3 tender steaks that won’t break the bank

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This week’s conversation with Anya Fernald, co-founder and CEO of Belcampo Meat Co., got us thinking about three less familiar cuts of beef you might want to throw on the grill soon: the Denver, the Velvet and the Bavette. They are tender and delicious and cost a fraction of the price of a New York strip steak or a tenderloin.

The Denver comes from the chuck, a fatty section of beef shoulder; that accounts for its marbled appearance. Velvets are appropriately named for their soft, velvety texture, despite being from a very lean part of the cow’s leg. Bavette steaks can be found not far from the skirt steak on a cow and are characterized by large muscle grain. That’s why it’s very important to cut against the grain before digging in.

Beef Cut Diagram
A look at where these steaks come from. (US Beef Cuts/Wikipedia)

If you don’t have a Belcampo meat market near you, any butcher working with the whole animal or with primal cuts — that would be the segmented parts of the animal — should be able to provide you with these tender beefy contenders. Salt liberally and cook your steaks over high heat, 4 to 5 minutes on each side. Rest 10 minutes before slicing in, against the grain. No tricks or special equipment needed.


The Denver steak (Photo by Pete Bloomberg/KCRW)

The Denver steak was recently developed by the Beef Innovations Group. Great company name aside, the B.I.G. has long been the place for research and development in the beef industry. When the Denver was still in the pipeline, the B.I.G. looked for tender muscles that were hidden in parts of the cow like the shoulder which were being used for braises and burgers. The Denver comes from the fatty chuck roll, a large group of muscles in a cow’s shoulder. (The chuck roll is located between the start of the neck and the end of the shoulder blade.) The Denver is a long muscle (serratus ventral is) with ribboned marbling. It is surprisingly tender despite coming from a load-bearing section of the cow and tastes best when cut into one-inch steaks. Denvers deliver the tenderness of higher-end steaks without a price tag that breaks the bank.


The Velvet (a.k.a. Merlot) steak (Photo by Pete Bloomberg/KCRW)

When I was a butcher, I learned that the ability to cleanly remove a Velvet steak unscathed from a cow’s leg required great skill and finesse. That’s because this tender, lean oval-shaped cut is located beside the shank, buried beneath a cow’s hardworking leg muscles in the gastrocnemius. There are only two Velvet steaks in a cow, each of them weighing a pound and an inch thick. Since steak names are not uniform across butcher shops, you might also see Velvets in the case under the “Merlot” label. 


The Bavette steak (Photo by Pete Bloomberg/KCRW)

The Bavette steak has historically been more popular on menus outside the United States. But I’ve seen them at more butcher shops in our neck of the woods of late. If you want to get technical, it’s called the obliquus abdomens interni and hangs between the leg and loin of a cow on the side or flap of the cow. The flap is also where butchers find their skirt and flank steaks. You’ll often see the Bavette called by the names vacio, sirloin flap and faux hanger steak due to the similarities in texture, tenderness and flavor. The Bavette is usually cut into smaller steaks but when left whole, grilling this wrestling belt-sized cut of beef is an impressive party trick. They are fantastic eaten solo or sliced up and thrown into a salad.