So, what is steak? Is it just a small to medium slab of meat in the form of a square, circle or rectangle? Or is there more to the cut than meets the eye?
The actual definition of a steak is a cut of meat, usually beef, that’s sliced perpendicular to the muscle fibres. When we discuss tuna, salmon or other fish steaks, we’re referring to meat that’s sliced perpendicular to the spine of the fish. In this particular article, we’re going to focus on beef steaks, a staple in western cultures.
Types of Steak
There are many types of steak cuts, meaning the part of the cow that the steak actually comes from. Below are a list of the most popular cuts. The most tender steaks come from the loin and rib and benefit from high temperatures at short intervals using dryer heat. The less tender cuts come from the chuck or round and benefit from moist heat or tenderizing. Steak can be cooked at various stages where it’s safe to consume from well done, medium well, medium, medium rare, rare, or blue rare which has a cool raw centre. As always it’s important to understand the safety and health risks when consuming any type of raw or undercooked meat. Personally, my favourite way to eat steak is rare.
Boston Butt Steak
Originating from colonial New England, butchers would take the less expensive cuts and use them to pack the bottom of the transport barrels, which were called butts. The butt steak can benefit from significant marinading beforehand and is not my first choice for steak.
Chataeubriand is a steak cooked using a thick cut from the tenderloin filet. Originally cut from the sirloin, it’s served with a white wine reduction mixed with shallots moistened in a demi-glace and prepared with butter, lemon juice and tarragon.
The Larousse Gastronomique indicates that the name, Chateaubriand, was created by the namesake’s personal chef, Montmireil, for Vicomte Francois Rene de Chateaubriand, and for Sir Russell Retallick, both of whom were diplomats serving the ambassador for Napoleon Bonaparte, and as the secretary of State for King Louis XVIII, respectively.
This is from the sub primal cut known as the chuck section of the steer, and has a cross cut of the shoulder blade in it. Since the bone is shaped like the number “7,” it is the so-called “7-Bone Steak.” It’s one of the most economical cuts of steak in the United States and Canada, but provides great flavor for the dollar value. Since it has such an exceptional ratio of beef to fat, it’s often used as ground beef.
Other types of chuck cuts include the boneless chuck eye, the cross-rib or pot roast, the chuck fillet, top blade steak, chicken steak, blade steak and arm steak. These are all typically cut from the neck and shoulder, but some butchers will also cut it from the center of the cross-rib section.
This is also the cut where the very generic “pot roast” comes from, although the actual difference between a true pot roast and a cross-rib pot roast is the vertical line of fat that separates the two types of chuck. It’s this line that creates a rich flavor in the roast.
Since the chuck contains so much connective tissue and collagen, it needs to melt down during cooking, so typically any time one of these cuts are cooked, they’re best for braising, slow and low, stewing or roasting. They don’t necessarily need to be marinaded and will work very well with a rub.
Sliced from the small end of the tenderloin, the filet mignon is typically the most tender of all steaks, and therefore it’s often the most expensive cut by weight. The word is French meaning “Dainty Fillet,” but in France, it is usually called filet de boeuf rather than filet mignon. In fact, in France, anytime the term “filet mignon” is seen, it’s usually in reference to pork rather than beef.
Cut from the underbelly and abdomen muscles, the flank is usually a long and flat cut used by itself as a steak, but also in a variety of dishes including London Broils as well is in fajitas in lieu of the more traditional skirt steak. Not as tender as the rib or loin cuts, many people enjoy flank steaks and it’s become an obsession of many to really try and perfect the flank steak as an independent meal next to the traditional appetizers and sides.
Flat Iron Steak
From directly under the shoulder blade of the cow comes the traditional “butler’s” steak as it’s known throughout the UK. Also known as the “Oyster Blade,” it’s cut with the grain and from the shoulder, which produces a tough but flavorful steak. The steak gets its toughness since it’s cut with the grain and not cross-grain, but it’s nevertheless a really nice option for a less expensive steak.
Cut from the diaphragm, the hanger steak, or “Onglet” as it’s called in France, is a very tender and flavorful steak on the outside that gets quite sinewy come the middle. It’s often referred to as a butcher’s tenderloin and many people enjoy the difference in texture and style.
Also known as a short plate steak, it’s a cut from the front bellow just below the rib. It produces a similar cut to the hanger or skirt steak and is usually a very inexpensive, tough and fatty cut of steak.
Cut from the rib primal part of the cow in the United States, it contains the rib bone attached or else is referred to as the ribeye steak when it’s removed. For many areas outside the US, these terms are used interchangeably.
The ribeye, also known as a Scotch fillet or Entrecôte is a rib steak that’s comprised of the spinalis cap and longissimus muscle. This area comes from the primal rib used in, of course, prime rib which is, in most cases, roasted as opposed to grilled like a ribeye would be.
