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The Chronicles of Chuck

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by Dave Scantland (aka Dave the Cook)

 

Cows seem so simple. Placid, ruminant, not too smart. But some parts of them defy sense -- or maybe it's our approach to them that's out of whack. Check off a few primals: round, sirloin, short loin, plate, flank, chuck . . .as we used to say on Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the others. From the rib, you get two, maybe three cuts, with a couple of minor variations:the rib steak (bone in or out), the deckle (an overlooked and delicious cut) and back ribs. The plate gives up short ribs and well, plate. The flank is eponymous, and the round is a large rough globe of homogenous tissue, most of it tasteless.

 

But the chuck: it's a bundle of criss-crossing muscles that makes an Atlanta highway cloverleaf look like the simplest of Euclid's shapes -- the 3-D chess of ungulate physiology. For the most part, we ignore that. Parse a seven-bone roast -- the ne plus ultra of chuckery -- and you'll note that it might as well be called the seven-muscle roast. The chuck is synonymous with shoulder; if you palpate your own blades, you'll grasp my point: you got a delt, a pec, the start of the bicep, and even a lat. All those muscles hang off of a poem of serious bones: scapula, clavicle, sternum; humerus, vertebra, rib. A cow is no less complicated.

 

The chuck deserves more respect. Unlike its primal siblings, it doesn't yield self-similar Mandelbrot-like miniatures of the whole. Given a whole chuck, a butcher will slice a few arm steaks from the bottom, then flip it 90 degrees and cut a bunch of roasts in parallel, transecting the muscles with band-saw abandon: seven-bones, chucks, boneless amalgams. And why not? It's efficient and it makes tasty pot roasts. It's what happens to chuck. 

 

Here's why not: we deny the complexity of chuck, and in doing so we sacrifice the potential of giving each muscle its due.

 

This is changing. In 2002, the University of Nebraska and University of Florida, funded by the Cattlemen's Beef Board, profiled the entire musculature of the cow, searching for underutilized cuts. One discovery was the flatiron steak, fabricated by splitting a blade roast along a nasty stripe of connective tissue. You can only take this so far, though. Some muscles are too small or too oddly shaped to be useful, or can't be easily separated; some go together well enough in terms of tenderness or marbling that it's worth taking them as a group.

 

The chuck-eye steak, for example. It's a cluster of four muscles that stretch from the shoulder into the rib primal (two of them -- longissimus dorsi and multifidous dorsi -- go even further . They make up the bulk of the strip steak.) Unlike the larger limb muscles of what's called the shoulder clod, these don't do heavy lifting. They move the spine and perhaps assist in breathing; the toughest job is done by the complexus, which extends the head and neck. In other words, as chuck muscles go, the chuck-eye group has it easy. Maybe this accounts for its relative tenderness (although the flatiron, widely recognized as the second most tender cut on the whole animal, moves the cow's arm in and out, and acts like a ligament, connecting other muscles to the shoulder blade. Sounds like hard work to me).

 

Chuck-eyes packages are often labeled as the "poor-man's ribeye," and it's a claim more valid than many a marketeer's promise, since some of the same musculature is involved. In a few ways, the chuck-eye is a more valuable cut: it's cheaper, it's just as flavorful, and it survives overcooking better than anything you'll find in the rib or the short loin. An overcooked rib steak is moist, mealy sawdust in your mouth; a well-done chuck-eye just gets nicely chewy and remains beefy. 

 

That's not to say that the chuck-eye doesn't present some problems. The muscle group is held together by the thinnest of tissue that begins to disintegrate as soon as it hits the heat. Depending on where in the length of the chuck-eye roll the steak came from, it might be bound on one side by a strap of tough sheathing. You can put them on the grill or under the broiler, but the density of the meat makes this a less-than-ideal -- though still appealing -- application.

 

In fact, the grill used to be my preferred method. But that was before a hot (don't turn on the oven) rainy (grilling is out) Atlanta night when the only protein in the house was chuck-eye. As I salted the steaks, I thought,

"Fine -- let's treat this poor man's steak like a rich man's indulgence. Let's treat it the way, say, Alain Ducasse would treat it."

 

 

The Ducasse method browns the steak, then turns down the heat and applies liberal -- frightening -- amounts of butter, spooned over the lazily browning beef. Ducasse has his steaks cut thick, requiring oven treatment. It's rare (pardon the pun) to find a chuck-eye cut more than an inch thick, so it made sense to stay on the stovetop. I got out my Gray Kunz sauce spoon, a cast-iron skillet and a stick of unsalted Land o' Lakes.

