Why Is My Steak Chewy and Tough?

Written by Mike Futia | Updated August 13, 2023

Why Is My Steak Chewy and Tough? Quick Answer

  • Your steak is chewy and tough most likely because the cut of steak was not tender to begin with.
  • Another reason your steak is chewy and tough could be that you overcooked or undercooked the steak.
  • Your steak could also be chewy and tough because you didn't let it rest long enough after cooking it.

We’ve all been there: you grill up a beautiful steak, slice it up, but when you bite into it, it's overly tough and chewy.

There’s nothing worse than a steak that's hard to chew.

While there are naturally tender and naturally tough cuts of steak, more often than not, a chewy steak indicates it was not handled properly.

After years of trial and error in cooking hundreds of steaks, I’ve learned some key reasons why steak can turn out tough and chewy instead of tender and juicy.

Here are seven reasons why your steak is tough and chewy.

1. The Cut of Steak Was Not Tender to Begin With

brined filet mignon

A very tender filet mignon

Certain cuts of beef are naturally more tender than others.

Tender cuts come from muscles in the cow that did little work, like the tenderloin and ribeye. They have less connective tissue, which breaks down into gelatin during cooking, keeping the meat juicy.

Tougher cuts come from muscles that got more use, like the shoulder or leg. They have more connective tissue that needs prolonged cooking with moisture to become tender.

Here are some of the most tender steaks you can buy:

  • Filet mignon. Cut from the tenderloin, this is the most tender (and expensive) cut.
  • Ribeye. Cut from the rib primal, ribeyes have good marbling which keeps them juicy. Same with the tomahawk steak.
  • New York strip steak. Cut from the short loin, the New York strip offers great beefy flavor.
  • T-bone and Porterhouse. Cut from the short loin with tenderloin on one side of the bone, the T-bone and Porterhouse are two of the best steaks you can buy.

And here are some steaks that are naturally a little tougher:

  • Flank steak. From the lower belly, flank steak has loose grains and lots of connective tissue.
  • Skirt steak. From the plate primal, skirt steak has a coarse grain that benefits a lot from marinating.
  • Hanger steak. From the diaphragm, hanger steak also benefits from a good steak marinade.
  • Chuck steak. From the shoulder, chuck steak benefits from low-and-slow cooking to break down its connective tissue.

For tougher cuts like flank, skirt, or hanger steak, I recommend two techniques to help tenderize the meat before cooking: dry-brining the steak, and using a marinade.

Dry Brining Your Steak

dry brine ribeye

Dry-brining a beautiful ribeye steak

Dry brining is one of the best ways to get tender and juicy steak.

Dry brining works by drawing moisture out of the meat through osmosis, then allowing that moisture to get reabsorbed along with the salt and spices. This dissolved salt enhances the natural beef flavor while tenderizing the muscle fibers.

To dry brine, simply sprinkle 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of kosher salt per pound of steak and let rest for 1-24 hours.

As the salt penetrates deep into the meat, it helps the muscle fibers relax instead of contract when cooked. This keeps the meat much more tender and less likely to get chewy. The salt also increases juiciness by allowing the steak to retain more natural juices instead of having them leak out.

Marinating Your Steak

flat iron steak marinade

Marinating a flat iron steak

Marinating your steak is a great way to add flavor and tenderness to a tougher cut.

Marinating is ideal for naturally tough, chewy cuts of steak that need some extra TLC.

Flank, skirt, hanger steak and other heavily exercised muscles have more connective tissue that needs to be broken down. The acidic ingredients in a marinade effectively work to tenderize the meat before cooking. 

Ingredients like wine, vinegar, yogurt, citrus juice and pineapple contain enzymes that break down collagen and connective tissues. The longer you marinate, the more tender the meat becomes.

Allow at least two hours, or up to 24 hours for maximum effect. The marinade permeates the meat, weakening the tough muscle fibers. Once cooked, these tissues transform into tender gelatin instead of rubbery gristle. 

Marinades also keep lean cuts like flank steak juicy, as the liquid penetrates and bastes the meat from within. 

2. You Overcooked The Steak

tomahawk steak

That one time I overcooked a steak

The number two reason for a tough, chewy steak is that you overcooked it.

When steak is cooked past the ideal temperature for that specific cut, the muscle fibers toughen and contract, squeezing out moisture. The more well-done the steak, the tougher it becomes.

Each cut of steak has an optimal internal temperature to hit when cooking.

Using an instant-read thermometer is the only reliable way to test doneness. Simply insert it into the thickest part of the steak and get a reading within 2-3 seconds.

Here are the ideal internal temperatures for common cuts:

  • Filet mignon. 120-125°F for rare
  • Ribeye, New York strip. 125-130°F for medium-rare

As a general rule, steak should never be cooked past 150°F. 

The meat fibers will tighten and squeeze out the juices, leaving you with a hockey puck texture.

Check out our guide on how long to grill a steak and the different levels of steak doneness for more info.

3. You Undercooked The Steak

denver steak in hand

A beautifully cooked Denver steak

While overcooking makes steak tough and dry, undercooking can also create chewy steak for a different reason.

