How to Pick the Perfect Steak

Do you know what the sign of a good cut of steak is? Nowadays, with a lot of meat-cutting happening before meats ever hit your supermarket shelves, your local grocery store butcher might not be that highly trained, and their ability to help you get the best bang for your buck is diminished.  This informative guide will help you pick any cut of steak you like from rib-eyes to t-bones.

1. Grade:

Grades of meat are usually determined by third party organizations such as the USDA; the designations of  "prime," "choice," or "select" meat equate to high, medium, and low qualities of meat as determined by age and marbling.  There will be variance within the actual grades of meat, but generally prime is very good, and select is average.  Ideally, your cut of meat will be very red with even, white marbling throughout.

  • Marbling is an important factor to look out for in meat.  Marbling is essentially how much fat is running through your cut of meat.  If your meat has very little fat, then your cut of steak will probably be tender, but not as flavorful.  On the other hand, if there is a lot of white marbling throughout your meat, your meat will be very flavorful, and a bit less tender.
  • Some Brand Names are a marketing movement used to give certain cuts of meats prominence or cachet, without mentioning their grade, such as "rancher's reserve." You should find out what the brand names are indicative of; sometimes it's just a particular cut of beef (such as "Certified Angus") or it could indicate a particularly tenderized meat.
  • Enhanced, Natural, and Certified Organic meat labels indicate attributes about where the beef has come from and how it was prepared.  "Enhanced" usually means that the steak has additional additives, such as flavorings or salt solutions; these steaks must show how much of the steak's weight is from the injected materials.  "Natural" meats means that the meat was processed without additives.  "Certified Organic" means that the cattle was fed with only organic feed, had access to pasture, and was never given any hormones.

2. Cut:

Generally, it's good to know how each cut of steak will cook up.  In general, any cut with the word "loin" or "rib" in it, the meat will be easy to throw on the grill or into the oven, without marinating, and still turn out tender, flavorful, and delicious.  Cuts called "chuck" or "round" however, will need to be marinated for lengths of time, or slow-cooked, in order to soften.  Otherwise, they will be very tough.

  • Look for thick, even cuts of steak, usually no thinner than 1 inch, otherwise it's extremely easy to overcook.  An even cut of steak is desirable to achieve even cooking throughout.**
  • Keep the fat.  The fat on a steak helps it keep in flavor and prevents it from losing its shape during the cooking process.  If you want to trim off excess fat, do so after cooking; this will help you get the most out of your meat.

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Photo credits:  PrimeTime Meats, Womack Farms, Tricks of a Trade