Slicing meat not only helps it fit on your plate and in your mouth, it also helps tenderize it, makes it easier to chew, and, by exposing more surface area to your taste buds, even enhances its flavor.
The most critical element of slicing meat relates to slicing it against the grain, which we'll get into shortly. But it's not just how you slice your meat that's important. It's also when you slice it.
For the purposes of this discussion, we're focusing on slicing roasted meats, boneless and bone-in roasts, like prime rib or leg of lamb, as well as retail cuts like flank steak and skirt steak that are typically sliced into individual servings after cooking.
In other words, we're talking about the slicing that happens on a cutting board, not on a plate.
Resting Meat Before Slicing
In a nutshell, the right time to slice your meat is after it's had a chance to rest.
Resting meat simply means waiting a few minutes after taking it out of the oven or off the grill before slicing or serving it. Meat that's rested will be much juicier than meat that's sliced immediately after taking it off the heat.
That piece of meat on your cutting board is made up of millions of liquid-filled cells. And that liquid is the source of the juices in the meat. When you cook a steak or roast, the heat from the oven or grill causes it to contract, squeezing it just like a hand squeezing a water balloon. This pressure forces the liquid out of the cells and into the space between the muscle fibers.
Slicing the meat right then would result in those juices spilling out onto the cutting board. And you hate to see that, because every drop of juice on the cutting board is one less drop that ends up in your mouth.
Fortunately, the solution is easy: Just wait a few minutes. Waiting lets the meat cool, and as it cools, those juices to settle back into their cells once again. That way, when you slice the meat, those juices stay in the meat where they belong. Here's more information about why you need to rest your meat.
Slicing Against the Grain
This piece of advice is common enough, but too often, it comes with no explanation. What grain? What does that even mean?
The best way to understand it is by looking at a steak with very pronounced grain, like a flank steak or skirt steak. Indeed, these are the kinds of steaks where the recipe is likely to call for you to slice them against the grain.
Now, if you don't have a steak right in front of you, take a look at the picture above. You can very clearly see the individual strands of meat that run lengthwise along the steak. That is the grain.
You can also see that the knife is slicing across those strands, not parallel to them. That is slicing against the grain.
The reason for slicing meat this way is to make it easier to chew. Meat is tough because of the presence of a protein called collagen, which happens to be very tough and chewy. There are only three ways to tenderize meat, and each method comes down to softening or breaking up that collagen.
Each of those individual muscle strands is actually a bundle of muscle fibers. And each bundle is wrapped in a sheath of collagen.
Collagen can be broken down by slow cooking at low temperatures, which is exactly what happens when we braise meat. But this doesn't happen right away. It can take hours.
With a steak, we cook it fast and very hot. Which means those collagen sheaths don't have time to soften, so those strands of muscle will still be tough and chewy.
What we're trying to do is shorten those strands as much as possible, so that your teeth and jaws have less work to do. This means that not only is it necessary to slice the meat against the grain, but you want to slice it as thinly as possible. That's because when you slice against the grain, thinner slices mean shorter strands.
How thin is thin enough? Good question. The answer: As thin as possible. But, if you can get it down to 1/4 inch you'll be fine.
In some cases, specifically with skirt steak, there's an extra step involved. Because it's so long, and the grain runs the entire length of the steak, it's not possible to slice the entire thing against the grain.
What you have to do is cut it into maybe three shorter sections along the grain, and then slice those sections against the grain.
Finally, remember that it's not enough to simply slice against the grain—you need to slice it thinly against the grain.
More Meat-Slicing Tips
Use long strokes: Don't hack at it. Generally speaking, that means using a long knife, longer than the usual kitchen knife. A slicing knife can be up to 14 inches long, with a thin, flexible blade. Speaking of knives...
Use a sharp knife: This goes for every knife you use in the kitchen, but no less so when it comes to slicing meats. A sharp knife makes the work of slicing easier, and since you have to apply less pressure while slicing, the blade is less likely to slip. But also, a sharp knife will produce clean, neat cuts instead of rough, jagged ones.
Use a carving fork: Those long-double-tined forks really do serve a purpose. You don't necessarily want to drive those tines all the way into the meat. A carving fork is more about holding the roast steady while you slice. Whether you slice toward the fork or away from it, the long tines also keep your fingers away from the blade.
Slice on the bias: Usually when you slice a roast or steak, there's no reason to slice at anything other than a 90-degree angle. Picture a boneless pork loin roast. You slice straight down.
But there are exceptions. When you're carving bone-in roasts, like a leg of lamb, it can be helpful to slice at an angle, not parallel to the bone, and not perpendicular to it either. Instead, strive for a 45-degree angle, slicing in smooth, long strokes from the wide end of the shank toward the narrow end.
With these tips and tricks, we are sure you are well on your way to becoming the master of the meat in your circle!