Know the Steaks: A Primer On A Few Good Cuts
OK, let’s clear the airwaves here, gents: steak is beef… which is meat… which means it comes from a cow.
We use words like “mutton” and “pork” and “beef” to obfuscate the fact that we’re eating the flesh of what was once a living sheep, pig, or cow (apparently no one loses much sleep over chicken, huh?), but today, in order to really sink our teeth into the 4-1-1 on steak, we’ll be using words like muscle and tendons and we’ll be talking about which part of the cow various cuts come from.
So if that’s going to bother you, well then you don’t get to know the steaks, mister. After all, as you may or may not know, the tenderness, taste, and very name of a given cut of steak is almost entirely dependent on its location while still attached to an animal. Did you think “Ribeye” was just a name folks thought up for fun, or that maybe that cut comes from near some ribs? And maybe you think “Ankle Flank” is just something I made up as I wrote this? Well, even a broken clock is right two times a day… unless it’s a digital clock, in which case it’s not.
Take one more look at those charming cows up above, and then let’s retool our thinking to picture them like this:
There are plenty of “The Top 10 Most Popular Steak” types of articles out there, but we want to shed a bit more light than that. So first let’s get this out of the way! According to www.BeefRetail.org, these were America’s most popular (from a sales standpoint) cuts of steak in 2015:
- Strip Steak (Boneless)
- Ribeye Steak (Boneless)
- Ribeye Steak (Bone-In)
- Top Sirloin Steak (Boneless)
- Top Round Steak (Boneless)
- Cubed Steak (Boneless)
- Sirloin Tip Steak (Boneless)
- Chuck Center Steak (Boneless)
- T-Bone Steak (Bone-In)
- Strip Steak (Bone-In)
“But wait!” you might be shrieking, “I don’t see such well-known, fancypants steaks as filet mignon on that list, but I know that’s a… a thing!”
Well yes, yes it is. And it’s just this kind of shrieking that we’re here to help! Don’t worry about committing the above Top 10 list to memory; that would be a weird thing to do, and besides you’ve got your Internet searches for rote fact finding. Instead, take the time to really digest the facts about these four steaks — if you can retain this knowledge, you just might seem like a man who knows the steaks.
Filet Mignon – The 4-1-1
Why is filet mignon so expensive? Because it comes from the very tip of the tenderloin; each beef cow can produce only a few cuts of filet mignon, and of course scarcity drives price. But of course there’e more to it than scarcity, there’s also flavor. The filet mignon cut comes from a muscle positioned such that it’s seldom used, meaning a soft, “clean” (minimal sinew, tendon, etc.) cut that, if cooked properly, achieved that “melt in your mouth” phenomenon you hear people blathering on about like they know what they mean. And if there was any irony in me saying that, let’s pretend it was lost on all of us. Filet mignon is indeed one tasty steak cut, but it’s also often price prohibitive. So what should you order at a steakhouse?
New York Strip Steak – Your Steakhouse Go-To
Many people will argue that the Ribeye is the best steak to order at a steakhouse: it’s not as expensive as filet mignon (or chateaubriand…), it’s richly marbled, it’s amazing on the grill, and so forth. But a good strip steak (called Kansas Strip Steak in some parts, usually when the bone is left in) is a safer bet for a few good reasons. First, an NY Strip is usually a bit cheaper than a Ribeye. Second, unless you’re a real steak aficionado, you may well be put off by the “marbling,” which is AKA “fat,” of a Ribeye; a strip steak tends to be even and tender and takes well to your cooking preferences (medium, well-done, etc.). So in other words, if you want to order a good steak but don’t really know much about steak, try this’n, which comes from the short loin section of the beef cow. In case you were wondering.
The Flatiron Steak – Grill ‘Em at Home
Flatiron Steak goes by a few other names, too, like Patio Steak, which makes no sense, and Top Blade Steak, which makes a lot of sense, as indeed this cut comes from the shoulder region of the cow. Listen, man: Flatiron steak? It’s not a fancy cut. It’s not a gourmet cut. Many people might even turn their noses up (which is a great time to punch them in the face) if they hear it mentioned. But those same smarting snobs (you went through with it and hit the guy, right?) would probably gobble down the Flatiron steak you grilled up if they didn’t know better. Flatiron steaks tend to be smaller cuts, and they can be a bit sinuous sometimes, but this relatively thin steak cooks fast on a grill or in a pan, offers plenty of tender bites, and costs very little. So for the home chef not ready to risk ruining fancy filets, the Flatiron is a fine choice.
Sirloin Steak – The Chicken Dinner of Steaks
Sirloin steak is kind of the Also Ran steak in some ways. That tasty, tender, well, tenderloin runs right between the sirloin regions, which are Sirloin, Top Sirloin, and Bottom Sirloin, but sadly sirloin isn’t quite as tender as tenderloin. But dammit, a Sirloin Steak is pretty tender, often retails for less than $8 a pound, and can be sliced up for delicious sandwiches, used in savory stews, or can absolutely be enjoyed as an entree. In fact, in many mid/lower-range steakhouses (perhaps ones with Australian accents and attitudes), if you order a steak that’s in the $12 – $15 range, with potato and side included, you’re going to get a Sirloin Steak and you’re probably going to be cool with it.