 

Cooked over medium heat, the steak was terrific: crusty and cooked just to the pink side of medium, where the cut's taste and texture are best. Triumphant, I pinged a friend to brag about my application of haute technique to lowly chuck. The computer fan whirred as he typed his response.

 

"Um," he said. "That's not Ducasse. I believe that's more accurately called 'the Colicchio Method.'"

 

+ + +

 

I was somewhere around the age of 11 when I came to realize that the world of acting wasn't the sole province of Adam West and Dick Van Dyke (there were these British dudes Richard and Laurence) and music meant more than the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Monkees (Bob Dylan -- who's he?) In an afternoon, I metamorphosed from comic book aficionado at Jerry Marks's drug store to leafer of Life magazine. Though my world got bigger, so great was my ignorance that five years later I was still lagging. At the first practice of a band I joined in 1972, the guitarists alternated between figuring out where to find a bass player and tossing song ideas back and forth while I practiced paradiddles. It was like watching Olivier act without speaking: my comprehension of anything was dim. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young -- law firm? Alice Cooper -- who's she?

 

That's how it was discovering Tom Colicchio. It's not like I'd never heard of him, but he just wasn't in my circle of cooking friends -- the people whose advice I seek through cookbooks and whose approval I imagine

when a dish turns out well.

 

I uncovered Colicchio's Steak with Potatoes on the Esquire web site, where he deals with hanger (another very forgiving steak cut) in what I would find out was a typical straightforward-but-comprehensive Colicchio way, balancing the rich beef with bacon, onions and vinegar. Further investigations into his excellent Think Like a Chef revealed a kindred spirit. It's not that I don't enjoy excursions into other realms, but I always return to what Tom espouses: "intense, but honest and unaffected," "cooking is a craft best learned through observation and practice," "of course you're going to want to alter the recipe!" and the all-important, "I like butter. Butter is good." Even when I indulge in molecular gastronomy, there's no point unless it looks good, tastes good and can at least approach -- with practice -- lots of practice, usually -- excellence.

 

Because I'd made my discovery backwards, I didn't hear the same approval that I usually do (maybe Prudhomme's lusty hurrah or Bertolli's calm smile). In excitement and obsequiousness, I sent a note:

 

Hi, Tom -- Here's the deal: I've been assigned a series of articles on the versatility of beef shoulder, highlighting less obvious cooking methods (roasting short ribs, for example, rather than the usual braise). One of the potential stories is about using your method for preparing hanger steak, but applying it to the easier-to-find-and-afford chuck-eye steak.

 

Since I'll be invoking your name, I thought you might want a chance to say "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard," or something like that. Of course, substantive commentary would be welcome, too. So, what do you think?

Tom is a busy guy. I'm still waiting on a reply, but I like to think that he would approve of:

 

If Colicchio Cooked a Chuck-eye

 

2 one-inch-thick chuck-eye steaks

Salt

2-3 T peanut or grapeseed oil

Unsalted butter

 

  1. One of the issues mentioned above is that the chuck-eye is not exactly the Hummer of steaks -- the thin connective tissue between the muscles starts to dissolve fast. Gentle treatment is one way around the problem, but since this adaptation involves lots of flipping, we'll address the issue by tying it. Loop a length of butcher's twine twice around the perimeter of the steak. Tie it by pulling the ends snug, then looping one end over and under the other four times and finally closing the knot with a square. Repeat with the other steak.
  2. Salt the steaks liberally on both sides. Wait about two hours.
  3. Heat a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat until the handle is hot.
  4. Blot the steaks dry (the salt will have cause moisture to come to the surface), then brush with oil. Pour whatever oil is left over into the pan and swirl it around to coat the bottom of the pan.
  5. Put the steaks in the pan, spacing them an inch or so apart (the distance isn't critical; you just don't want them steaming each other).
  6. Sear for two minutes on each side, then a minute on each of the edges (I'm not sure how many edges a steak tied into a round has, but do your best to get some brown all the way around).
  7. Remove the steaks from the pan and the pan from the heat. At this point, you'll think I'm nuts. The steaks will be gray with sparse brown spots. 
  8. Turn the heat down to medium low and wait for two minutes. You're going to add butter to the pan next, and you don't want it to burn on entry.
  9. Put the pan back on the burner and add three or four tablespoons of butter -- you need enough to baste with. Most of it gets left in the pan, so this isn't time to count calories. As soon as it melts, add the steaks.
  10. Cook for another eight to twelve minutes, flipping every two minutes and basting often with the butter. About the third flip, you'll start to recognize my (or is it Tom's? I'm willing to share) genius. By the time you're done, the steaks will be deep brown and crusty. Let them rest a few minutes, then untie and serve.

