The golden rule to tender and delicious steaks is that fat content equals flavor. When we cook a steak, the fat renders and creates juiciness while helping the meat develop layers of succulent flavor.
Even a lean cut of beef has some visible fat that will render down and make for a good meal, but learning how to pick the best cuts of fatty beef for grilling, smoking, and roasting is simple once you know what to look for and how to tell a steak with good fat versus bad fat content.
Is Steak High in Fat?
Since at least the 1970s, numerous private and governmental organizations have labeled red meat – particularly beef – as a high-fat food that should be consumed only infrequently. Studies these organizations developed showed links to heart disease and cancer among people who consumed red meat regularly.
The problem with these studies is that they failed to properly account for numerous other factors, including things like smoking cigarettes, consuming large amounts of alcohol, environmental factors, family history, and dozens of other possible sources of poor health.
Recently, researchers have begun digging deeper into the truth about red meat by looking at the types of fat in red meat. They found that the fat in beef is largely beneficial. In fact, research has discovered that even the threats of cholesterol are largely overblown. The truth is that a significant amount of the cholesterol in red meat is actually beneficial, but controlling the serving size is still important for a healthy diet.
Most cuts of red meat are considered high in fat. Generally speaking, the more expensive the cut, the higher the fat content. You'll also get better flavor and texture, but that doesn't mean you'll sacrifice flavor cooking leaner cuts.
What is the Fattiest Cut of Beef?
Not only is the ribeye considered to have the highest fat content on average among the most popular steaks around, but it's also one of the most delicious and sought-after. Whether smoked as a standing prime rib roast or grilled as a ribeye steak, it leads the pack with more than 35 grams of fat per serving size. Portion size is typically three to 3.5 ounces of meat. As the name suggests, this cut comes from the rib area and is loaded with ribbons of fat marbling.
Other Fatty Cuts
New York strip steaks, porterhouse, and T-Bone steaks also rank as some of the fattiest cuts of beef. Filet mignon is often thought of as a fatty steak because of the tender texture, but it is one of the more lean beef steak cuts in comparison to ribeye, porterhouse, and other high-fat content cuts of beef.
What Cuts are Tender and Lean
Lean cuts are often less desirable because they tend to get dry and tough when cooked. The top secrets you'll need to cook lean beef are simple: Use a brine or marinade overnight to help the meat absorb and retain moisture, cook lean cuts at a low temperature for a longer time, and let the meat rest after cooking.
Defining Lean and Extra Lean Cuts
USDA defines lean red meat as that which contains less than 10 total grams of fat for a 3.5-ounce serving. Lean cuts of beef include top sirloin steak, eye of round roast, and top round roast. These lean and extra lean cuts are excellent when slow-cooked and are also ideal for making jerky at home. We prefer eye of round for making jerky over most other cuts because of the leanness.
What is the Benefit of a Fatty Cut of Beef?
One of the most shocking nutrition facts revelations in recent research is the impressive health benefits of fatty beef. In the past, all saturated fat was considered to be bad fat, but now we know that a significant portion of the saturated fat in beef is actually beneficial. The type of saturated fat in beef has been shown to have little to no effect on heart disease and cancer.
Vitamins, Minerals, and Protein
In addition to beneficial fats, the red blood cells of beef are a primary source of iron and zinc. These are vital minerals your body needs to be healthy. The calorie content of beef is largely affected by fat content, so fatty cuts are a great way for athletes and people who are trying to lose weight through exercise can get a great boost of energy.
For example, a ribeye steak contains an average of 23 grams of protein in a 3 oz. serving. Lean cuts of steak are also excellent sources of protein. You'll find an average of seven grams of protein per serving size in an average piece of jerky.
Picking a Fatty Steak
It seems simple to pop into a store and grab a good fatty steak, but it is actually kind of difficult. What you'll want to look for is a steak that has as much marbling and visible fat in the meat. Then, use the tips of your fingers to gently prod the meat. Search for a steak that has the same level of tenderness throughout. Avoid steaks that are hard or have ribbons of hard fat called gristle.
The Best Way to Cook Fatty Steak
Cooking fatty steak is lots of fun because you've got a bunch of options. Our favorite method is called the reverse sear. To reverse sear a steak, you simply cook the steak at a low temperature until it is nearly done, then transfer it to a very hot cast iron skillet or a griddle. Sear the steak for just a few seconds on each side, then plate it. This ensures the meat isn't overcooked and has the perfect seared texture you want.
While a reverse sear is our favorite way to cook a ribeye, you'll want to switch it up when cooking a prime rib. Prime rib is one of the tastiest cuts of beef out there, but you'll want to cook this one low and slow to a rare or medium-rare internal temperature, then give it a long rest before slicing it into cuts of steak. In our opinion, a smoker is the best for prime rib to be cooked.
The Best Ways to Cook Lean Steaks
The leanest cuts of beef include flank and skirt steak which are considered a lean cut. They also have a reputation for being tough and chewy when cooked. The trick for handling lean and extra lean cuts is to cook them hot and fast. When you quickly sear lean, tough cuts, the meat will be more tender and juicy.
Cooking Round Steak
Round steak is an extra lean cut that has less than 5 grams of fat per three-ounce serving. It is one of the healthiest cuts due to the low fat and high protein. The long, tough muscle fibers make this cut particularly challenging to cook without making it tough. There are two ways to prepare round steaks for great results.
First, you can cook them low and slow, a particularly effective technique for thick-cut steaks that also works for top sirloin. Slow cookers work great for creating a tender roast from extra lean meat. Alternatively, you can use a meat slicer or a sharp knife to thin-slice the eye of round and make jerky. While other steaks work for jerky, the eye of round steak is one of the best.
Improving the Texture of Lean and Fatty Cuts of Beef
Cutting Against the Grain
One of the best ways to get excellent results from your beef regardless of whether it is a fatty or lean cut is to slice the meat against the grain. This is particularly important with cuts like brisket and tri-tip, but is also important when serving other steaks.
Using a Meat Thermometer
Finally, if you aren't using a meat thermometer yet, you should pick one up. We use two types: one that is put into the meat before cooking and another to instantly check the temperature while the meat is cooking. Once you are able to master internal temperature, your steaks will always come out more tasty and delicious.
Fatty cuts of beef are probably not the danger that many respectable establishments have made them out to be, but that also doesn't mean you should switch to an all-meat diet just yet. As part of a healthy diet, you should incorporate poultry, fish, and seafood along with nuts, fruit, and vegetables.
There is no reason to be afraid of fatty cuts of meat anymore, so don't buy into the scare tactics out there and indulge once in a while.