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How to Shop for the Best Cuts of Steak

How to Shop for the Best Cuts of Steak

Who doesn't love a thick, juicy steak seared to perfection and dripping with delicious flavor? Getting that perfect cut of steak takes more than just cooking it correctly, you first have to start with a good piece of meat. Shopping for the best cut of steak is challenging when you don't know the things to look for that indicate a good steak. It's also easy to buy a steak that looks like it might be good, but it really isn't. We'll teach you how to find the best steak when you're out shopping for your next meal.

A Complete Guide to Steak

Not all beef is the same. Different cuts have unique flavors, textures, and colors. Often, you have to cook a particular cut a certain way, so you need to know the differences between the types of steak you'll find most often in the grocery store or at your butcher's counter. This complete guide to steak will make it so much easier for you to find a great steak. We'll take the stress out of shopping by showing you how to select the best types of steak.

Top 10 Steak Cuts

This will explain ten of the most common cuts of steak that are popular in the United States.

  • Rib eye: Rib eye is one of the most desirable of all cuts. As its name implies, the rib eye steak comes from the rib area and is tender and flavorful. This is an ideal cut for reverse searing and grilling. It has a high fat content, rich marbling, and big flavor.
  • Filet Mignon: The filet is one of the most expensive cuts, and for good reason. A properly cooked filet mignon is such a tender cut, you don't need a knife. It has mild flavor and is a lean cut that comes from the short end of the tenderloin. It's one side of the Porterhouse steak or T-Bone steak.
  • New York Strip: This is one of the most popular cuts served in steakhouses all over the country. The New York strip steak is a fattier beef that's cut from the tenderloin. Strip steaks are known for rich, buttery flavor and are perfect for grilling or searing in a cast iron pan. A version of this cut that leaves a small bit of bone and the fat cap is called the Kansas City strip steak.
  • Porterhouse: The Porterhouse is a substantial cut, as it includes two steaks; New York strip and the filet mignon separated by a T-shaped bone. Grill this one for the best results.
  • T-Bone: The T-bone steak is simply a Porterhouse that is cut farther forward in the short loin, resulting in a smaller filet mignon portion. T-bone steak is often grilled to a medium-rare.
  • Top Sirloin: This is a lean cut that manages to pack a ton of flavor. It is cut from the top of the sirloin as the name implies. It's great as kabobs, sliced thin and smoked, or dehydrated into beef jerky.
  • Flank Steak: This is a very lean and tough muscle that is typically sliced thinly against the grain and seared to make Carne Asada. It has big beefy flavor and is fantastic grilled or seared.
  • Flat Iron: Coming from the top blade steak of the shoulder, this cut is more tender and flavorful than other parts of the chuck. It features good marbling and is great seared in a cast iron pan.
  • Skirt Steak: Skirt meat tends to be tougher than flank, but has a similar grain texture. The skirt has more flavor than flank steak and is cooked and used in similar ways.
  • Tri Tip: A relative newcomer to the steak line-up, tri tip has been made famous in smokehouses all over the country. It is cut from the bottom tip of the sirloin and has grain running in three directions. Smoke it and slice against the grain for tender, juicy, delicious beefy flavor.

Choosing the Right Cut of Steak

There are lots of different types of steak on the market, each with pros and cons. Selecting the right cut of steak often involves knowing how you want to cook the meat and how you plan to serve it. Some cuts, like ribeye or filet mignon are served whole; while tri tip, flank, and skirt steak is typically sliced prior to serving. Before you buy a beautiful steak, you should make up your mind how you are going to cook to help decide which cut is best.

Best Steaks on the Grill

Grilling is the classic way to cook a great steak. You can use high heat and short cooking times to get a perfect medium rare steak on the grill. Some of our favorite cuts for grilling are Porterhouse steaks, T-Bone Steaks, and New York Strip steaks. Rib eye steaks are simply to die for when you do a simple reverse sear on the grill.

Best Steaks on the Smoker

You'll get great results smoking thicker cuts of steak like tri tip. Try a flank steak roll in the smoker sometime for a unique culinary experience. We show you how on our YouTube channel. Thin-sliced sirloin is delicious when smoked.

Best Steaks on Cast Iron

You can use a cast iron skillet or a griddle to perfectly cook nearly any type of steak. Our favorites are rib eye, strip steaks, and flank or skirt steaks. Use a cast iron skillet for searing and reverse searing in combination with your barbecue or smoker.