 

 

 

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OK, I'm game. Let's say I want to cut me a chuck-eye steak from a chuck roast. Any tips before I give it a whirl?

If I destroy it it's burgers for everyone.

Chuck-eyes as end cuts of the chuck roast are typically sold by themselves. I buy them whenever I see them. Since there are only as many as there are roasts on display they can be hard to find right away. It's a very inexpensive cut of meat but very, very, tender with lots of fat to give it good flavor. It saddens me to see this secret get out.


Veni Vidi Vino - I came, I saw, I drank.

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Great article Dave. Enjoyed it thoroughly.

One thought, I suspect the flatiron isn't too tough, cause cows 'arms' don't do much 'in and out' (ie abduction and adduction) instead a whole lot more 'back and forth' (flexion and extension).

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Qwerty   

I think your method sounds a little off. Here's some of my advice:

IMO, its better to get a deep, dark brown sear without the butter in the pan. A rich crust should be developed before adding the butter. In the picture, yours look OK but I think you should/could take it a lot further. Most of the cooking should be done without the butter...8 to 12 minutes of additional cooking after adding the butter seems way to high...and a recipe for black butter.

I would cook the meat approx. 90% of the way in the traditional pan roast method...the FINISH with foaming butter basted over the meat. (the butter, when spooned over the meat, should sizzle and foam up, as well as be "boiling" in the pan as you spoon). If you cook the butter for 8-12 minutes, you will not have foaming butter (very important) and you will end up with what I would call greasy and essentially clarified butter with imparts a different taste to the meat.

Also, it is important to drain off any excess fat from the pan before you add the whole butter. The fat is very very hot and it will burn the butter very quickly. If you drain all the hot fat from the pan first, there should be no need to turn the heat down. It is important though to add enough butter to ensure that it doesn't burn It will brown, however, so be prepared for that.

I would spend just a couple of minutes in the basting stage. It is important to finish cooking proteins this way, but there is, IMO, no need for 8-12 minutes of it. Fresh herbs (thyme, rosemary) and any other flavors (like garlic) can and should be added to the butter as you baste to give off the aroma from the meat.

I just tend to think of basting as a finishing technique.

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OK, I'm game. Let's say I want to cut me a chuck-eye steak from a chuck roast. Any tips before I give it a whirl?

If I destroy it it's burgers for everyone.

Chuck-eyes as end cuts of the chuck roast are typically sold by themselves. I buy them whenever I see them. Since there are only as many as there are roasts on display they can be hard to find right away. It's a very inexpensive cut of meat but very, very, tender with lots of fat to give it good flavor. It saddens me to see this secret get out.

Availability varies with region. In Atlanta, I see them all over the place, but they're scarce in other areas.

Regardless, Chris raises an interesting issue. You can cut your own chuck-eyes from a blade roast with interesting results. I'll post some photos later (there's an illustration here, but it's hard to see what's going on), but the essence is:

  • Trim off the flatiron (the thin portion above the bone).
  • Remove the bone, if you wish.
  • Look for a thin arc of fat delineating the chuck-eye muscles.
  • Cut (though you can practically pull it out) the steak from the roast.

This leaves you with three pieces of meat: a pretty small flatiron which you can grind or cut for stew; the chuck-eye; and a smallish boneless chuck roast that's just right for two people. Tie it and braise it.


Dave Scantland
Executive director
dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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It is something that I am willing to bet your butcher will be happy to set aside to sell to you upon request.


Veni Vidi Vino - I came, I saw, I drank.

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Very inspiring... I love chuck.

However here in Southern California I've never seen anything labeled chuck eye, ever. Ever ever ever. Shoulder blade, 7-Bone, like that.

So ya, photos, me too please.


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Perhaps, perhaps. But then I don't get to feed my butchering jones.

I await those photos, Dave the Cook.