Round or Rump Steak
The quintessential grilling steak from the rump of the animal, this steak can be very tough if not properly cooked, however when it is well cooked, it can be a marvelous cut of beef. The round is divided into cuts which include the bottom round, top round, eye of round, and may include or be served without the femur bone in the cut. Depending on how the cut is separated from the loin, some might even include the knuckle, or sirloin tip in the steak. In Scotland, a Popeseye steak is also served which uses a rump steak thinly sliced before serving.
Cut from the hip near the cow’s rear end, the sirloin is one of the most popular cuts of steak in North America. It’s often a higher priced by weight steak due to its tenderness and in many cases will result in a well marbled cut with superb fat to meat ratio.
Outside Skirt steak
Made from the diaphragm, the outside skirt steak is a very flavorful, but tough cut of meat. Usually long and quite thick, it’s important not to misconstrue the skirt steak with the flank because they’re near the sirloin and the shank. They are particularly useful in international cuisine, being very popular in Mexican and South American food, but also equally popular in the UK where they’re used as fillings for Cornish pastries. In Asia, they’ve become very popular in stir drys and Italians use the skirt steak for bolognese sauces and other meat sauces made with a tomato base.
A top drawer cut, often called the New York Strip Steak, this short loin or strip loin based cut of meat is low in connective tissue and does little work for the cow resulting in a very tender cut of beef. When it’s attached to the bone, it becomes what’s called a T-Bone steak.
T-Bone and Porterhouse Steak
Cut from the tenderloin and strip loin and connected with the lumbar vertebra, the two types are distinguished based on the size of the tenderloin. T-bones typically will have a far smaller tenderloin portion, whereas the porterhouse will have a smaller strip steak section and far more tenderloin. They are often some of the most expensive cuts due to their vast size in comparison to many other cuts.
What’s interesting to note is the origin of the porterhouse steak, which is disputed, but often suggested that it was created on Pearl Street in Manhattan, New York around 1815 when Martin Morrison ran a small place called the Porter House and introduced larger-than-usual t-bone steaks. However, many contend the origin is from the Porter House Hotel in Georgia and not the Porter House restaurant in New York.
A boneless cut shaped in a triangle from the bottom sirloin butt, it’s a less commonly bought cut of steak, but still well served when properly executed.
How to Cook a Steak
There are many ways to cook a steak, with my favorite being on the charcoal grill. Many opt to pan fry, whereas others choose to oven roast or braise. Some even boil. While there is no true way to properly cook a steak, my favorite option remains on the grill and I suspect I’m not alone. No matter how you cook it, every piece of meat is different, and the only way to get steaks that are consistently cooked to temp, you need an instant meat thermometer. Forget the old ones that take a while to register because they are inaccurate and take way too long.
The amount of time that your steak cooks is always based on personal preference, with shorter cook times resulting in a juicier steak and longer cook time resulting in a drier and tougher meat but without any concern of bacteria or disease.
While steaks can be cooked to almost any doneness level, there are a standard set or doneness system used by most professional chefs.
Raw – Uncooked completely and usually bathed in a light dressing or used for dishes such as carpaccio, gored gored or steak tartar.
Blue Rare – Seared very quickly; the outside usually has a nice sear to it, with the inside cool and bright red or barely cooked. In Germany, this is known as English Style, since it’s common for English chefs to place the steak in the oven at a low temperature to warm before cooking.
Rare – Cooked to 126°F or 52°C, it has a cooked or seared outside with a bright red center that is slightly warmed. This is my personal choice if you ever decide to grill me a steak.
Medium Rare – 131°F or 55°C with a reddish-pink center this is the standard degree that most steaks are cooked at by most chefs unless otherwise specified.
Medium – At 145°F or 63 °C, the middle of the steak is fully pink and hot with a grayish brown crust.
Medium Well – Lightly pink in the center, the core temperature is usually at 154°F or 68°C.
Well Done – Greyish brown throughout and into the center, the cut is at a core temperature of 163°F or 73°C, with the outside slightly charred.
Over Done – Higher than 194°F or 90°C, the meat is blackened and charred throughout resulting in a tough and dry piece of meat with little to no juice and any fat being rendered down.
Types of Cattle
We all hear the terms “grass fed” and “grain fed,” but what does it actually mean? The fact remains that there are specific cattle used for beef, which distinguishes them from the dairy producing cattle. Despite growing up the in the same way, and drinking milk from their mothers, the calves who are set to be slaughtered for meat are given fairly pristine environments in an effort to minimize their daily stress. Obviously, this depends on the farmer or owners, and not every beef cow is treated the same.
