sell them under different names ... butter steak or griller.''
Many of those cuts are close, Beef Council members say, but not quite the same as the flat iron. They said it takes special training to learn to get around layers of thick, tough connective tissue to get the cut.
``We've created the encyclopedia of knowledge about the muscles of the beef chuck and round,'' University of Nebraska meat scientist Chris Calkins said. ``The whole point is that there are muscles that were probably being ground or used in other products that had a lot more value than what was being recognized.''
Grocery stores have not yet started offering the new cuts under the Beef Council's marketing names, since meat processors and grocery store butchers must first learn how to cut the new steaks.
``It's rather labor-intensive,'' said Klaus Brotzki with Aksarben Beef, which sells meat to eastern Nebraska restaurants.
Brotzki attended a recent Nebraska Beef Council workshop on the University of Nebraska's Lincoln campus that demonstrated how to carve out the new cuts. While they may not be easy to find, they're tasty enough to try, he said.
``Everywhere I go, people ask me, 'What do you hear about this flat iron steak?''' he said.
Selected restaurants on the East Coast that are sampling the flat iron are beginning to clamor for the new cut.
Michael J. Beriau, top chef at Dole and Bailey Inc. of Woburn, Mass., began experimenting with the flat iron about three years ago at the request of the National Beef Council. He liked it so much, he had his in-house butchers begin cutting the steak for his clients.
``We've gone from selling 200 pounds a week to 2,200 pounds a week of the flat iron,'' he said. ``People love it. They get a fantastic, tasty, tender steak. And they don't have to pay as much for it.''