There’s just something about a perfectly grilled steak that speaks to some primal joy our ancestors once shared while roasting giant hunks of meat over an open campfire. Today the modern world has evolved to such a degree that if you don’t want to haggle with a butcher or wait for a sale at the grocery store meat counter, you can still order some truly high-quality steaks via online vendors.
Of course, steak is more than just a slab of something formerly cow. There are a lot of different cuts to consider, each with its own unique characteristics. There are some “Steaks” that play better in certain dishes such as classic fajitas from flank and inside skirt steaks. Even inside the realm of the classic steakhouse, you will find different choices like ribeye, New York strip, T-Bone, porterhouse and the illustrious fillet mignon to pair with that classic side of mashed potatoes.
All this is before we even start talking about things like “Grass-Fed,” “Dry Aged” “Prime” “Choice” or Wagyu. These are terms that either describes how the steer the meat came from was raised, or how the processed steak itself was treated after butchering.
Grass-Fed and Grass-Finished Steaks
Each has its own distinctions, that can play into both the fat content of the steak as well as the flavor. A truly grass-fed steer doesn’t get the fattening corn and other grains that you find in feedlot-raised beef. You get a very rich red steak that is incredibly lean. What little fat there is might even be a healthy shade of yellow. These color differences are due to things like myoglobin and beta carotene in their diet. This also translates into a higher price per pound.
With a grass-finished steak you are talking about a steer that was largely raised responsibly and humanely, yet fed a diet of mostly grain. Then in the last few months of its life it was turned out on a diet of grass. This gives you the most of the marbling you want with rich, meaty steak, with the subtle notes of myoglobin and other grass components in the flavor. The price per pound is also a little less than grass-fed, yet more than a traditional steak from a corn-fed steer.
What Is Dry Aged Steak?
Just like us, beef steers that steaks are cut from are made mostly of water. The reality is all that water has zero flavor. Dry aging is an old process that’s enjoying a renaissance via high-end producers.
They basically put large primal cuts of steak in a perfectly climate-controlled cold environment that prevents bacteria from attacking the meat, yet allows the larger primal cuts to dry out. Along the way some naturally occurring enzymatic action occurs which further concentrates the flavor.
When it reaches the proper degree of aging, the producer cuts off the dried off the exterior crust and provides you with a steak with knee-buckling intense flavor, at a premium price point. It’s maybe not the sort of thing you are going to buy for a Tuesday night supper. Still, it’s definitely something that belongs on your “Bucket List” and afterward might just become your go-to choice for celebrating special occasions.
What Is Wagyu Steak?
Wagyu steak or beef is the Westernized take on Japanese Kobe beef. Essentially the beef steers are raised in the lap of luxury, living the best life a bovine creature can imagine. They are given a special diet, raised humanely and their genetics are tracked from one generation to the next. Wagyu even has it’s own certification criteria. The end result is an exquisite cut of meat that is deeply flavorful, richly marbled, and exceptionally tender.
While it does come at a premium price per ounce, it’s another one of those things you want to put on your “Bucket List.”
What’s The Difference Between A Choice And Premium Steak?
The USDA has a strict grading scale for many different types of meat including beef. The reality is that most of what you find in the grocery store, meat counter and butcher shop is choice. There are people who will read this who may have never had a “Prime” graded steak in their lives, and that’s okay. There are a lot of great steaks that are rated as “Choice.”
Prime is truly a cut above, with exceptional marbling and tenderness. It’s also just rare enough that most “Prime” graded beef is bought up by high-end steakhouse restaurants, supper clubs, and gourmet online retailers.
The Best Steaks For Grilling
Different steaks have their own characteristics like marbling, fat content, and tenderness.
New York Strip Steak
On a technical level the New York strip steak is the sirloin side of a porterhouse or T-bone steak. Only the bone and any connective tissue have been trimmed away. It also tends to have less gristle and the fat is mostly in the form of intramuscular marbling.
This means when you are paying by weight, you’re getting more meat for the money. It also tends to have less overall fat content than a ribeye.
Ribeye is one of the most beloved steaks. Cut from the rib primal like the prime rib, it tends to have more fat and marbling which translates into more flavor. Ribeye is also a popular contender for dry aging. Not only does the process intensify the flavor it tends to make the meat more tender.
The ever-popular T-Bone Steak is cut from the loin of the steer. On one side you have the sirloin meat of a New York Strip steak, on the other side of the bone is a small portion of tenderloin like you would find in a larger fillet mignon.
The bone itself doesn’t contribute much to the overall flavor of the steak, but it does provide structure. Depending on how you prepare it a T-Bone is might be easier to grill to a perfect medium-rare.
This is essentially a bigger version of the T-Bone. You get a robust sirloin on one side of the mammoth bone, and a full-size tenderloin on the other. Since it tends to come from a larger steer and has a reputation for being premium, you are more likely to find “Prime” graded porterhouse steaks through high-end vendors.
The Tenderloin Or Fillet Mignon
The tenderloin primal is one of the most beloved pieces of meat to cut steak from. It’s from a place on the steer that doesn’t do a lot of work, which makes it inherently tender. This also encourages butchers to cut it thick, which adds to the prestige.
Wrapping bacon around it to turn it into a Fillet Mignon adds to the luxury. As the name implies it started out as a way for French chefs to add a little bit of fat and flavor to a slightly lean steak.
Flank And Inside Skirt Steak
Flank and inside skirt steaks are technically two different steaks from two different parts of the steer. However, they have a similar texture and richness as well as toughness that lets them be used interchangeably. This includes things like fajitas and London broil.
This is a little bit of a budget cut of steak. It’s very lean, but it comes from a place on the steer that does a little bit of work. This translates to slightly tougher muscle fibers. Still, this is reflected in the price per pound. High-end vendors do a good job of selecting the more flavorful, tender, and well-marbled cuts. Some that even qualify as truly being “Prime” grade. It can be a great way to save money if you want a good steak.