The weather’s cooperating, the coals are lit — and you’ve got your mind on a juicy steak with perfect grill marks.
But what type of steak should you buy? Well, rib-eye remains the favorite across the United States — and the bigger the better. But the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, an industry group, lists some 28 steak or fillet cuts you can choose from. They come in a range of flavor, texture, tenderness, fat content and price.
The six most popular? Karli Millspaugh, an association spokeswoman, says they are: boneless rib-eye, boneless strip steak, top sirloin steak, bone-in rib-eye, bone-in strip steak and T-bone steak. All are familiar and delicious; you can’t go wrong with them.
Another route, particularly if your dad thinks of himself as an edgy, lone-wolf type, is to serve one of the new beef cuts entering the market. These new steaks are tender muscles gleaned from hard-working areas of the animal like the shoulder (chuck) or hind leg (round), sections usually relegated to low, slow braising or roasting.
“They are diamonds in the rough. … The big example is the flat iron,” says Craig A. Morris, deputy administrator of the Livestock, Poultry and Seed Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service.
Whatever the steak cut is, be it an old favorite or something new, there are certain factors you should consider in choosing a steak.
Marbling, the amount of fat distributed within the meat, is the most important indicator of quality for consumers, says Randy Waidner, corporate executive chef for Chicago-based Gibsons Restaurant Group. “There’s more flavor, more tenderness,” he says.
The USDA grades beef quality and labels cuts accordingly, and marbling is a major factor in determining the rating. “Prime” has long been considered the best, followed by “Choice” and “Select.”
The challenge is, as Morris notes, that there may be some Choice or Select cuts that are as tender as Prime but at a lower price. To help consumers find those cuts and make wiser choices, the USDA has launched a new program to tag cuts as “USDA Certified Tender” or “USDA Certified Very Tender” based on specific, objective criteria.
Bone-in can make a difference too. Scott Fader, general manager of Petty’s Meats in Longwood, Florida, likes a porterhouse steak more than its sibling, the T-bone, because the porterhouse has a larger piece of tenderloin, or filet mignon, on one side of the bone.
“The filet mignon is tender, but lacks a bit of flavor. The bone gives flavor; it’s a game-changer,” he says.
Tougher cuts, like hanger and skirt steaks, can make for delicious eating if tenderized in a marinade for a few hours or overnight, says Frody Volgger, butcher at Tony Caputo’s Market & Deli in Salt Lake City. Try a teriyaki or ponzu sauce, perhaps accented with mustard and black pepper, he says.
We’ve got the details (with photos so you know what you’re looking for) on nine of the best cuts for the grill. Each should be seared over direct heat, then finished in a cooler part of the grill.
Thinner cuts (flank, skirt, hanger) should cook with just the searing.
Tips on buying and preparing steak
Tips on buying and preparing steak
Speak up: Tell the meat cutter or meat counter person what you’re looking for. How many people are you feeding? Do you want individual steaks or a big Flintstones-size slab to share? Does he or she have any tips on cooking it?
Read the label carefully: Look for the name of the cut, quality grade and, possibly, cooking instructions.
Think big: Steak size is not mere machismo. A thicker steak cooks more slowly on the grill, so there’s less risk of overcooking it, says James Peisker, co-owner of Porter Road Butcher in Nashville, Tennessee. Go no thinner than 1 to 1 ¼ inches, he says.
Prep: Bring steaks to room temperature before grilling. Sam Garwin, general manager of Craft Butchery in Westport, Connecticut, recommends rubbing coarse salt generously over the meat 10 minutes before cooking. The salt will promote a brown and crusty exterior, she says. Garwin doesn’t like seasoning meat with black pepper before grilling. The pepper burns and turns bitter, she says. Peisker, however, does pepper his steak before cooking it. It’s still delicious, he says.
Sear: Place steaks over direct heat. Sear 3 to 5 minutes a side to build char, says Randy Waidner, corporate executive chef for Gibsons Restaurant Group. Don’t try to force the steak off the grill rack; the meat will release itself when ready.
Finish cooking: Once seared, move the steak away from direct heat. Cook over indirect heat, covered, until desired doneness is reached.
Test for doneness: An instant read thermometer works well. Foodsafety.gov, a website operated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, recommends a cooking temperature of 145 degrees, which is around medium doneness. Voggler uses his thumb instead. Raw steak is “loose and mushy,” he says; the meat firms up as it cooks.
Rest steaks: Let the steaks rest for 2 to 5 minutes, Peisker says so that the juices redistribute inside the steak.
A cut above
(Shoulder top blade steak.) Boneless and cut from the shoulder clod top blade roast, each steak averages 8 ounces, with a thickness varying from ¾ to 1 ¼ inch. Section: chuck
(Also known as Delmonico or cowboy steak.) Sold bone-in or boneless. Section: rib
The bone divides the meat into two sections, the large strip, or top loin, and the smaller tenderloin. Section: short loin
The T-bone’s neighbor. Sports a much larger tenderloin attached to the central bone. Section: short loin
(New York strip, Kansas City strip, top loin, Delmonico, shell steak.) Sold bone-in or boneless. Section: short loin
(Sirloin butt steak.) Boneless; a continuation of the top loin muscle of the short loin. Section: sirloin
(London broil, jiffy steak.) Boneless. Marinate before cooking; slice across the grain for tenderness. Section: flank
The diaphragm muscle. Boneless. Marinate before grilling; slice across the grain for tenderness. Section: short plate
(Butcher’s steak, hanging tender.) Boneless. Marinate before grilling; slice across the grain for tenderness. Section: short plate
Sources: National Cattlemen’s Beef Association; The New Food Lover’s Companion.