How To Buy the Right Cuts of Steak
A very basic definition of “steak” is a slice of meat cut from an animal. Ok, that may be a little to simplistic. While there are other meats that can be considered “steak” (ham steak, swordfish steak), I’d like to focus on steaks cut from beef.
And let’s clarify it a little further…my definition of steak is meat that is suitable for high heat and dry cooking methods, such as grilling, broiling, or pan-frying. Marinating is fine, but IF a steak can only be rendered tender and edible through braising or stewing, it doesn’t make the cut.
Considering that steak is all cut from the same animal, there are many differences in flavor, tenderness and price among all the different cuts. To my untrained eye, most steak looks kind of the same, red with white fat and sometimes bone. And to add more confusion, the same cuts can be called by many different regional names.
I will try and cut through all of the confusion and present the various cuts of steak by location on the animal, by name with regional variations, by tenderness/toughness, by flavor profile and by price point.
Whew! We will both be experts at the end of this!
Where to Start (Be sure to check out my Pinterest Meat Charts)
Starting at the head of the animal and across the top half (to mid-chest), these are the basic cuts of meat.
In very broad strokes, the meat that is cut from the chuck, brisket, plate, round and shank will be much tougher than the meat cut from the rib, loin and flank sections. This is because those cuts are comprised of muscles that work hard. The harder a muscle is worked when the animal is alive and walking around, the tougher that meat will be. The positive side of that is that these cuts are generally cheaper and have a greater depth of flavor.
The trick is in knowing how to treat each individual steak so that, no matter what you have paid per pound, you will get your money’s worth. That’s what I’ll try to help you understand.
When you think of chuck you probably don’t think of steak because chuck is cut from the well-worked shoulder muscles of the cow. Chuck has a deep and meaty flavor and lots of connective tissue. During low temperature, moist cooking (braising), the connective tissue breaks down into gelatin, making cuts from the chuck great for pot roast, stew and chili.
But, there are several steaks that can be cut from the chuck that are well-suited for cutting up and marinating for kabobs. Chuck steaks suitable for grilling (most will need to be marinated first): seven bone steak, shoulder steak, top blade steak.
Meat from the rib section is generally very flavorful and well-marbled. Juicy steaks are the name of the game here, due to the marbled fat. Rib steaks do not need to be marinated. It is best to let their true beef flavor stand on its own. As the name implies, the rib-eye steak is cut from this section.
Rib steaks suitable for grilling: rib eye steaks, rib steaks
Steaks cut from the loin are some of the most expensive you can buy. The loin contains underworked muscles, so while very tender, some of these steaks have a very mild flavor. The famed fillet mignon, T-bone and porterhouse steaks are cut from this section.
Loin steaks suitable for grilling: Filet mignon, Porterhouse, sirloin steaks, T-bone steaks, top loin, top sirloin, tri-tip
The lean flank is the home of the perfect-for-fajitas flank steak and the lesser-known hangar steak. Both cuts should be marinated and cut across the grain to make them easier to chew. Take care not to overcook these steaks, as they will become tough.
Flank steak suitable for grilling (marinate first): flank steak, hanger steak
Not what I would consider steak but beef cuts you want to knowRound
While very flavorful, without marinating, even steaks cut from the round need to be braised.
Round steaks suitable for grilling (all need to be marinated first): eye round, top round, round tip
Very flavorful but extremely tough, brisket shines in the low and slow barbecue for which Texas is so famous. Brisket is not suitable for dry heat cooking methods.
The short plate contains fairly tough meat, but there is enough fat in this section to keep the meat tender enough for dry-heat cooking methods.
Skirt Steak is found in the short plate. It greatly benefits from a soak in a marinade. Since the muscle fibers are very long, it is important to cut the meat across the grain for maximum tenderness.
Plate steaks suitable for grilling (marinate first): skirt steak
Shank meat is extremely flavorful. Since it contains so much connective tissue, shank is not suitable for dry-heat cooking methods. Braising and stewing show off these cuts to greatest effect.