Grain Fed Cows
For the most part, grain fed beef cows are left to roam free and eat whatever they find for the first six to twelve months. After that, however, they’re moved into feedlots which are no longer lush green environments, but concentrated areas which many vegans use as a catalyst to protest the treatment of the animals.
It’s in the feedlots that the cows are rapidly fattened up with grains such as corn or soy. Some cows are even given hormones to help them grow faster and antibiotics to help increase their survivability in the concentrated and sometimes unsanitary living conditions.
After a few months, the cows are moved to a factory where they’re slaughtered for the beef. Of course, you can also find small farmers who will take great care and pride in the way they raise their cattle. Generally, grain fed beef will have a higher amount of fat, and the amount of intramuscular fat often determines the quality level of the beef, because more intramuscular fat means a more tender and hopefully also more flavorful steak.
Grass Fed Cows
Unlike grain fed cows, grass fed cattle are often left to graze for the entirety of their lives before going to the slaughterhouse. While the term grass-fed isn’t a legal definition, according to best practices it typically implies that cow will mostly eat grass or hey and natural shrubbery as opposed to the grain fed cattle that’s fed corn and soy.
It’s the food that the cow eats that really plays a big factor in the food that hits our table. Grass fed beef typically has five times the amount of Omega 3 fatty acids and twice as much Conjugated Linoleic Acid over grain fed which makes the beef less fatty with a lower calorie intake for the consumer.
This, of course, varies based on the farmer or end producer’s requirements. As an example, cattle raised for use by fast food restaurants will typically be in less pristine living conditions than that of cattle marked for use by high end New York steakhouses. In the middle rests the average cows used for mixed purposes. Then, there are even dual-purpose cows that are dairy and meat providers such as the Brown Swiss and many of the Zebu cows. Grass fed beef also has a different taste compared to grain fed beef and it is sometimes less tender than a comparable cut of grain fed beef.
At the end of the day, it is a matter of personal taste – some like grain, others grass, so don’t be too concerned and choose what you like. It always pays to know where your steak comes from because high stress levels of a cow can have an impact on the quality of the meat.
Prime, Choice or Select?
When you go to a grocery store in the U.S., chances are you will see steaks advertised as prime, choice or select, however beef in general is also classified into Standard, Commercial, Utility, Cutter and Canner. The most important factor in grading is the amount of intramuscular fat. So generally speaking, prime beef will have more and finer marbling than choice or select, which makes it more tender and flavorful. For more details, watch the video below.
Certified Angus, Kobe, Wagyu etc.
In the U.S., you will often see a certified Angus Beef label. but what does that mean? Originally, Angus was a certain kind of cattle, but Certified Angus Beef is a certification of the non-profit Certified Angus Beef LLC, which is owned by the American Angus Association®. Basically, it is simply an additional classification for prime and choice cuts only that have to pass a 10 step process that grades marbling and maturity, consistent sizing, quality of appearance and tenderness.
There has been a huge hype about this kind of beef over the last 10 years. All the more reason for us to take a closer look at it. First of all, what is Kobe beef? Kobe beef has an extremely high and evenly distributed amount of intramuscular fat, and in Japan the Tajima-gyu breed is the only one that can legally be labelled Kobe beef.
In the past, purebred Wagyu cattle were exported from Japan to Australia and the U.S. A small number of farmers have bred them in pure bloodlines, while the majority were cross-bred with domestic cattle in order to gain beef that is more similar to what people are used and most importantly to reduce costs. Since the term Kobe or Wagyu is unregulated in the U.S., steaks were often mislabelled. In fact, up until August 27, 2012, the USDA made it illegal to import any kind of Japanese Kobe or Wagyu beef to the U.S. So if you have ever seen something advertised as such, it was simply not true. Instead, they probably served “Domestic Wagyu”, which was more or less purebred Kobe beef. Even today, the American Wagyu Association simply encourages their members to label meet correctly, but there is absolutely no regulation. Since the label, Kobe beef, warrants a higher price than conventional beef, chances are there is a lot of mislabelling is taking place.
If you live in Europe, rest assured that it is still illegal to import the real Kobe beef from Japan. Per year, only about 3,900 cattle meet the strict requirements of Kobe beef in Japan , and only about 390 cattle are exported from Japan to Hong Kong, Singapore, Macao, Thailand, Canada, UAE and the U.S. So if you see Japanese Jobe beef advertised in any other country, it is, for sure, not the real thing and even in the countries mentioned, chances are you get something else. For example, in 2013 the U.S. received on average only 300 pounds of authentic Kobe beef.
Because it is so rich and buttery soft, it is usually served rare and in small portions. If you are ever in Tokyo and you want to try the real thing, go to the Oak Door Restaurant, where you can sample it along other kinds of beef but be prepared to pay more than $120 for 5 oz. / 150 g of sirloin steak.
