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4 Absolute Best Cuts for Steak

on December 21, 2015
Steak, a cut of meat taken from the fleshy part of a carcass, is sometimes called the king of meat, but there are so many cuts to choose from. Four of the most popular are rib-eye, strip, tenderloin, and T-bone. Choosing which cut to purchase is one part information and another part opinion. First, consider the history of beef, the origin of the word steak, and other lesser-known facts about steak cuts in general. You certainly don’t have to memorize this information, but knowing a little bit will make the choosing process that much more fun.    

History of Beef

  The origin of the American steak goes way back to prehistoric times, when our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, when they hunted a number of wild bovine. Many of the oldest cave paintings depict aurochs, the ancestors of today’s domesticated cattle. Domesticated cattle come into play as far back as 8000 B.C.E.. These cattle came in two forms, bos Taurus from Europe and bos indoces from Southeast Asia and Africa. The word steak first came to be in Old Norse as stiek, meaning “a roast.” During the Middle Ages, this changed to steke.   It wasn’t until 1493 and Christopher Columbus’ second voyage that cattle were introduced to the Americas through Mexico. This continued, though only at a trickle, until the seventeenth century C.E. At this time, large numbers of cattle were brought to the continent for the Jamestown colony. Raising cattle continued for the French and English through the making of the colonies and the fighting of the Revolutionary War.     It is significant to say that cattle, up until after the Revolutionary War, were used mainly for milk, butter, and other dairy products, along with hides for leather. After the Civil War, cattlemen drove their herds west and found that some of the Spanish already had large herds.   During the nineteenth century, cattle were raised primarily on wild grasses on western ranches, then driven in cattle drives to land where they could be fattened on greener pastures. After being transported by train to be butchered in the Midwest, they were transported by refrigerator cars to where the largest portion of the population lived, the eastern coast.   Industrialism changed the face of the herdsman from cowboys to farmers armed with antibiotics and steroids. Now, the process from the birth of a calf to the steaks in your local grocery store are streamlined like a car assembly line.    

The Better Cuts

  There are many cuts of beef to consider for steak. The less expensive cuts include round and flank, while the more expensive cuts are those found in this article. The difference in cost is caused by supply and demand, but why are the rib-eye and strip steak, for example, more in demand than the round and flank? The round and flank come from portions of the cow where the muscles are used often. The round steak comes from the rear leg of the cow and is a commonly used muscle, so it is tougher and has little to no marbleized fat. This means the round steak has little flavor and is tough to chew, making it likely to end up in the slow cooker as beef stew. The flank, likewise, comes from the hind end of the cow, an often used muscle, which makes it tough and with little flavor. The top cuts, on the other hand, come from portions of the cow where the muscles are seldom used. Take, for example, the rib-eye; it is taken from the ribs, a rarely used muscle. It is full of marbleized fat that will make it tender and flavorful. Similarly, the strip steak comes from the hind quarters directly behind the ribs, so while it doesn’t have as much fat as the rib-eye, it is still well marbleized. This gives it flavor and tenderness. The flavor and tenderness are what matter, and that is affected by how much the muscle was used, which is in turn affected by where on the cow the meat came from.  

Temperature for Different Degrees of Doneness

  The USDA suggests a minimum temperature for steak of 145 degrees, with a resting period of at least three minutes. This is why you won’t find truly rare steaks sold in steakhouses today. The following temperatures are the recommended temperatures at which the steak will be cooked to the perfect degree of doneness for your preference. However, keep in mind that you should remove the steak when it is five degrees below the preferred temperature, as the steak will continue to cook after removal from heat. The time it takes to reach the suggested temperatures will depend on the method of cooking, the size and shape of the steak, and the actual degree of doneness wanted. Always test your steak by inserting a meat thermometer into the side of the steak with the tip in the center, away from bones or fat. Never test the steak by inserting the meat thermometer in the top of the steak; this would allow juices and flavor to escape. Here are the suggested temperatures for each degree of doneness: • Rare: 125 degrees • Medium rare130 degrees • Medium: 145 degrees • Medium Well Done: 150 degrees • Well Done: 160 degrees   As with all meat, steak is a good source of protein. Steak, though, is also a great source of iron. Ranges of caloric content circle around 71 per one ounce of boneless meat, and the average steak has a fat content of 4.1 grams per one-ounce boneless portion The saturated fat, averaging around one gram per ounce, is healthy for the heart, too. . All in all, steak is a decently healthy meat to eat.    

