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Alternative Beef Cuts for Chinese Stir Fry

I asked this question a couple of years ago and then completely forgot about it. Although I found the post, the thread died soon after without an answer, so I'm asking again...

I'm interested in the type of beef that Chinese restaurants use, the ones who don't use the good meat like the flank steak or the flap meat. When they charge $5 for a dish and it's large enough for 2 meals, I doubt they are using the good stuff, right? So what meat do you think they are using? I'm not saying I want to do that all time, but maybe at least to try it. I'm hoping there are alternatives that don't require the baking soda.

I know Safeway sells one that is marked "stir fry" and taste like the beef in beef stroganoff, and that's NOT what I'm looking for. Thanks.

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  1. I typically will use either ribeye or sirloin.

    If you want a cheaper alternative, the most common option would be flank or beef shoulder steak or sometimes bottom round.

    Whatever cut of beef you use, remember the following tips:

    - Cut against the grain and cut the strips thin and evenly sized. The easiest way to cut thin strips is to partially freeze the beef before cutting.

    - After cutting up the beef, make the following mixture: soy sauce, rice wine, corn starch and a bit of water. Stir and marinate beef in the mixture for about 10-15 minutes.

    - Get your pan (or preferrably wok) hot. Hot like "Africa Hot". Stir fry your beef for just a minute or two, basically until the middle is pink or orange-red..

    - Then continue with the rest of your recipe, e.g. add veggies, etc. When the veggies are done, add the beef and give it a nice twirl or two in the wok and you're good to go.

    - If you choose a cut of beef with lots of silverskin just tell the butcher to remove. They'll do it for you in a snap. They're butchers, it's their job.

    5 Replies
    1. re: ipsedixit

      Oh, thanks for letting me know about the "silverskin." I hate it when that happens, and my good meat ends up tasting chewy! Then my husband will say, "are you sure you cut across the grain?!" <sigh>. I'll check out the beef shoulder and bottom round.

      1. re: boltnut55

        Depending on where you reside, the cut of meat known as Flat Iron Steak or Top Blade Steak, is a tender and very flavorful cut of meat. It's usually under $4.00/lb, but it often goes on sale for less than $3.00/lb around my parts. If you can gain access to a wholesale meat supplier, you can get it for $2.25 and under almost always.. The same would go for Hanger Steak as well.

        1. re: fourunder

          I never see flat irons for that price around me but I do see top blade roasts for as little as $3.49/lb which I buy up and cut into flat irons

          1. re: fourunder

            I second that, FLat Iron steaks are near premium price here and at least $5 to $6lb on sale. I can't even get 80/20 hamburger for under $4lb.

            1. re: Atochabsh

              Today's prices for me are also $5-6 at the local supermarket....usually < $4.50/lb wholesale.

      2. At my nearby cheap buffet, they use rump roast, cut 1/8 thick. And yes, they use baking soda. Ever taken an Alka Seltzer? It's no worse than that, plus you rinse it off.

        If you can get your butcher to use the Hobart slicer to slice the roast into 1/8 inch slices, you're ahead of the game.

        1 Reply
        1. re: FoodFuser

          I find London broil easy to work with. Yes adding baking soda to the marinade helps. I made London broil yesterday by just marinating it in a Chinese sauce. Broiling the meat for 3-4 minutes each side, roasting it for 20 minutes at 400 degrees. Slicing the meat very thin at a 90 degree angle. Tasted like roast beef.

        2. When I bought beef for my former Korean restaurant, it was a bulk cut called beef knuckle or "whole, peeled knuckle"

          http://www.chow.com/ingredients/236

          1. Commercial grade tenderloins - they are on the small side and the silver skin needs to be trimmed but that is what most of the better restaurants used.

            I have never seen them sold in stores but I have ordered whole cases from a local butcher. They come frozen and cases are around 50-60 lbs, and prices swing wildly. I have seen them as low as $2.40 /lb and as high as 4.79 /lb.

            They also make a decent petite filet mignon steak.

            On the cheaper end Rump Roasts and beef knuckle are used quite often too. The rump roast has the best flavor of the three while the knuckle is cheaper, just remember what other people have said, cut against the grain and keep pieces thin.

            1. The difficulty with your question is compounded by the misleading names given to beef cuts. You really have to ask the vendor what cut is it "really". There seems to be no iron-clad rule for naming beef cuts. For example, just what is "stir fry"? There are many on line web sites you could access to learn about beef cuts.

              1. In the Chinese restaurant, flank steak is what it's all about. It's cut into 1/8" while still semi-frozen and marinated in wine that contains baking soda. Period.

