While I still maintain my spirit animal is a brisket, a perfectly cooked steak can win the top spot for as many moments as it takes for me to consume it.
Steaks are largely misunderstood. Case in point: what’s the best cut of steak you can think of?
I bet you said filet mignon.
Which is wrong. It’s the most expensive, certainly, but that’s based off of supply and demand – not flavor.
Let’s define what a steak is.
Steaks are simply any cut of beef that can be cooked hot and fast. This means that the meat has a low concentration of connective tissues that don’t require the long cooking times like a brisket or pork shoulder does, which is typically cooked low and slow (225-250 degrees).
Steaks come from roasts, so it’s simply a size difference. A seasoned butcher trims down roasts to make steaks and drops a heartier price tag on them to compensate for his years of skilled knife craft.
Let’s get technical about steaks for a moment.
Your traditional steakhouse steaks come from a part of the cow that is called the Longissimus dorsi and the Psoas major. The Longissimus dorsis are a pair of long, tender muscles groups that….ok, we could go into more detail here, but you’re really here to learn about steaks, not scientific cow terms. Click the image below for a larger version to take a deep dive into where your steaks are being cut from.
We won’t get into the grades of steaks here, but most grocery stores will carry Choice grade steaks, which is fine. Prime is better and don’t ever buy Select. Certified Angus Beef (CABs) are great, but don’t confuse it with a grade of beef, it’s simply a brand that’s on par with USDA Prime. As always, you should always be purchasing grass-fed steaks when they’re available.
More importantly, look for a bright red color and more fat = yummier. That’s called marbling, and you want as much of that as you can find. Ask a butcher if you don’t know what you’re looking for, most of the time you’ll find that they’re happy to talk about their meat (pun intended).
As for what temperature to cook traditional steakhouse steaks to (Porterhouse, Ribeye, NY Strip, T-Bone), “medium” makes most people happy, 135-145 degrees. But that’s a debate that’ll go to the end of time, although most steak lovers can agree on this:
So, let’s get real. Here’s what every man and woman needs to know about their cuts of steak.
The Porterhouse Steak
The Porterhouse steak is the cornerstone in any respectable steakhouse that features both a strip steak and a filet mignon, separated by a bone. To make the Porterhouse even more confusing, it’s only a Porterhouse if the tenderloin section is 1 1/2 inches or wider, otherwise it’s essentially a T-Bone. A Porterhouse steak, on the other hand, is cut from further back on the short loin primal while a T-Bone is cut from the front end.
I think I made it clear above, but a T-Bone is a Porterhouse, except the piece of filet mignon is smaller due to it being cut farther forward on the cow. It’s a two-for-one cut which combines two different textures and flavors of beef. The leaner tenderloin offsets the fattier strip, which can often lead to overcooking the tenderloin prior to the strip being anywhere close to being done. Pro tip: position the T-Bone on your grill so the tenderloin is the furthest away from the flame so you don’t overcook it.
Flat Iron Steak
The Flat Iron steak is tucked away into a tender area of the cow’s shoulder, so it’s an exception to the rule that shoulder steaks are always tough. Flat Iron steaks typically run a few bucks cheaper than its counterparts, although its popularity has started to raise prices. Flat Irons are becoming increasingly popular at upscale restaurants but if you are grilling these in your backyard, make sure you cut flat irons against the grain, although the piece of meat itself is cut with the grain. You want to shorten those long, parallel muscle fibers. Otherwise, despite how well it’s cooked, it’ll be tough to chew.
Pricey and velvety soft, Fliet Mignons make a nice splurge for special guests, thought it’s really the tenderness you are buying. In the USA, some butchers label all types of tenderloin steaks “filet mignon” which is misleading. The tenderloin is the most tender cut of beef and arguably the most desirable – therefore the most expensive. But, since this cut is not weight-bearing, meaning it’s never used to actually move the cow’s weight around, it’s generally not as flavorful. In my opinion, you shouldn’t have to wrap a filet in bacon or sauce it to bring its taste up to par, like many people do.
Bone-in Ribeye Steak
The Bone-in Ribeye is an incredibly tender and succulent steak that includes an actual rib bone, which adds to the flavor. Bone-in Ribeyes are cut from ribs six through twelve on the cow, between the loin and the shoulder. It’s also called a Cowboy steak when the rib bone is extra long and frenched. It’s the fattiest of the steaks, which means it also has the boldest flavor. Pro tip: want the ultimate Ribeye flavor? Cook it on the stove in a cast iron skillet. The meat will be surrounded by the fat instead of falling through the grates of the grill and fat + fire often leads to uncontrollable flare ups, which means charred steaks. Using Grill Grates on a charcoal grill is another excellent way to cook Ribeyes.
Boneless Ribeye Steak
Highly marbled with a large pocket of fat that separates the longissiumus from the spinalis. While many people cringe when they think of large chunks of fat, with beef the fat is where a lot of the distinctive flavor comes from, making the ribeye one of the richest, beefiest flavor cuts. This is my favorite cut of steak, along with many other steak lovers and is the official cut of the Steak Cookoff Association. The best steak you’ll ever have can be found in my Sexy Time Steak recipe, and you don’t even need a grill.
New York Strip Steak
If you want a Ribeye, but without a lot of the fat, the NY Strip is your cut. The strip is cut just behind the ribs, where there are no large fat pockets but still has good marbling. Strips are moderately tender although they can be a tad on the chewy side. It’s one of the easiest cuts to grill and is a staple among most steakhouses.
Long, thin and fibrous, the flank steak comes from the cow’s lower hindquarters. It’s usually tenderized by marinating, then broiled or grilled whole. It’s usually oval in shape, likes to be cooked over high heat and is a great cut to make carne asada and beef jerky with since it’s such a lean cut.
Hanger steak is the most tender cut on the cow, despite its grainy look. Hanger resembles Flank steak in texture and flavor but is considered more flavorful. There is an inedible tendon that runs down the middle of the steak, so cut that out prior to cooking over high heat until its rare or medium rare to avoid toughness. Use Flank next time you cook fajitas – you won’t be disappointed.
Imagine a cow wearing a skirt in front of its rear legs. Hilarious, and that section is called the plate, where the skirt steaks are trimmed. There are two skirts on a cow and the inside skirt is often confused with a flank steak. The skirt’s long and flat cut makes it ideal for adding protein to salads, carne asada and fajitas. Skirt steaks have more flavor than a flank although it’s not as tender. Sear or grill these hot and fast to rare or medium rare and cut against the grain when serving.
Top Sirloin Steak
Looking for the perfect steak to make kabobs with? Top Sirloin steak should be your first choice as these steaks are often cut thick enough to where they can be easily cubed and even grilled on their sides. Pro tip: find a top sirloin that is over 1.5 inches thick, grill it hot and fast on all four sides, then slice it horizontally down the middle to split the sirloin in two, then quickly grill the undercooked side. Cube and serve. Other than using it for beef cubes, top sirloins really aren’t great.
The pride and joy of California, the tri tip is a small, triangular cut of beef that is traditionally cooked with Santa Maria seasoning over red oak. It’s the best inexpensive steak for the grill and has been gaining popularity throughout the country, including restaurants fully dedicated to serving it. The tri tip is basically a skinny roast and can be grilled or smoked, although most people prefer grilling it. Either way, just don’t cook it past medium rare and serve it with pinto beans, salsa and garlic bread if you want to be a traditionalist.
Questions about what steak should be cooking for dinner? Leave me a comment below or on Facebook.
Photo credits: Weber