Every time we see a tomahawk steak, we're reminded of the opening scenes of the classic television cartoon show The Flintstones when Fred orders ribs so massive that the family car tips over. If you've never enjoyed a tomahawk steak, we can assure you that you'll feel like the mightiest caveman holding this impressive piece of meat that comes with its own handle.
While the tomahawk steak may seem like an exotic cut, it's actually little more than a ribeye steak with the bone attached and left long. The bone is French-trimmed the same as a standing rack of lamb to remove meat and fat and give the tomahawk steak its unique appearance.
Where Does Tomahawk Steak Come from on the Cow?
The tomahawk, like the ribeye steak, is comprised of the longissimus dorsi, a long muscle that runs along the outer side of the rib bones along the spine. A tomahawk will also include the spinalis and the complexus.
Tomahawk steaks are very thick cuts (usually two inches or more) as the steak must follow the thickness of the rib bone. Tomahawk steaks are taken directly from the rib primal cut as the animal is butchered in the primary steps.
The decision to cut tomahawk steaks from a carcass means you'll sacrifice the prime rib or standing rib, since these are the same pieces of meat.
Tomahawk Steak vs. Ribeye: What's the Difference?
The main difference between a tomahawk and a ribeye is the presence of the Frenched bone. You can buy a bone-in ribeye steak, but these typically have the rib bone cut off at the steak. Most beef rib roasts are sold this way.
Trimming a Tomahawk Steak
In order for a bone-in ribeye to be called a tomahawk, it must be thick and it must have at least five inches of the rib bone left intact. There are different ways to trim a tomahawk ribeye steak, the most popular being to shape the steak by trimming off excess fat from the ribeye cap to create a rounded ribeye on a long bone. Some butchers will leave the fat intact, giving the tomahawk a more triangular shape.
Cooking a Tomahawk Steak Is Different
Beyond these minor differences, cooking a tomahawk isn't much different than cooking a thick-cut regular ribeye steak. You'll need to compensate somewhat for the bone, but it is essentially the same process as cooking a standing rib roast.
Flavor, Texture, Fat Content, and Tenderness
If you like ribeye steaks, you'll love tomahawk steaks. Ribeye is often considered to be the most flavorful cut with the best texture and tenderness. That is because the muscle group doesn't get a ton of work like a sirloin would, and the ribeye area is home to some of the most delicious beef fat there is.
This gives you a heavily marbled steak with deep, red color that is packed with intense beefy flavor and results in a fork-tender piece of meat when it's cooked properly.
Is a Tomahawk Steak Healthier than Other Beef?
Like a normal ribeye, the tomahawk is going to be one of the less-healthy options. It has a high fat content and is substantially larger than the amount of red meat one person is recommended to eat in one sitting. Keep in mind, the average tomahawk will weigh between 35 and 40 ounces.
The long rib bone helps to protect the tender eye of round as the steak cooks, so you'll often get a more tender tomahawk steak than you would from an equivalent boneless rib steak. The huge bone also means you'll have a somewhat higher fat content.
Buying Tomahawk Steak
We highly recommend finding a local butcher if you want to try a tomahawk steak. Occasionally, you'll find this cut in the grocery store, but it is rare and often expensive. Your local butcher will have higher quality, fresher beef, and may even have a better price for you.
What to Avoid
When selecting your tomahawk, look for clean cuts without rough and jagged edges that indicate poor technique or a butcher using a dull knife or saw. Avoid tomahawk steaks that are less than two inches thick or show signs of damage to the bone – like chipping that indicates poor handling.
Picking a Good Tomahawk Steak
Like shopping for a ribeye steak, look for deep red color, lacy fat marbling, and a decent proportion of rib eye cap to eye of round. Pass on tomahawk steaks that have pink or red liquid in the packaging. This isn't blood – it's purge and it is all the good flavor leaching out and creating a haven for bacterial growth. It's also a sign of meat that hasn't been properly handled and is likely old.
A Word on Fat: Grass-Fed vs Grain-Fed
Fat should be white when the cattle was grain-fed and more of a yellowish color when it is grass-fed. If you are paying a premium for grass-fed beef and the fat is milky white, you're overpaying for an animal that was most likely only finished on grass rather than one that regularly consumed natural food in a pasture.
What is Special about a Tomahawk Steak?
The appearance of a tomahawk steak is what makes it such an appealing cut right off the bat. The long bone and the carefully shaped steak make for a stunning plate and it isn't hard to see how the tomahawk contributed to the name of this cut.
The very thick cut of steak and impressive size makes this something special and unique, even if it is little more than a fancy way of serving a rib-eye steak.
Eating a tomahawk steak is also a unique experience that is sure to raise eyebrows at your backyard barbecue or the local fancy steakhouse. Of course, you can delicately slice tender bites of ribeye steak from your tomahawk, but where is the fun in that? Grab that sucker by the bone and attack it Flintstones style.
The other thing that makes a tomahawk more special than a boneless ribeye steak is the extra tenderness and flavor you get from the meat near the bone. Because the bone insulates the meat, it prevents loss of moisture and gives you a more succulent bite.
The Differences in Cooking a Tomahawk Steak
In another post, we'll break down the best tips and tricks for properly cooking a tomahawk steak and give you some recipe ideas we've found to be excellent. For this article, we want you to know that cooking a tomahawk is a somewhat different process mostly due to the massive size of the meat you are dealing with.
When cooking a boneless ribeye, we love to do a quick sear in a cast iron pan and then finish in the oven. That isn't really practical with this cut.
Barbecue is Best for Tomahawk Steak
Instead, you'll want to get out the barbecue to get the best char on a steak this size. We really like to do a reverse sear on large tomahawk steaks to bring out the most robust flavors and enhance the tenderness of the beef.
You can always sear on the grill and finish in the oven, but we think that is kind of cheating and doesn't really do justice to the tomahawk. After all, one of the names for tomahawk steaks is the Cowboy Steak, which we can assure you was cooked over an open flame, not in the oven.
Now that you know all there is to know about the impressive and exotic-looking tomahawk, you won't be so intimidated to try and cook one. It's one of our favorite bone-in steaks and has the same rich flavor and incredible marbling that you love about rib eye while making for a spectacular presentation.