                The lovely suggestion for commercial filet was used in the days when the Chinese restaurant had "Steak Kew" on the menu and had to cook the meat medium-rare, in large chunks. A delicious dish that I'm sad isn't around nearly as much any more as it could be.

                The suggestion of hanger steak is a good one, but very expensive these days now that it's enjoying popularity.

                I'd never use a bottom round for a stir-fry. Ever.

                Beside the usual marination/baking soda tricks, it doesn't hurt to get out the old pounding hammer ("tenderizer") and take a few whacks at the meat. Makes a lot of difference without resorting to chemicals.

                14 Replies
                1. re: shaogo

                  Also, one other thing to note.

                  Most supermarkets generally sell Choice beef (rarely do I see other grades, esp. Prime).

                  I think a lot of Chinese (buffet) restaurants are able to source large quantities of Select beef in various cuts, mostly flank, which further reduces the cost.

                  Just something else to keep in mind when trying to replicate this at home.

                  1. re: ipsedixit

                    There is also no point of using Prime beef due to the cooking method.

                  2. re: shaogo

                    Shaogo,

                    The OP was asking for cuts other than Flank and without the use of baking soda, that is why I mentioned commercial tenders. The meat companies I dealt with all told me that commercial tenders outsold all of cuts of meat going to a wide variety of Asian restaurants by a huge margin. This was in the Los Angeles area from in the 80’s through the early 2000’s. I mention Los Angeles only because preparation styles, pricing and availability of meat are very regional and this could be a LA thing.

                    Commercial tenders reigned because they are easy to prep for stir fry dishes, don’t require tenderization, and were relatively cheap (cheaper than flank). Plus the customers seemed to like the product and I think they felt they were getting a better cut of meat because it was tender but not mushy.

                    I agree that bottom round is too tough, but many restaurants in LA would buy only the rump roast portion of the bottom round. It is tender and flavorful and when cut correctly works quite well, especially if you throw in a little tenderization (mechanical or chemical) along the way. Plus as the OP asked for cheaper alternatives, this is one that saves money.

                    PS Just to be clear – I am not stating that this is ‘authentic’ – just trying to answer the OP’s question.

                    1. re: RetiredChef

                      My bad being off topic.

                      You're right on target about the high quality of meat in the L.A. area during that time. The best of NYC's restaurants even took themselves into the Prime arena by demanding nicely-marbled, evenly-tender cuts. (Edited to add: this applies to Chinese restaurants only.)

                      Rump roast is superb. We slow-cook it and it just is beefy goodness. But then, not everyone has time to do so.

                      If one's looking for economy, the Select grade, combined with a tenderization technique (we "velvetize" with egg white, wine, baking soda and corn starch) is the way to go. It's now, sadly, an industry standard. We go choice at our place but few do.

                      1. re: shaogo

                        Shaogo, could you share more details? What are the steps of that process, if I am using 1/8" rump or other round?

                        -ratios of egg white, to wine to soda to cornstarch?

                        -How long do you let the reaction take place?

                        -Do you rinse to rid the alkaline taste, or does it go straight to the wok?

                        1. re: FoodFuser

                          1 egg white to 1/4 cup wine to 2 Tbs. baking soda to 4 Tbs. cornstarch should give you a nice slurry to start with. Cut flank, rump (or round if you must) into 1/8" or slightly more generous slices (it helps to have the meat a little frozen unless you have a slicing machine). Marinate overnight or for at least 4 hours; drain by squeezing and drop into hot oil in the wok. Be certain to check the seasoning of your sauce before you use meat treated in this fashion.

                          Cheaper Chinese joints just use a little stock and the baking soda; the cornstarch is a separate slurry that goes in during sauce-making time at the end of the stir-fry.

                          1. re: shaogo

                            Shaogo, thanks for that.

                            I've seen wildly ranging concentrations and times. as low as 1/4 teaspoon bicarb and 10 minute soak to higher ranges. Yours of 2 TBS bicarb to one pound meat at 1/8", resting for 4 to 12 hours, really makes sense, because bicarb just isn't very strong stuff.

                            One June about 10 years ago, rump roast went on sale for 49 cents a pound. Borrowed a friend's Hobart slicer for the week, and made up about 20 lbs of really thin jerky, along with some super thin stir fry slices that only needed to be kissed by a really hot wok. Such thin slices (almost see through) in uniformity are impossible to do by hand. Each night for a week I'd fire up the patio 40K Btu burner and do beef and garlic that wafted its odors 100 yards in each direction. Dogs were barking and we were snarfing. It was a perfect storm of 49 cent rump and a real slicer.

                            Thanks again for your rations.