When you undercook your steak, the connective tissue doesn’t have time to break down into tender gelatin.

Meat needs sufficient time and temperature to transform the collagen into gelatin. If removed from the heat too soon, the connective tissue will remain intact. The steak may appear juicier when rare, but can have a chewy, sinewy texture.

It’s especially important not to undercook tougher cuts that have more connective tissue. Brisket, chuck roast, and other tough cuts need prolonged cooking at lower temperatures to get fork tender.

To avoid eating undercooked steak, always use a thermometer to check the internal temperature. Steak should reach at least 120-125°F to begin melting the collagen.

The exception is high-quality filet mignon. With little connective tissue, filet can be cooked to 115°F for rare while remaining tender. For optimal safety and taste, cook your steak to 5°F below the final target temperature— the temp will rise 5-10° as it rests.

4. You Didn't Rest The Steak

smoked tri tip

Resting a tri tip steak

Ever cut into a perfectly grilled steak only to have all the juices run out onto your plate? This rookie mistake turns juicy steak dry and tough.

When steak is cooked, the heat causes the muscle fibers to contract and squeeze moisture to the surface. If you slice into it right away, the juices spill out before they can be reabsorbed back into the meat.

Resting your seak allows time for the juices to redistribute evenly throughout the meat. Aim for at least 5 minutes of resting time, up to 10 minutes for thicker cuts. The temperature will rise 5-10°F, finishing the cooking process.

To rest steak properly:

  • Transfer to a clean plate, don’t reuse the cooking platter or juices will reabsorb.
  • Lightly tent foil over the top to keep warm, don’t wrap tightly or steam will make the crust soggy.
  • Resist cutting into the steak right away! Be patient and let it rest.

Proper resting helps keep those juices locked inside the steak, instead of on your plate. 

5. You Didn't Season The Steak

new york strip

Seasoning a couple New York strips

You may be surprised to learn that seasoning impacts not only flavor, but also tenderness.

We already talked about dry-brining. Salting your steak in advance helps break down muscle fibers through osmosis. The salt draws out moisture, then allows it to reabsorb, tenderizing the meat.

For 1-inch thick steaks, apply salt up to 40 minutes before cooking. Even just 5-10 minutes makes a difference. Simply sprinkle salt evenly over both sides, use 1/2 teaspoon per pound. For even better flavor, try coarse sea salt or kosher salt. Cracked black pepper also adds a tasty crust when seared.

A steak rub is another great way to add lots of flavor and tenderize the meat. Use spices like garlic and onion powder, thyme, oregano, paprika, cumin or chili powder. Apply the rub up to an hour before cooking so the spices have time to penetrate.

Proper seasoning transforms a steak from bland and chewy to bursting with juicy, beefy flavor in every bite—a key difference between restaurant quality steak and the home cook.

6. You Didn't Store The Steak Properly

ribeye steak

How you store steak after purchasing plays a big role in tenderness too.

Mishandling during storage causes the meat fibers to contract and toughen. Here are some storage mistakes that can lead to chewy steak:

  • Storing above 40°F. Cold temperature is crucial to prevent spoilage and keep steak tender. Always refrigerate at 40°F or below.
  • Storing too long. Steak is best when fresh. Use within 4 days of purchasing, or your steak could go bad.
  • Freezing improperly. You shouldn't free your steak after thawing it out. Freeze fresh in air-tight packaging.
  • Thawing too fast. The safest way to thaw frozen steak is overnight in the fridge. Thawing it out on the counter or in a water bath could make it tough.

Follow these handling tips for tender steak every time:

  • Use fresh steak within a few days, or freeze immediately.
  • Marinate steak in the refrigerator, not on the counter.
  • Thaw frozen meat in the fridge overnight, never at room temp.

With proper chilling and minimal storage time, your steak will stay tender and ready to cook.

7. The Steak Was Frozen

While freezing extends the shelf life of fresh steak, it can negatively impact texture and make meat chewy if not done properly.

Here are some tips for freezing steaks:

  • Freeze when fresh. Freeze as soon as possible after purchasing for best quality.
  • Portion steaks. Divide into portion sizes so you don't have to thaw the whole package.
  • Use air-tight packaging. Exclude as much air as possible by vacuum sealing or using heavy-duty foil or freezer bags. Air causes freezer burn.
  • Label with date. Mark the package with the cut and date frozen for easy identification.
  • Freeze at 0°F or below. Colder is better for long-term freezing.
  • Thaw in the fridge. Safest way is overnight thawing in the refrigerator.
  • Cook without refreezing. Refreezing causes more ice crystals to form, damaging texture.

With proper freezing and thawing methods, steaks can be frozen for 4-6 months before cooking. Handle frozen meat carefully to avoid toughening the fibers.

Mike Futia

Hello, I'm Mike Futia, a passionate griller and BBQ enthusiast. I'm the creator of Grill Frenzy, and I'm committed to sharing my knowledge of grilling and smoking with you. I believe that BBQ and grilling should be accessible to everyone. Whether you're a seasoned pro or just starting out, I'm here to guide you on your grilling journey. Welcome!


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