You've probably read in recipes and heard again and again that meat should always be sliced "against the grain." But what does that mean? What exactly is "the grain," and why it is so important to slice against it? If those questions have ever gone through your mind, rest assured you're not alone.
Let me tell you, and more importantly show you, what the grain of the meat actually is, and why it's so important.
What Exactly Is the Grain?
Not to be confused with whole grains like barley, farro, and freekeh, the grain of the meat is something totally different. It refers to the direction that the muscle fibers are aligned. In the photo of flank steak above, you can see that the fibers run vertically from top to bottom.
The grain of the meat is easier to identify in certain cuts of meat. It's more clearly defined and easier to see in tougher cuts — like flank, hanger, and skirt steak — than it is in lean cuts, like tenderloin.
Here's Why It's Important to Slice Meat Against the Grain
It's not just the cut of meat that determines how tender it is, it's also how you cut the meat. First, find the direction of the grain (which way the muscle fibers are aligned), then slice across the grain rather than parallel with it.
In the photo above, you can see that the muscle fibers run from left to right. By cutting against the grain, we want to cut through the fibers and shorten them, rather than cut in the same direction that they run. This makes it easier to chew through, since a lot of the hard work of breaking up the muscle fibers has already been done for you.
Slicing meat with the grain (or in the same direction as the muscle fibers), however, leaves you with a chewier piece of meat, one that could have been more tender if it was just sliced differently.