                            Thanks for the ratios

                      2. re: RetiredChef

                        I have never heard of "beef tender". Is it some new merchandizing description? Chuck tender, yes. Beef tenderloin, yes. By commercial, do you mean USDA grade "Commercial"? Lower than "select"? It seems that every retail beef vendor has created a name to confuse the customer as to the real cut. You can be sure that names like "Butchers Premium Tender Super Rancher Select Beef" is to fool the naive customer. I suppose what they don't know won't hurt them.

                        1. re: OldTimer

                          Ha ha ha . I think that "Butchers Premium Tender Super Rancher Select Beef" is just funny.

                          Yes, it would have been nicer if we are more honest and simply call it as it is like "Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3" as opposed to all these funny name like "Prime, Choice, Select....."

                          1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                            there's nothing dishonest about the naming convention. it is what it is and is clearly defined and widely accepted. if people choice ignorance over knowledge, then even 'grade 1, grade 2' wouldn't help.

                            where there *is* a lack of standard in naming is the cuts themselves. it would be nice if that was standardized (it is actually standardized, but no one follows the standards or cares enough to learn about them).

                            1. re: tommy

                              Tommy,

                              Ok, maybe not dishonest, but confusing. I think grade 1, 2, 3 is easier to understand because there is natural order. Certainly, everyone would know grade 2 is in between grade 1 and grade 3.

                              1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                                I know of no one (who cares) who doesn't know that Prime is a step up from Choice. And I don't know where one could even purchase Select, so there are only two grades in my world for all intents and purposes. Confusing? I can't imagine this is very confusing.

                                As far as a natural order, is grade 1 the best? or, is grade 4 the best. do you think that someone who really wanted to understand a simple grading system could remember 1 vs 4 being the best, but not remember 'select/choice/prime'?

                                again, the confusion that i've noticed comes with the names of the various cuts. i've not come across much confusion with grades. it's pretty simple stuff really.

                                1. re: tommy

                                  I agree. I have no problem with grading, just the fancy names to mask the actual grade. If you see fancy names, you can be sure it is select grade in retail markets. If a cut is Choice it will be so desribed on the package. One of my pet peeves is advertising top sirloin as "chateubriand". I did some research, and it seems that the misdescription is allowed. For example, a whole tenderloin (or sometimes the butt end) is adverised as "filet mignon".
                                  Agreed that consumers should learn the facts...but will that ever be? There was a time when Joe the Butcher got his beef from a meat packer that chose not to pay for USDA grading, since all his beef was top quality. We relied upon Joe...and if the beef fell below par, we went to Harry. Joe and Harry are rare birds now.

                      3. re: shaogo

                        could you elaborate on the marinade/tenderising part?

                        what is the wine and baking sode mixture? how long do you leave the meat for?

                        ive tried for a looong time to replicate the softness that chinese restaurants get with their beef with little success. id love to hear the answer!

                        cheers!

                      4. The two most common cuts in Chinese stir fry are flank steak and skirt steak (plate steak). Some people have also suggested the flat iron steak which is part of the chunk steak. It is very favorful. Another thing you need to account for is not simply the beef cut,s but the beef grades. A US Prime cut of filet mignon costs much more than a US Select cut of filet mignon.

                        Supermarkets often have silly definition. I have bought Safeway "stir fry" beef when I were younger. Those are not the beef cuts for stir fry.

                        Baking soda is a common method to soften the beef, but there are other alternatives, such as papaya powder. Most important, one can omit the soften steps.

                        4 Replies
                        1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                          I've always used corn starch for velveting the meat

                          1. re: scubadoo97

                            Me too, but I only use a very small amount compared to others. I find that my meat tends to stick to the cookware if too much corn starch is used.

                          2. re: Chemicalkinetics

                            when you say baking soda how exactly is it used? is the baking soda jsut dusted onto the sliced beef pieces? sorry if this sounds silly i really have no idea.. lol

                            thanks!

                            1. re: bdosa

                              Not silly at all.

                              Yes, you are correct. You take 1/8-1/4th of a teaspoon of baking soda and mix with about 1 pound of sliced beef. Just mix them up (~15 sec) and have them marinate about 5-10 min. You will literally feel the beef fibers loosen up as you mix them.

                              If you feel the beef is not soft enough, then add more next time. If you feel the baking soda taste is too much, then add less next time. Some people rinse the beef mixture with water. I don't and advice you don't do it for the first time anyway.

                              This technique is most useful for beef since it is tougher than pork and chicken...

                              There is a downside to this method. Altough the beef is soften, you will notice there is less of a beefy taste. I rarely use this method, but it is still very fun to do it once awhile.

                              Best