Cube Steak Vs Salisbury Steak: What's The Difference?

Some nostalgic foods keep coming back in style simply because they have the potential to be so tasty when made with care. For example, beef steak served with flavorful gravy, like cube steak and Salisbury steak, has a timeless appeal. You might have had a run-in with an under-seasoned, overcooked version of either of these old classics drowning in poorly made gravy in a school cafeteria or a frozen dinner. But we promise that both of these can be much more than those dismal memories.

Although both recipes have "steak" in their names, only cube steak qualifies as the usual definition of steak — an actual slice of meat. The steak in a Salisbury recipe is formed from ground beef instead, which is seasoned, seared, and shaped into a steak-like patty. Gravy figures into the equation for serving both of these steaks, partly for adding flavor, and partly for contributing moisture. A good sauce is worth the effort, and these recipes are proof.

What is cube steak?

If the term "cube steak" brings to mind square cuts of stew meat, you've got the wrong image. "Cube" is a reference to a machine tenderizing process that gives the texture of the steak a rough, choppy appearance. At first glance, a cube steak might look like it could be ground beef due to that texturizing. The steaks are subjected to this drastic treatment because otherwise, they'd be very tough. Cut from slices of beef round, which is a large, single muscle near the rump of a steer, there's not much tendon to add flavor or marbling to add moisture, just solid muscle.

The advantage of the choppy texture on a cube steak is that breading sticks very well. And although you could cook a cube steak with just a sprinkle of salt and pepper, traditionally this is the cut for chicken fried steak, which is not chicken despite the name. Breading adds flavor to cube steak, and the relatively quick time the cutlet spends browning in the pan helps keep the meat from getting too tough. An epic country-style gravy is made with the pan drippings, full of browned bits from the flour. Cube steak can also be slow cooked in beefy gravy. The low, moist heat makes for a fork-tender piece of meat.

What is Salisbury steak?

Salisbury steak is named after a Civil War doctor who worked to improve the diet of soldiers. He hit on the idea of chopped beef as the ideal meal that would promote healing and return vitality to the injured. But actually, the custom of eating seasoned ground beef patties, known as Hamburg steak, was originally popularized by German immigrants. During World War I, Americans eliminated German reference words, and Dr. James Henry Salisbury got the nod instead.

Today's Salisbury steaks are seasoned beef, sometimes mixed with fillers like breadcrumbs, shaped into oval patties, and cooked in gravy. Unlike the floury gravy of a chicken fried steak, Salisbury steak is topped with a brown gravy, and often enriched with mushrooms and onions. Simmered in the gravy, the meat and sauce flavors meld to perfection. Dr. Salisbury recommended eating meat three times per day with no starchy vegetables, but we think mashed potatoes are the perfect side for this gravy-enriched meal.

One of these steaks is not an actual steak

You'll be disappointed when ordering Salisbury steak if you're expecting to slice into a pink, juicy steak and find ground meat instead. Although our definition of steak no longer includes meat pressed into a similar shape, Salisbury steak has the advantage of additional seasoning mixed into the ground meat — some recipes even add eggs, breadcrumbs, and flavorings like Worcestershire sauce, making it more akin to a meatloaf mixture. These ingredients ensure a delicious outcome, no matter what type of ground beef might be in the mix.

Of course, even with a thin cube steak, you won't achieve a medium-rare center either — this steak must be cut on the slim side, or it would be too tough to chew. And although it is the actual steak of the pair, this cut is unlikely to appear on your local steakhouse menu. Inexpensive and tough, cube steak is a humble cut that can be improved upon with skilled seasoning and frying. When overcooked, this steak becomes proverbially tough as shoe leather, but in the right hands, there's no better cut for a quick, budget-friendly chicken fried steak for dinner or breakfast. We think Dr. James Henry Salisbury might just agree.