How to Buy Beef

Selecting the best cuts of beef is a challenge, made even worse by labeling laws in the US. You'll have the most success picking a good piece of steak when you understand the labels. Then we will tell you what to look for when your beef isn't labeled. You'll be a pro in no time.

USDA Labeling

The United States Department of Agriculture is the agency responsible for providing consumers with labeling of food products, including steak. Not all beef will have a USDA label, in fact the majority will not. That's because US law does not require labeling and the cost of having beef labeled is born by the rancher. The higher the grade, the more marbling the meat contains, which indicates higher quality.

The main grades of beef are Prime, Choice, and Select. Prime is almost entirely reserved for restaurants, so don't get confused when you see "Prime Rib", its a cut not a grade. Most graded beef you will find will be Choice or Select.

There are grades below these with unappealing names. These are Standard, Commercial, Cutter, and Canning. You typically will not find these four labeled, but a good deal of the ground beef you buy is made up of standard grade mixed with other beef.

Organic, Grass-fed, Non-GMO Labels

These labels can more-or-less help you find good quality steaks. US laws require non-GMO products to meet strict standards, including how the feed the animal eats is grown. Similarly, organic labels indicate that the animal has not been subjected to feed that isn't organically-derived. Grass-fed is a popular new label that indicates an animal wasn't fed a prepared grain.

Choosing Good Steak Without a Label

Since most of the beef you'll buy doesn't have a label telling you how good it is, you'll need to know some tips for picking out a good piece of beef. Some things to look for anytime you are shopping beef products are universal. For example, avoid steaks that have hard, thick white connective tissue called gristle. This is tough, doesn't add flavor, and is a waste of good meat. Avoid packaged beef that has blood in the container. This indicates the steak is losing moisture and may be dry. You should also skip steaks that have shattered bones, rough cuts, or have greenish hues. Don't buy meat that smells strongly, it's already started to go bad.

Using your Senses to Find Good Steak

This'll take practice but it won't be long before you'll confidently peruse your local meat market and grab the perfect steaks in minutes.

Using Your Eyes – What to Look For

When you look at steaks, consider the "ideal" for that portion. For example, when you buy a rib eye steak, look for a thick cut with veining of fat throughout. Thin rib eye steaks cook really fast and lose a lot of tenderness and the fat in the meat is where the juiciness comes from. When you pick out a Porterhouse steak, try to find ones that have nearly the same size strip and filet, these are the best cuts. T-Bone steaks that have hardly any filet are from the very end and you are paying for bone, not steak.

Use Your Fingers – What it Should Feel Like

Gently press on the steak you are looking to buy. It should feel tender and soft, like the palm of your hand near your thumb. This indicates that the meat is a good quality piece and you stand a good chance of cooking a tasty and delicious meal. Even a tough and large cut of steak like tri tip will still feel tender if it's good.

Use Your Nose – What it Should Smell Like

Even in plastic wrap, you'll be able to tell if your steak has a smell. It should be mild and meaty. If it smells strongly, avoid it. A fresh cut of beef has very little smell, so you shouldn't notice anything off about the way your cut smells. If in doubt, look at the "sell-by" date. This is usually an indication of when the meat was cut. If it's the day of the sell-by date, you want to cook that meat within a day or two.

Fat: What You Want and What You Don't

Everyone knows that a fatty steak is a juicy, tender steak. But, how do you know which fat is good? What you want to see and feel is soft, marbled fat throughout the piece of meat. Some cuts of beef are done to keep the outer fat cap in place, others trim it off. Generally, the fat cap provides only a little flavor and on most cuts, it's trimmed off by the butcher. You can cut it down further, but leave at least 1/4" to help keep moisture in the meat.

The fat you want to avoid is thick bands running through the meat, particularly if it is blueish. This is usually a membrane separating different muscle groups and it's unappealing to eat. Sometimes, you will see the membrane, called a silver skin, on the outside of cuts like ribeye. It can be trimmed off or left on and cooked.

A Good Steak Starts With a Good Cut

Now that you know what to look for and what to avoid when you are shopping for the best steak, you can easily decide which cut is going to be good. Learning to grill, smoke, or sear a steak to perfection is much easier when you start with a good quality steak. You don't have to buy the most expensive cuts, either. You can make an affordable rib eye steak that's nearly as tender and more delicious than a high-dollar filet mignon. Some of the labeling you'll see will let you know how the cow was raised and can help you to know that the beef you are buying is good quality.

 

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