Now that you know which steaks are cut from where, let’s compare them all in terms of cost, flavor, tenderness and alternate names. Pricing is based on cost/pound from one website and is strictly for comparison purposes.
Let’s Get A Little More Specific
That is a pretty exhaustive look at many cuts of steak, including ones you may never have heard of. Now, let’s take a look at some of the characteristics of the more well-known steaks: filet mignon, Porterhouse, T-bone, skirt steak and flank steak.
All of these steaks are cut from the “center section” of the animal, the filet, Porterhouse and T-bone from the back of the animal, and the skirt steak and flank steak from the belly. Coming from the middle of the animal, these cuts are generally more tender than cuts closer to the head and the legs. That makes them well suited to dry-heat cooking methods.
The filet mignon is a steak cut from the tenderloin of the animal. The tenderloin is the long, lean Psoas major muscle that runs along the central spine between the shoulders and the hips. This is the least-worked muscle in the animal, and consequently the meat is very tender, although very delicate in flavor. There are different names for the steaks cut from the different parts of this muscle, depending on the size of the cross cut. For example, a tournedo is cut from the larger end of the Psoas major muscle.
A Porterhouse is a very large piece of steak. It is comprised of a large piece of the tenderloin (at least 1 ¼” in diameter) and a piece of the top loin. These two pieces are separated from each other by connective tissue and bone. If you were to cut away the bone, you would be left with a filet mignon and a NY strip.
A T-bone steak is almost exactly the same as a Porterhouse. It is comprised of the same two muscles, but the tenderloin section is much smaller. A T-bone is cut a little closer to the rump than a Porterhouse, so it can be a little tougher.
The skirt steak is part of the cow’s diaphragm. Since the diaphragm is constantly working so the animal can breathe, this cut can be tough, but it is very flavorful. Since the skirt steak is comprised of very long muscle fibers, marinating for several hours followed by grilling and cutting across the grain help to keep this meat easier to chew. If you were to cut skirt steak with the grain, it would be extremely chewy and difficult to eat.
The flank steak is cut from the belly of the cow—on a pig, it would be the meaty part of bacon. Like skirt steak, flank steak is very flavorful and is comprised of very long muscle fibers. Flank steak is somewhat leaner than skirt steak, but as it is a fairly well-worked muscle, it can be tough. It is best to marinate flank steak or to tenderize it by cross-cutting. Grill or broil it, and be sure to slice across the grain when serving.
Helpful Comparison Chart
|Chuck||Seven Bone||Center Chuck||Rich/Beefy||Tough|
|Chuck||Chuck Eye||Mock Tender||Rich/Beefy||Most tender part of chuck|
|Chuck||Top Blade||Flat Iron, Book||Rich/Beefy||Fairly tough|
|Good Beef||Fairly tender & marbled|
|Rib||Rib Steak||Club||Good Beef||Fairly tender & lean|
|Loin||Filet Mignon||Tenderloin||Delicate Beefy||Very tender, very lean|
|Loin||Porterhouse||Porterhouse||Delicate Beefy||Tender & lean|
|Loin||Sirloin||Pin Bone, Flat Bone||Good beefy flavor||Fairly tender to fairly tough|
|Loin||T-Bone||T-Bone||Delicate in loin, tender in strip||Fairly tender & fairly lean|
|Loin||Top Loin||NY Strip, Kansas City, Ambassador, Club, Hotel Steak||Beefy & Flavorful||Fairly tender & fairly lean|
|Loin||Boneless Top Sirloin||——–||Beefy to fairly mild||Fairly tender & lean, quality varies|
|Loin||Tri-Tip||Beefy & flavorful||Somewhat tough|
|Round||Eye Round||Minute / Breakfast Steak||Beefy & flavorful||Tough|
|Round||Top Round||London Broil||Beefy & flavorful||Tough|
|Round||Round Tip||Ball Tip||Beefy & flavorful||Fairly tough|
|Short Plate||Skirt||Philly Steak||Beefy & flavorful||Tough|
|Flank||Flank||Flank||Beefy & flavorful||Tender|
|Flank||Hanger||Butcher, Hanging Tenderloin||Very beefy & flavorful||Somewhat tough|