The summer sun and the smell of steak being grilled, it doesn’t get much better. Using flame from gas, charcoal or mesquite, makes no difference because you first have to pick a steak that will meet your profile for a tasty pieces of beef. The beauty of it is that even your chain grocer offers a wider variety of cuts than in the years past.
We’ll explore what the differences are between cuts of steak, what that means to you, and hopefully guide you to a better dinner. The characteristics we will compare are taste, texture, and some pricing aspects.
Taste Versus Texture
You will generally get more flavor from a less tender steak, and conversely less flavor from a more tender cut of beef. This isn’t set in stone, but it is a good general trend in meat selection. In addition, there are some visual clues that can help you select a superior piece of meat within the context of the specific cut. The cut really matters though. Don’t get excited about beautiful looking mock tenders made from chuck, or those pretty slabs of round steak at the store. These need slow cooking and will only yield a chewy result if you treat them like a grilled steak.
Look for marbling, the flecks and bits of fat visible throughout the steak. This is not the thick channels of fat that run through some cuts, nor is it the fat caps that surround some cuts.
Will my steak suck if I don’t have an abundance of the right kind of marbling? In a simplified sense, yes – the larger the marbling flakes, the worse of an eating experience you will have, and the less marbling in the steak, the worse eating experience you will have.
It is a well distributed, sometimes barely visible variety of fat specks all over. Since greater marbling is one of the main determining factors for USDA grading meats – more marbling equals a higher grade – you want to learn to look for this when you shop. Marbling is a big factor in how moist, juicy and tender your steak will be when cooked.
Making The Cut
Virtually every steak house that you visit will offer some or all of the big four, the main cuts we associate with a steak. These are the Filet from the tenderloin, Ribeye like a slice of prime rib, New York Strip from the loin strip, and Sirloins from top or ball tip sections. Each will bring different characteristics to your table.
A quick aside, Porterhouses and T-bones often appear on these menus and in the store. First off, they are essentially the same steak as we just lied, and integrate two of the cuts mentioned above. The distinctive T shaped bone separates a New York strip and a tenderloin. On a T-bone proper the tenderloin section is typically less than 1-½”, where the Porterhouse must be bigger than that.
There are some honorable mention steaks of different, perhaps more obscure cuts to be aware of. A Hanger steak, often called the butcher’s cut because they would keep it for themselves, is a well flavored steak with a slight bit of chew to it. Flank steak used to be cheap but now people clamor for it. With a little work, usually a marinade and thinly sliced across the grain, you’ll get a tasty meal.
While not cheap, sirloins generally represent the best value of the big four. They will almost always have a visible fat cap on one or more sides with minimal marbling across the grain. They are also known for showing quite a diversity of coloration in the package. Generally the pinker pieces will be tenderer than the darker red steaks.
There are other cuts that fall under the sirloin umbrella. The most well-known, and certainly surging in awareness these last few years is the tri-tip. Not named for the shape, they are an elongated triangular shape when whole at 3-5#s, and are often cut against the grain when made into smaller steaks. They are a piece better left intact, roasted and sliced after cooking.
New York Strip
Before slicing it into New York steaks you truly have a strip of meat ranging from 8-13 pounds, with a heavy fat cap on what we call the top. As a result, they do make a good roasting alternative to prime rib. For steaks, cutting down from the top is also across the grain as it should be for a steak cut. You end up with a steak that has great flavor, is not the most tender, with some chew remaining.
That fat cap translates into a layer of fat that runs along one entire side when it has been cut into a steak. You still look for marbling visible in the meat of the steak. You also want to look out for a layer of gristle that can be right between the fat cap and the meat. The other visible cue to avoid is a whitish star that can be a nerve ending. These will make for some chewier bites to work through.
A filet mignon is the most tender, and the most mild flavored of the big four cuts. It is generally the most expensive on a per ounce basis, and aficionados will say it is worth it. It comes from the aptly named tenderloin. The intact piece will have a larger end with what is called a chain attached, a strip of round meat that tapers away. The whole tenderloin tapers quite a bit from the large end to a flatter tip, weighing in at about 3-4 pounds.
Most of the steaks are cut from the thicker end, usually about five inches in diameter. Some will come from further down, especially for a petite filet, usually six ounces or less from the smaller diameter sections of the filet. Filets will have some marbling, but they are also known for having the least visible most integrated marbled fat content.
The Ribeye has become the big daddy of the steak world, probably the most popular cut. This is likely because it offers such an excellent balance between texture, being pretty tender, and flavor, which is medium and rich.
The ribeye is an inherently fatty cut, which makes a superior steak. Some of that shows in bands of fat on the outside and between the cap and the center eye of the steak. As a result they take to being grilled so well, creating a nice crusted exterior from a high heat while maintaining a juicy enjoyable center. Look for well distributed fat throughout. Because the prime rib they come form is large, you can get these cut pretty thick. Consider cooking up one larger steak to have an enjoyable meal for two people.
Wrapped In Butcher Paper
Usually your local butcher shop will have a better quality steak than the larger grocer. That being said, you will also pay for that quality. The fun part of a butcher shop though, is the ability to ask questions. Take advantage of that as you learn what qualities are right for you in searching for the perfect steak.
A steakhouse steak may taste better than a home steak because of the way they season. Salt. Usually that is the defining difference, they are more generous with the salting before cooking. Most experts will recommend only salt and pepper on a quality steak so that the full flavor of the meat can be enjoyed. Use a high heat cooking technique and generally about five minutes per side for a nice medium rare. Get cooking while the sun is shining!