Yes well there's the rub for me. I rarely get to purchase larges chunks of meat, my wife only eats beef if it is ground and not recognizable as the beautiful roast or steak that it was. So I grill her a boneless-skinless chicken breast that I soaked in italian dressing and do my own thing to a smaller more individual portion of beef.


Veni Vidi Vino - I came, I saw, I drank.

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Fat Guy   
If you cook the butter for 8-12 minutes, you will not have foaming butter (very important) and you will end up with what I would call greasy and essentially clarified butter with imparts a different taste to the meat.

. . . . .

I just tend to think of basting as a finishing technique.

One way to address the "greasy butter" issue -- which I agree is an issue in long basting -- is to change the butter part way through the process. You just tip the pan into a receptacle and then add a new knob of butter. But I don't think the best move is to have only white, foamy butter. Letting it brown a little is also nice, for that nutty flavor. You just don't want to let it break down completely or burn. Moderate heat and the constant motion of basting help with this.

I think a lot of cooks -- especially busy line cooks -- think of butter-basting as a finishing technique in meat cookery, but I think that's in part because in a restaurant setting it's too labor intensive to do longer basting. But if you baste earlier and longer, you develop a better crust -- simple as that. At one restaurant where I trailed for like a minute, the main difference between a regular order and a VIP order on the meat station was that a cook would take more time with basting the VIP meat by starting the process earlier.


Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
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Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Availability varies with region. In Atlanta, I see them all over the place, but they're scarce in other areas.

Like here. I'm a chuckaholic, and I've never seen it.

The meat counter at my local supermarket in Illinois has always carried chuckeye steaks, and at 1.99 a pound we figured it was our happy secret. It's simply a fabulous cut.

Imagine our chagrin when a few months ago it appeared repackaged as "Poor Man's Delmonico" and priced at 3.99 a pound.


Margaret McArthur

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1912-2008

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dockhl   

I never saw it in SoCal but here on the Central Coast I can find it, but never in the "mainstream" markets, just Food-4-Less. I think I pay $3.49/lb. but find it very tasty and pretty tender. I usually do olive oil/s&p and then into a hot cast iron skillet, finished in the oven(400') , topped with butter and lemon juice. I'll try the butter next time, sounds delish......

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The chuck eye is often one of those cuts that never makes it to the counter, but in the butcher's grocery bag!

I have easy access to them. Just goes to show what "giving" (read bribing) your local meat gal/guy with smoked butt or brisket will do.

More readily available, BTW, when chuck roasts are on sale.


Susan Fahning aka "snowangel"

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Qwerty   
If you cook the butter for 8-12 minutes, you will not have foaming butter (very important) and you will end up with what I would call greasy and essentially clarified butter with imparts a different taste to the meat.

. . . . .

I just tend to think of basting as a finishing technique.

One way to address the "greasy butter" issue -- which I agree is an issue in long basting -- is to change the butter part way through the process. You just tip the pan into a receptacle and then add a new knob of butter. But I don't think the best move is to have only white, foamy butter. Letting it brown a little is also nice, for that nutty flavor. You just don't want to let it break down completely or burn. Moderate heat and the constant motion of basting help with this.

I think a lot of cooks -- especially busy line cooks -- think of butter-basting as a finishing technique in meat cookery, but I think that's in part because in a restaurant setting it's too labor intensive to do longer basting. But if you baste earlier and longer, you develop a better crust -- simple as that. At one restaurant where I trailed for like a minute, the main difference between a regular order and a VIP order on the meat station was that a cook would take more time with basting the VIP meat by starting the process earlier.

Point taken. We do refresh the butter as needed during basting if the butter loses its foamy quality. Of course the butter is going to brown, but in my original post I make reference to the fact you want brown butter, not black. Basting with brown foaming butter is great. Just to clarify I never said white foamy butter.

To each his own. I'm sure the method in the OP is a good method, I was simply adding my two cents to the topic, which I thought was the point of a post like this. Didn't mean to offend.

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How to fabricate a chuck-eye:

First, get yourself a blade roast or underblade roast. Ignore anything called the top blade roast (we'll get to that in later chronicles). The first place I went to was the local Publix, where we have a good relationship with the meat dude. He rubbed his neck and said "That's going to be difficult to find at a grocery store. Very difficult." I asked how he got chuck-eyes. "We don't mess with intermediate cuts. We just cut the roll off and slice it."

