Whether you’re going to be sticking your steak in a pan or on the grill — it’s good to know what kind of beef you have. There are a gazillion cuts of beef out there, I’ll be focusing on my favorite for steak as well as some other things to consider.
Grade – The USDA grades steaks into Select, Choice and Prime. The short story is, avoid Select and stay in the Choice and Prime arena. Also realize they’ll affect price. Prime tends to have a bit more marbling than Choice, making it a little more flavorful (and a wee bit more tender).
Color – Believe it or not, pink steaks are not particularly better than brown ones. The brown happens when the steak comes in to contact with air. Grocery stores pack steaks in a oxygen deprived ways so they stay red. Really “good” (and expensive) aged steaks are quite brown and that’s ok.
Thickness- Your call on this one, but I almost never cook steaks that are less than an inch thick. I prefer them to be about 1.5″ so I can keep a medium-rare center but nice outside. Grocery stores tend to cut then quite thin (I think) so feel free to speak up. Lots of them will cut them to order. Or buy a huge uncut piece at your local Sam’s or Costco and cut your own. I do that and save tons ($2-$4/lb) and get to foodsaver them for the freezer.
Cut – There are lots of steak cuts. My two favorites are NY Strip and Ribeye. You can also use T-bones or Tenderloins. I would avoid Sirloin, Flat Iron, Skirt, and Flank steaks. I keep seeing grocery stores label them as “great for grilling” but I disagree if you want a “steak.” I’ll go into the specifics of the cuts below:
Ribeye: This cut actually comes from the Rib of the cow (most steaks come from the short loin). It has marbled fat throughout (read: flavor) and still has short enough muscle fibers, which make it tender. Note the grains of fat inside the main steak section.
NY Strip: This cut is commonly called Strip Steak or Top Loin. It has less marbled fat throughout, but more fat around the outside of the steak (which loves to catch fire). It will be a little more tender than a Ribeye.
T-Bone: This cut comes from next to the NY Strip so you get the majority of the steak being similar to a NY Strip, but a little piece of tenderloin (on the other side of the bone). I don’t like this steak quite as much because I think the two kinds of beef cook a little differently.
Tenderloin: This cut is the farthest down the “short loin” and continues as its own muscle tube. That means this steak is super tender, lacks marbling (almost altogether) and it typically quite expensive. While this cut is terrific and “fancy” I tend not to cook it. I like the flavor the extra fat gives steak. That being said, I do use it for special occasions and butchers love to cut this extra thick (2″) which makes it great for medium-rare in the middle.
There are clearly lots of variables going on when it comes to cooking your steak. The good news is, as long as you stay within some general lines (pick a good cut, make sure it’s thick, season well, cook hot), you’ll end up with a great meal.