How to Pick the Perfect Steak
We've all got a favorite cut of steak, be it rib-eye or tenderloin, t-bone or New York strip. But how do you pick the best steak of them all?
The love language in my family is meat. If it’s a holiday, prime rib. If it’s a casual get together, ribs. If it’s a more intimate birthday at home, a semi-special occasion, or — honestly — just a Tuesday, steak. (Nevermind that my daughter recently declared herself a vegetarian).
For the longest time, I left the domain of steak to my husband. He’d fire up the coals, get the barbecue to temp, and magically coax out a perfect medium-rare rib-eye, with some crispy singed bits. My favorite. But that meant waiting until the weekend for steak because he gets home so late during the week.
And then ... One day, my hankering for a steak was so intense, I decided I would do it myself. I would forgo grilling — lighting coals is not a skill I ever plan to develop — and lean into a straightforward Martha Stewart recipe that changed everything for me: pan-seared steak. I heated a ridged pan and slipped a hefty pat of butter beneath each well-seasoned steak. Then, 4 to 6 minutes on one side, 3 to 4 on the other, until the steak felt like the pad of my thumb. Then I let it rest. A perfect, juicy steak — no marinade or coals in sight.
I won’t lie, it’s a rather messy process, filled with smoke and splatters and a pain to clean up. But, for weeknight steak, absolutely worth it.
As I cooked more steak more often, I started to pay better attention. And here are a few things I’ve learned about buying steaks.
(Mind you, personal preference is everything. My favorite steak might not be your favorite steak — and that’s why the world is a wonderful place.)
Know your steak cuts
I am a rib-eye girl, through and through. My mom prefers a New York strip. My husband? Filet mignon. If I’m cooking for a crowd, though, it’s skirt steak or tri-tip — both are full of flavor and relatively inexpensive. (Though I don’t necessarily think of either as steak.)
Broadly speaking, anything called “chuck” or “round” is going to be tougher and leaner ... and less delicious. Those are the hard-working muscles near the shoulder and butt! Those cuts beg for a marinade in order to stay tender — and I don’t think of these for grilled, broiled, or pan-seared steak dinner.
Instead, I go for tender cuts from the loin or rib. Top loin steaks are better known as strip steaks — i.e. New York strip or shell steak. Tenderloin is better known as filet mignon. T-bone and Porterhouse steaks are the best of both worlds — top loin and tenderloin, together, with a big, beautiful bone at the heart. And then there's my beloved rib-eye, which you can buy either bone-in or boneless. I’m good with both.
Other names you might see on menus or at the meat counter are bavette (a.k.a. flank steak) and onglet (a.k.a. hanger steak). Tasty, less traditionally steak-y steaks include skirt steak and tri-tip. Other perfectly okay (but not my favorite) cuts include top sirloin and flat-iron. Choose according to your budget, your taste, and whatever looks the best at the butcher shop when you get there.
I seek out 1 ½ to 2-inch steaks. Thinner steaks are harder to cook to a perfect medium rare.
Read the label
The USDA has a pretty straightforward grading system for beef: Prime, Choice, or Select. High-end Prime steaks are arguably the highest-quality, and therefore the best, most expensive, and hardest to find. (Only 1 to 2 % of steaks on the market are labeled as Prime). USDA Choice cuts have less marbling than Prime cuts, but are still very good. Select is the leanest, and therefore toughest, with the least marbling. (Sensing a theme here? It’s all about marbling).
Some other words it pays to know:
- Angus. Most steaks in the U.S. are from Angus beef, whether or not they’re labeled as such. “Certified Angus” is more or less a guarantee that the steak will be pretty decent.
- Wagyu. Super-marbled, expensive beef from Japan.
- Kobe. A type of wagyu beef that’s even more marbled. Not to be confused with Kobe-style beef, which is raised in the U.S.
- Organic. USDA Certified Organic Beef is raised on organic feed, without hormones or antibiotics. This is a pretty stringent, legally-defined term.
- Grass-fed. To be grass-fed, the cow must have eaten only grass for its entire life. But some “grass-fed” cows are grain-finished. “Grass-finished” has more meaning, as a label. And grass-fed doesn’t necessarily mean organic.
- Natural. Or “natural” — emphasis on the quotation marks — if we are being honest. This label is frustratingly vague, since, by USDA definition, all meat is technically natural (unless it is enhanced). But USDA-labeled “Naturally Raised Beef” is raised without hormones and antibiotics.
- Enhanced. There are additives.
You’ll see many different variations of these terms and other nonsensical marketing ploys. I try to stay somewhat skeptical when it comes to labels, and instead to buy from markets and websites that I generally trust.
Use what you’ve got
If your meat doesn’t have a USDA label, you have to use your best judgment — which is to say, your senses. Look for ample marbling and meat that is firm and cool to the touch. Beautiful, cherry red meat is obviously a draw, but off-color doesn’t always mean it’s bad, per se. Most importantly, it shouldn’t smell anything other than meaty.
Befriend a butcher
I love experts of all kinds, but I revere butchers. A good local butcher can guide you to new-to-you cuts, full of beefy flavor and perhaps a little easier on the wallet; or, on the other end of the spectrum, a surprising and decadent cut of beef for a special occasion. They know what on earth you do with a chateaubriand (including how to spell it!). A good butcher will let you know what’s good this week, and give you a hint about what’s coming in, too.
The three steaks I always serve
Once you've picked up your favorite cut of meat, it's time to get cooking! Try one of these personal favorites, or check out the roundup at the end for a wide variety of steaks.
Perfect Rib Eye Steak
Most of the time I stick with salt, pepper and a clove of garlic — and I’m more than happy. But for those times you want to kick it up a notch, this version from Kevin Is Cooking, with its DIY Montreal Steak Seasoning and compound butter, is delish.
Pan-Seared Strip Steak
You’ll master your butter-basting skills with this strip steak recipe, from MyRecipes.
Perfect Filet Mignon for Two
Tenderloin is a tender but less fatty cut, which will appeal to anyone who is watching calories, perhaps. This is about as straightforward as it gets for filet mignon. The trick to perfect steak every time? A meat thermometer.
A steak for every taste
Want even more recipes? Here are some of the most popular steak recipes on Yummly for a variety of cuts.