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Steak 101: How to buy the right steak

Steak 101 How to buy the right steak

Are you a true steak connoisseur? Does the butcher at your favorite grocery store greet you by name? Do you spend long moments gazing at the options, itching to race home, fire up the barbecue, and cook your prize to gourmet perfection? Or, are you sometimes intimidated by the numerous choices, so you stick to your favorite cut because that’s what you know best? Allow us to provide a bit of beef education, and give you the knowledge to buy just the right steak for the occasion.

Ladies and gentlemen, Steak 101 is now in session.

“There is only one right way to eat a steak: with greed in your heart and a smile on your face.”
― Soumeet Lanka

General guidelines

Thickness: The rule of thumb is the thicker the better (like a good book). Experts recommend sticking with steaks that are about 1-inch thick. This thickness allows you to play around a bit with how long you cook it. Thin steaks can easily be overcooked with even less than a minute too long on the grill or in the oven.

Those 30 seconds you spend looking at your phone could mean a steak that is juicy and delicious or one that’s now dinner for the dog. Thicker steaks don’t overcook as quickly or easily, so you have less chance of ruining them and facing the wrath of your fellow diners.

Marbling: The white parts running through the steak — the fat — that’s marbling. While we tend to shy away from fat in our meats, this is actually what provides the tenderness and flavor in steak. That’s not to say you want chunks of fat! Long, thin lines do quite nicely. As the steak cooks, the marbling melts down but adds a great deal of flavor.

Grade: The USDA grade wraps all the factors up into an overall ranking. “Prime” (as in prime rib, shown below) is the highest, making it the most expensive. This is the grade typically served in restaurants, while the grade below prime — “choice” — is most likely what your grocery store carries. It’s still quite good and makes for a delicious meal.

Steak 101 How to buy the right steak

Choosing the best cuts

Now, let’s take a look at some of the most common cuts so you can choose with confidence and cook to perfection.

T-bone

Also known as Porterhouse, this cut gets its name from the T-shape of the bone in the middle. It’s actually two steaks in one:  strip steak on one side and tenderloin on the other. The best of both worlds! This means you do have to be careful when cooking, though. The tenderloin side will cook faster, so keep that side farther from the heat source. Quickly sear it on the grill, and then finish cooking it slowly over low heat.

This cut is pricier than others, so this might be your special-occasion or the I’m-cooking-for-one-tonight steak.

T-bone

Ribeye

This may very well be the cut that ends your vegetarian phase. As the name suggests, this cut comes from the rib area. It comes bone-in or boneless, with the latter being a bit more expensive. The bone-in ribeye is the perfect choice if you like gnawing off the remaining meat and fat from the bone. (Maybe save this part of the experience for when you don’t have company.)

Ribeyes are known for lots of marbling, which gives them incredible tenderness and flavor. It also makes them great for grilling; the fat content keeps them nice and juicy as they cook. Be careful when grilling, though, because the high fat content causes lots of dripping, which increases the risk of flare-ups. Use a drip pan if you have one.

Ribeye steak

Filet mignon

You can’t even say this without a French accent. It means “tender fillet,” and an apt name it is. This is also one of the most expensive cuts you can purchase. Also known as tenderloin, it’s cut from a small area close to the ribs. It’s extremely tender, but many a steak fanatic criticizes it for its lack of intense flavor — a consequence of little to no marbling.

For increased flavor, cook it with steak seasoning, wrap it in bacon, or serve it au jus. If you’re a steak purist, however, this may not be the cut for you.

MORE: Pan-seared filet mignon with shallot butter

Filet mignon

Top sirloin

Top sirloin is the darling of the steak world: more affordable than costly premium cuts but more tender and flavorful than the value cuts. It has a rich flavor that outweighs its less tender texture. Because of its affordability, it’s ideal for more frequent indulgences and large cookouts.

It performs quite well on the grill brushed with a bit of olive oil and seasonings, which might just be a dash of salt, pepper, garlic and onion powder so as not to overpower the fantastic taste. Grilled to a medium-rare produces just the right amount of “wow” flavor.

MORE: Grilled Korean steak kabobs

Top sirloin

New York strip steak

With only medium marbling, this cut is tender but less melt-in-your-mouth than a ribeye or tenderloin. Don’t let that fool you into not giving this cut a try, though. There’s still enough fat to give it a robust, beefy flavor, and its price won’t cause you a trip to the ER.

It’s a mouthwatering steak you can enjoy more frequently than other, pricier steaks. As with most steaks, it’s best grilled, baked or cooked on the stovetop to a medium-rare with your choice of seasonings.

New York strip steak

Prime rib

This is the cut to choose if you want to impress friends and family on special occasions. It comes from the back of the upper rib section, hence the “rib” part of the name. Its ample marbling gives it the best flavor and greatest tenderness of all cuts.

Bone-in prime rib is a bit juicier than boneless. It’s typically rubbed with olive oil, sprinkled with spices and roasted to a medium-rare internal temperature of 130F. Its juices are delicious over mashed potatoes or soaked up with soft, warm bread.

Prime rib

Tri-tip

Steak lovers often turn up their noses at this cut, considering it useful only when ground into hamburger. Talented cooks have worked all kinds of magic with it, however, so it’s no longer the ugly stepsister of the steak world. Also referred to as bottom butt, Santa Maria and triangle steak, it’s very lean and flavorful, but it’s not particularly tender.

Smoking is a great way to prepare tri-tip; the slow cooking tenderizes it and produces a savory flavor. Slow grilling and oven roasting at low temperatures work well, too. When cooked at high temps, though, it dries out quickly.

Tri-tip

Skirt steak

Although thinner than other cuts, skirt steak is still heavily marbled, giving it flavor that works well in many dishes. This is the choice for carne asada and fajitas. Its low price tag makes it popular, and if marinated and then cooked very quickly, it’s a delicious bargain.

MORE: How to save money when buying meat at the grocery store

Skirt steak

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