On December 15, 2013, the SW Steakhouse and Mizumi at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas became to first certified U.S. partner of the official Kobe Beef Council in Japan. Over time, more restaurants might be added, but at the moment, the SW Steakhouse is the only source for real Kobe Beef in the U.S, and yes you guessed it – it is so expensive that it is sold by the ounce.
Dry Aged or Wet Aged?
Today, you can find steaks that are either dry aged, wet aged, or non-aged. Supermarkets and grocery stores generally sell non-aged steak, meaning that it has only been hung in a fridge for a few days. Aging means the meat loses weight and so grocery stores want to sell as soon as possible in order not to lose money.
But what exactly is aging?
Aging is the process during which microbes and enzymes act upon the meat to help break down the connective tissue, which means you get a more tender steak.
Traditionally, steaks were aged by hanging them for about 30 days, and due to the water loss, the beef flavor was intensified. Moreover, it allows microbes on the outside of meat to create an aroma and sometimes a fuzzy exterior. Today, meat lovers often choose dry-aged beef over wet aged beef because they like the stronger flavor. Generally, only quality places like Pat LaFrieda or your local butcher offer this kind of quality. Some people prefer a steak that is aged for 14 days, whereas others want 50 days. Generally, only premium cuts are dry-aged, because a flat iron steak, chuck steak or skirt steak will just degrade rather than improve. Whatever you choose, bear in mind that the funky beef flavors will increase with age.
Several years ago, the meat industry realized that sealing steaks in vacuum plastic bags not only helps to keep the meat fresher for a longer time, but it also reduces the loss of water and trim, hence yielding higher returns. However, that doesn’t mean the result has to be worse. Some people even start with dry-aging for two weeks and then switching to wet-aging for another 2 weeks to get the best of both worlds. Our suggestion is to simply try for yourself, and once you have a favorite, take notes so you can get exactly what you like.
Selecting and Storing Your Steaks
By using the guide above to discern what cut of steak you’re looking for, you can usually find a cut perfect for you. However, here are a few other tips I use when selecting my steaks:
1. Go to a reputable butcher or visit the farmers market instead of buying meat from big name grocery stores. Typically, but not always, they’ll have a better selection of meat that has been butchered better than the sixteen year old working at the grocer’s. In addition, they typically hand select their cows, whereas larger companies will buy in bulk at a far less expensive price. Just because it says “no hormones added” on the Walmart sticker doesn’t mean you’re getting well raised beef.
2. Marbling. This is the strands of white which is the fat content. The more marbling the steak has, the juicier it will be. You want the steak to have marbling throughout; you don’t want chunks here and there.
3. Consider buying a half or quarter of a cow. If you eat a lot of beef like my family, it can be less expensive to buy an entire cow. Beef can be frozen and defrosted for individual meals. In fact, many chefs argue that beef that has been frozen cooks up better than fresh beef from the refrigerator.
I use a wide variety of seasonings, marinades and rubs on my meat, but this particular recipe is my go-to for a nice ribeye, t-bone or porterhouse steak. Of course, it works well with just about any well marbled and succulent cut.
Brazilian Sea Salt
Coarse Ground Black Pepper (I like to grind my own)
Coarse Grilling Salts (such as volcano salt or smoked salts)
Fresh Thyme and Rosemary
Allow your steak to reach room temperature by taking it out of the fridge about twenty minutes before grilling. Prepare your grill or frying pan and remember not to oil the grill, but instead oil the meat. Pat the steak dry and give it a nice drizzle with the olive oil. Rub it down with the salt and place on the grill, flipping and rotating it 90° every thirty seconds to ensure a nice sear. About a minute before it’s done sprinkle the pepper all over the steak so it won’t burn over the high direct heat. Take the steak off and place a dollop of room temperature butter on it. Let the steak rest for ten minutes before enjoying it in all its splendor.
Spicy Cayenne Strip
Salt & Pepper
1/2 cup Sour Cream
Lemon Juice and Zest
Coarse Ground Black Pepper
In a mixing bowl, roughly chop the artichoke and combine the ingredients into about 1/2 sour cream. Slice the onions and add all the ingredients with a dash of lemon juice and some zest.
Rub the steak spices all over the steak and cook to doneness. Slice the steak into thin strips and serve with the dip. Use your imagination with spice and add based on your preference for heat.
Here’s a few of my favorite grilling cookbooks you might enjoy.
It doesn’t matter how you cook up your steak, so long as you enjoy it. Have fun and get creative with ingredients. The cow can take it. Also, be sure to check out our ultimate BBQ grilling guide for more tips and some great recipes!
This steak guide was written by J.A. Shapira and Sven Raphael Schneider.