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Chat Leftovers: That's How You Slice It

Look closely, and you can see the grain of the raw, marinating flank steak. (Len Spoden for The Washington Post)

Today and nearly every Wednesday at 1 p.m., the Food section opens the virtual floodgate called Free Range, taking scores of questions and comments from readers over the course of an hour that always seems to end too soon.

And last week it ended too soon for us to handle this one:

I have an uncanny knack for grilling the perfect steak without really gauging time or temperature. The only problem is I’m not sure about how to cut it.

I really don’t understand “across the grain” vs. “against the grain” (sounds the same to me). What about “with the grain”? And the grain seems to go in all directions.
What are the best resources for learning how to properly cut/carve steak? Thank you!

First of all, you’re right: Across and against the grain are the same thing. Now, what’s the grain?

Remember that meat is muscle, and muscle grows in strands. It might help if you picture it as a rope of thick fibers, all running in the same direction. If you sliced that rope straight across, into disks, you’d create short little pieces of fiber that would be easy to chew. But if you sliced the rope lengthwise, you’d have very long pieces of fiber that would give your jaw a workout.

That’s exactly how meat works. And here’s the good news: Most standard cuts of steak — sirloin, porterhouse, etc. — are already cut against the grain. They are crosswise slices of muscle, and that’s why they’re relatively easy to eat. So when you grill those, just cut, eat and enjoy. No heavy thinking required.

But other steaks contain long strands of muscle that are tough and not very chewable. London broil, skirt steak, hanger steak: Those are common cuts that must be sliced against the grain. To do that, just look closely at the meat, and you’ll see a pattern of muscle fibers running in one direction (it’s easier to see while raw). After cooking, make sure you slice across those fibers, keeping the slices fairly thin, and you’ll be fine.

And that's really all there is to it.

Got questions or concerns for the Food staff? Make sure you join our chat today at 1 p.m. I'll be there.

— Jane Touzalin

By Jane Touzalin  |  July 22, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
 | Tags: Free Range, Jane Touzalin  
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