When I owned my meat market, I purchased my meat from a wholesaler. This particular wholesaler also supplied meat to restaurants and institutions. I stopped by there almost every morning to pick up something needed. Because I grew to know all the employees I would wonder out on the cutting floor and BS with them. And, of course, I observed their cutting practices.
In my last post I spoke of the use of “bull meat.” Like I said, even though bull meat is just a slang term for fifty pound frozen blocks of super lean meat, it can be any breed of beef, including milk cow, as long as it is super lean. And because most of it is going to be ground up, the age of the animal means absolutely nothing. I mentioned how supermarkets mix this bull meat with their fat trimmings to make regular ground beef. Well the same practice is done by wholesalers who supply restaurants and institutions. But when I said that this economy grade beef is only suitable for ground beef, that was not totally true.
There are cuts such as t-bone, new york, rib, tenderloin and sirloin that are sometimes saved from the grinder, and these steaks can be purchased at a much lower price than USDA choice steaks. The slang term for these steaks is “cow.” Once more, it can be any breed of beef, though I’m sure cow would hit pretty close to home. I mean, what other type of beef would be kept around for years, if not for milking or rearing calves. Are these full loins tough? You bet they are! So how is the problem solved? It’s called a needle machine.
A needle machine is a large block of metal pins on a piston-driven plunger. The full loin of whatever steak is put on a conveyor belt and slowly ran under the multitude of pins. Each time the conveyor belts stops, the pins come down, jabbing thousands of holes through the meat with each drop of the plunger. This breaks down the muscled fiber of the meat, hence, making it artificially tender. Sort of like doing the chewing for you. These loins may be repeatedly run through this machine two or three times. After this process is done, the loins are then cut into individual steaks. Though my wholesale did sell a lot of this economy grade cow, I should mention that most of the restaurants purchased grade choice steaks. And though I purchased my grade choice beef by the quarters and broke them down myself, I often ran low on certain cuts while having plenty of the others. That was when I would buy individual loins from my wholesaler. Grade choice, of course.
I wish I could say where this needled cow steaks were served. I really didn’t know then, and I don’t know now. Though I do believe most were sold to retirement homes and other such institutions, I am certain there were some that went to restaurants. I did know of one restaurant frequented by truckers that served t-bone steak at a crazy-low price. So just for laughs and giggles I ordered one. One look and I knew it was needled cow steak. How did I know? All one has to do is look at the long part of the T that runs down the steak. If it runs anywhere near the full length of the steak, and the steak is narrower, not having the full rounded look that a choice steak would have, that means “old,” which means needled cow steak. Remember, when the loins are run through the needle machine they have a tendency to flatten out a little. But to be honest? The steak wasn’t half bad. The needle machine did a fine job of tenderizing and the steak tasted quite good. Whether they used some seasonings to give the flavor I don’t know.
Though I’ve been out of the meat business for over 15 years, it would be foolish to say the practice of tenderizing and selling cow steak is still not going on. And it should be said that there is absolutely nothing unhealthy about cow steak. It is government inspected just as is grade choice meat. But it is something to know the next time you walk into a restaurant selling steak at an unbelievably low price. Someone might have done the chewing for you. Bone apatite!