My Ten Best Steak Buying Tips For the Home Cook
A lot of visitors ask me about buying steaks so I thought I would start putting together some tips together on buying steaks, describing various cuts and what to look for when purchasing a good steak. I asked Jimmy Kerstein, someone who worked forty years in the meat industry and is the author of The Butcher’s Guide – An Insider’s View to Buy the Best Meat and Save Money. Between his incredible depth of knowledge and some additional research of my own, I think you’ll enjoy these 10 worthwhile tips next time you are at the market looking to pick up a steak for supper.
You may also be interested in How to Grill a Good Steak?
Top 10 Steak Buying Tips
- My #1 tip is get to introduce yourself to your local butcher and become friends.
- Choose the right steak for the right meal before going to the market.
- Buy the best grade of meat you can afford…Prime, Choice, Select in that order.
- When possible, buy from the butchers counter not the pre-packaged section.
- Color, smell and touch matter
- Look for a steak that has marbling. It is the thin threads of fat running through the meat that makes it Prime and gives it that incredible flavor.
- Dry aging is considered better than wet aging but that may be a matter of taste. However, avoid meat that has no aging and is too fresh.
- If you do buy packaged meat, stay away from any with excessive moisture, tears or that are past their sell by date.
- Just because the label says Angus, doesn’t mean it is Certified Angus Beef (CAB).
- Learn your cuts of beef and look for “value” cuts.
#1. Getting to know your butcher
It doesn’t matter if you buy your steaks at the supermarket or a gourmet butcher shop. If you want to learn about meat, how to purchase it, what’s a good buy today, how to cook it, start a relationship with your butcher. These are the folks who know what you don’t and will be glad to help if you just ask.
My own local butchers tell me that customers don’t take advantage of their knowledge and experience. They come in with their own preconceived ideas of what a good steak should look like and end up buying an inferior product. A good steak is expensive so why not ask the expert who handles the products everyday what they think is a good bargain. You may be surprised by getting better cuts for less money.
#2. Choose the right steak for the right meal before going to the market
It’s a good idea to have some idea of the type of steaks you’re thinking of buying before you go to the market. At least you should know, how much steak you’ll need, how are you going to prepare them and your budget. There are so many great cuts available these days and depending on how you’re going to serve the meat may influence what you purchase.
Steaks come in all shapes and sizes and depending on the section of the cow they originate from can have a huge influence on price and cooking technique. According to Jimmy, “You may want to choose a cut like Flat Iron or Flank Steak if you are serving a larger group. Consider buying a thicker, multiple serving premium steak such as a Porterhouse or Bone-in Rib-Eye. Return the sliced steak to the bone before serving. It is a very nice presentation for a small dinner party. Thicker boneless cuts such as New York Steak also make great multiple serving steaks.”
There are cheaper cuts like Tri Tip, Ranch, or Sirloin that can be great for grill if you can find them with enough marbling. We buy these marinated Tri Tip steaks at Wegmans that my girls love and I can’t seem to overcook. For special occasions with a big crowd I’ll purchase a whole tenderloin and roast it in the oven, slice it into thin steaks and serve it with horseradish cream sauce. Always a crowd favorite.
There’s a lot more steak options on a cow then many of us know about. And then there are the names. You may know it as a rib-eye but it’s also be known as a cowboy steak, Spencer steak, Delmonico steak, market steak or beauty steak depending on whether it’s bone in or what part of the country you come from. That same rib-eye Delmonico is also the name of a cut from the boneless chuck-eye steak. Confusing? Yes, so get to know your butcher and ask him for his advice on what to buy for the crowd you’ll be serving and how much you want to spend.
#3. Buy the best grade of meat you can afford
Most of us rarely have the opportunity to buy and taste Prime beef. That’s because only 1 – 2.5% of all beef processed in this country is good enough to be graded by the USDA as Prime. The inspector takes in all sort of things when grading for Prime but as a consumer, we are mostly looking at marbling, that network of fat that traverses throughout the meat.
Given a choice at the market between a perfectly lean piece of meat and a Prime cut with lines of fat running through it, many of us would pick the lean steak. But it’s the marbling that gives a Prime cut the incredible rich, juicy, tender flavor and texture that we are looking for.
Just because Prime isn’t that readily available or in a price range we can afford, there is nothing wrong with Choice. There are different grades of Choice so you may want to shop where they consistently buy beef at the higher end of the Choice grade. How will you know? By getting to know your butcher and asking.
#4. When possible, buy your steaks from the butcher’s counter instead of pre-packaged section
Supermarkets typically have both a case where they sell unpackaged meat and a refrigerated section where they sell pre-packaged selections. From my experience, the case holds the premium grades and the private labels or store brands. The big advantage of buying from the case is you’ll be working with a butcher or sales people who can help you select your steaks. If you are not familiar with cuts of beef, grades or the best way to prepare a particular steak, hopefully they will be informed enough to give you the right answers.
You can also ask them to take a piece meat out of the case so you can take a look at both sides, give it a smell, check for moisture, look at the grain and make sure there are no brown spots. You can’t do this when it’s sitting on a piece of Styrofoam under a layer of plastic wrap. The pre-packaged steak may look great on the side you see but you never know what’s on the other side until you get it home and open it up. And then it might be too late. Premium steaks are expensive and getting more expensive every day so don’t be afraid to ask your butcher to check out the meat you are purchasing. This not only goes for steaks but is just as important with any fish you buy.
Select has the least amount of marbling making of the three so not as tender or tasty. More importantly, you are not going to pay that much more for Choice than you are for Select, so if you can, spend the extra dollars on Choice. In my opinion, there’s nothing worse then chewing and chewing and chewing through a tough, flavorless piece of meat.
#5. Color, smell and touch matter
Color – If you go to a store that sells both grass-fed beef and meat from cows fed grain and finished on corn, you’ll notice a huge difference in color. The grass fed beef is going to be a much darker red color than a well-marbled grain finished steak. Go to a Whole Foods or Wegmans and look at the grass fed and grain fed steaks side by side and you’ll notice a huge difference.
I learned in Jimmy’s book “Freshly cut meat has a nice bright appearance or “bloom” when first cut and packaged. When the freshly cut surface is exposed to oxygen, the myoglobin in the meat makes red meat turn a bright red color.”
Unwrapped beef in the case will oxidize at a faster rate and will turn from bright red to brownish red as the day goes on. That doesn’t make it bad. I know a local butcher from a high-end meat market who explained to me he can’t sell steaks at the end of the day if they’ve turned brownish red. In his opinion, these are as good as the cherry red steaks put in the case earlier in the day and maybe better because they have a little aging. He would sell them to his favorite customers at a lower price and the rest would end up in ground beef.
The marbling on grain-fed beef should be white or creamy. I was surprised when I first saw the color of fat (marbling) in grass-fed beef. It was sort of yellow. There should be no brown spot in the fat or on the edges.
Smell – If the meat you are buying smells sour or has an ammonia odor, it’s not fresh. Don’t Buy It! Fresh steaks should have a slightly meaty smell but never stale or off smelling. It’s impossible to tell how a pre-packaged steak smells but if you take it home and it doesn’t smell right, bring it back immediately to where you purchased it and let them know. You are doing them a favor because they don’t want to be selling bad meat.
Touch – this one is difficult until you get the beef home. You can’t touch a pre-wrapped piece of meat and most butchers aren’t going to let you put your hands all over their steaks. However, if when you get your steaks at home, they feel sticky to the touch, there’s a good chance they are past their prime and should be returned to the store.