A few weeks ago I was perusing the meat case of a “big-box” retailer, and their “Flat Iron” steaks caught my eye. Not because there was anything particularly dazzling about these steaks, but because they were wrongly labeled! There is much confusion circulating about what a Flat Iron steak really is. Mind you, it’s not just the big guys doing this. There are also small-scale butchers laxly and inaccurately slapping the Flat Iron name onto the wrong cut.
These two cuts, the Top Blade steak and the Flat Iron steak, appear separately on the Beef Made Easy retails cuts poster that we all know and love. Thus, they are indeed different and that is why I am writing this.
This confusion is not surprising considering that the traditional Top Blade steak and newfangled Flat Iron steak are indeed from the same muscle, the infraspinatus. Within that muscle, there are medial and lateral sections, separated by a relatively thick layer of connective tissue (CT). That thick layer of CT, or absence thereof, is what differentiates a regular Top Blade steak (with CT seam) from the Flat Iron steak (without the CT seam). But, because they originate from the same muscle, some folks (wrongly) use their fanciful names interchangeably. It is especially problematic that retailers do this, too, because it confuses the eater purchasing the steak. This is similar to the New York Strip / Kansas City Strip both-are-top-loin-steaks position, except that synonymous use is just fine … since they are, in fact the same thing. In this video, the process of CT seam removal and Flat Iron steak cutting is demonstrated. (Note: the butcher points to this seam in the video. Tossing around the whole muscle is not required when cutting this steak.)
Cutting a Flat Iron steak: Starting with the whole infraspinatus, the CT seam can be filleted out, analogous to filleting a fish, resulting in two large portions of very tender steak, which is usually then portioned into attractive steaks.
Cutting a Top Blade steak: Starting with the whole infraspinatus, just cut across the width of the steak, leaving in the CT seam. And that’s a Top Blade steak.
This is important because the infraspinatus also happens to be the second most tender muscle in a beef carcass. Many times, I have heard people complain about how their “Flat Iron” was not that tender. As it turns out, they were munching on heavy CT inclusive Top Blade steaks. Mr. Meatcutter realized that the steaks originated from the same muscle and that one name had a (potentially) better connotation, so he opted for the simpler way of cutting, just lopping off pieces of steak and slapping a better name on them. Not cool.
There is no way to control how meat marketers use fanciful names, yet there should be an understood responsibility to keep it consistent and accurate. In the end, no one wins with the willy nilly use of cut names, and consequently, confused consumers. The premise of creating value-adding cuts to 1) add value to beef in hope that the added value somehow gets back to the cattle producer, and to 2) offer eaters more affordable and/or more palatable steaks options.
For much more in-depth explanation of essentially everything there is to know about any beef muscle, scope out the Bovine Myology and Muscle Profiling website. There is a very good video there about cutting the infraspinatus / flat iron / top blade muscle.