What he's referring to is the chuck-eye roll, NAMP item 116D. There's a great picture of it on the Bovine Myology website. While you're having fun rotating the photo there, note the four muscles that make up the chuck-eye (they're outlined in green on the end view). Those muscles are the key to identifying the steak.

Trying to avoid a trip to the butcher (few and far between in the ATL), I tried Costco. Luck prevailed:

gallery_6393_149_37538.jpg

These are both underblade roasts, but they're not from the same place along the shoulder. In fact, I'd guess that they didn't even come from the same steer. You can tell by the size and shape of the muscles in the eye area:

gallery_6393_149_58438.jpg

That part of the roast at the top is barely recognizable as the eye, though sometimes you'll see steaks this large in the counter. My opinion is that this is too far away from the sweet spot of the chuck-eye. Let's go to extreme close-up mode:

gallery_6393_149_13095.jpg

Note the well-developed gristle. Now, it would be external to the steak, but what it tells me is that this is a pretty well-exercised part of the muscle -- not the tender part we're after.

Anyway, once you've got the right kind of roast, the rest is easy. Separate the chuck-eye from the rest along the fat line:

gallery_6393_149_50356.jpg

Trim those hunks of fat from the non-steak, and you've got yourself a chuck-eye and a nice little pot roast:

gallery_6393_149_8095.jpg

Questions?


Dave Scantland
Executive director
dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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Dave, you are an inspiration.

I love to play with the "shoulder clod" as it was once known to lovers of pot roasts. And have long bemoaned the long-forgotten "round-bone roast" which was apparently too difficult for more recently trained butchers to attempt.

Happily for me, there is a real, old-fashioned, meat cutter/butcher in Rosamond, who will, given enough advance notice, produce any cut of meat one could desire.

Sometimes he laughs when asked if he knows about a particular cut, certainly some of the more obscure French or continental bits and pieces, but he will patiently look at diagrams from ancient cookbooks and attempt to satisfy......For a price!

Your topic has reminded me that I still have 1/4 of a steer stored at his facility that needs cutting and packaging. As he bills for the rent only twice a years, it does tend to slip my mind in the interim months.

Now if I could just remember which section is remaining... At 69, my memory isn't what it was.

Thanks for giving me some incentive to have some fun with this flavorful part of the steer.


"There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty. The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: What's up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don't think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass!" Terry Pratchett

My blog:Books,Cooks,Gadgets&Gardening

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judiu   

Thanks a LOT, Dave :angry: Now my favorite steaks are only going to be that much harder to find! :laugh: By the way, some times you'll see these called "Chuck Mock-Tender" steaks here in Florida. Thanks for the cooking tip! :wub:


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Just to make sure I am not a complete idiot, but the larger of the ltwo cuts/pieces (on the right) is the chuck eye? Thanks for the excellent write up. They have been selling something at my local independent grocer that they call a chuck tender roast. I am going to have to give it a closer look. It may in fact be the vaunted chuck eye. Charlie

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Oops, no. It's the smaller piece on the left in the last photo.

It's possible that the "chuck tender roast" is a chuck-eye roast (note the nomenclature in judiu's area); that word "tender" gets common and casual use with more regard for marketing than consistency. NAMP only recognizes cut 116B. Follow that link and you'll see that it does look like a mini version of the real tenderloin. There's a video here that shows how it's fabricated -- it reminds me of extracting core samples.


Dave Scantland
Executive director
dscantland@eGstaff.org
eG Ethics signatory

Eat more chicken skin.

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This is really interesting and useful stuff. I've been visiting the Bovine Myology site for a year or two and there's always so much more to learn. While browsing through some of the graphs I had a (possibly stupid) idea:

Instead of shoving limbs and carcass through the band saw the traditional butcher way, why not excise individual muscles from the cow's body. Cut through the origin and insertion points and remove for consumption. I realize some muscles are too small or irregular in shape but there must be some culinary advantage in having an entire intact muscle to work with.

Aren't some muscles - like tenderloin or backstrap - cut out this way? Would it be practical to treat a shoulder this way?


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I knew I was having trouble followng. I think it was the reference to a nice little pot roast that threw me off.

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Used Dave's method tonight for a couple of pretty little chuck-eye steaks. Despite a minor brain-fart on my part (forgot to dry the steaks before tossing in the pan), the results were outstanding!

I've done a lot of chuck-eye steaks... but, tying them never crossed my brain. It works like a charm!

Thanks, Dave!!!

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