Purchasing Your Steak

  There are a few things you should do when looking for the perfect steak. First, it doesn’t matter if you get your meat from a grocery store or a gourmet butcher shop; become friendly with your local butcher. These men and women know their meat and are full of suggestions and advice about purchasing the right cut of steak. Ask your butcher what meat cut s/he suggests, and you may just get an expensive cut for a bargain price. If you’re looking for a steak on your own, make sure to pick out one that is bright red and is as marbleized as your budget allows. More marbleized fat means more flavor and tenderness, and anything darker than bright red, such as dark red or brown, implies the meat has been out of refrigeration too long. Finally, get to know your cow! Where the cut comes from on the cow makes a huge difference in flavor and tenderness. of the steak.    

Rib-Eye Steak

  Also called the Spencer steak, beauty, and, oddly enough, the Delmonico, the rib-eye steak is a round piece of meat encased in a thin layer of grizzle taken from the ribs of a cow. This is the boneless version of the rib steak, and is called a “Scotch fillet” in Australia (rib-eye is used to classify the bone-in version). Its marbling of fat adds to the flavor and makes it excellent for grilling. All you need do is put it over dry heat, such as on a barbeque, and flavor it with kosher salt and cracked black pepper. It doesn’t need any marination or additional flavoring. Just make sure you allow it to rest for at least three minutes, preferably five, to allow the juices to disperse throughout the steak.   Of the four written about in this article, the rib-eye is the most flavorful and tender, thanks to its large portion of marbleized fat. However, that same portion of fat means it is the least nutritious of the four steaks listed here. A six ounce portion of rib-eye steak contains approximately 476 calories, and has a total fat content of 37.6 grams with 15 grams coming from saturated fat. Between the cost and the high calorical and fat content, this type of steak is certainly not one you will find on people’s dinner plates every night!    

The Strip Steak

  The strip steak has many other names: New York strip, Kansas City strip, top loin, striploin, shell steak, and Delmonico, to name a few. Oddly, it is also sometimes called a sirloin steak, though it doesn’t come from the sirloin. It actually comes from the short loin, a portion of hind quarter directly behind the ribs. Technically, a strip steak is a Porterhouse minus the tenderloin and bone, and looks like a flet mignon. However, because of the marbleizing in the strip steak, it is a much more tender and flavorful cut than the filet mignon.   In 1837, the Delmonico restaurant opened its doors in Manhattan, serving among its menu items a cut from the short loin named the Delmonico steak. Thereafter, the strip steak was associated with the state in which it was invented, New York. While not as tender or flavorful as the rib-eye, it is a better cut than the tenderloin.,   It also has more equally distributed flavor and texture than the rib-eye. The method of cooking the strip steak is a personal preference, but the most common ways are grilling, broiling, and pan-frying. Regardless of which method you choose, cook it evenly and keep the juices inside by only piercing the steak as needed After cooking, allow the steak to rest for fiveminutes, covered, to redistribute the juices. A healthier choice than the rib-eye, a six-ounce cut of strip steak has 360 calories. The total fat content is a much lower eighteen grams, with six grams coming from saturated fat. A cut for everyone, thanks to its versatility in cooking method and flavoring, strip steaks are the most popular cuts in the United States.    

Tenderloin Steak

  Known in Australia and New Zealand as the eye fillet, the tenderloin steak is an oblong shaped cut that on the cow is just beneath the ribs, next to the backbone. This cut is the other half of the Porterhouse from the strip steak. Unlike the strip steak, though, there is no fat in this cut. There is also no bone. The lack of fat is not a good thing, however; meat needs some fat to tenderize and flavor it. On the other hand, it contains fewer calories (360) and much less fat than the rib-eye (18.8 grams, with 6.6 coming from saturated fat).   The tenderloin cut’s lack of fat means it needs to be cooked with something else to make it palatable. Marinating for several hours is one option; another option is to cook it wrapped in bacon or with some sort of fat to add flavor. It is best cooked over a dry heat, such as on a barbeque, and set aside to rest for at least three minutes to allow the meat to continue cooking and to trap the juices inside.   If the tenderloin cut is taken from a calf that has been restrained in a pen all its short life, the steak is called a fille mignon. The fillet mignon is a fattier, more tender piece than the tenderloin because the calf didn’t use the muscle nearly as much as the full-sized cow. The other cut taken from this region is the strip steak, which combined with the tenderloin is a Porterhouse. If flavor is added to this cut, it can be a great cut for grilling.    

T-Bone Steak

  A combination of the tenderloin and strip steak and younger brother to the Porterhouse, the T-bone steak is an approximately triangular cut with a tell-tale T-shaped bone running through it. Another steak that is similar is the Porterhouse, which is a T-bone steak with more meat all around. The T-bone steak is cut from the short loin around the vertebrae. Thus, it combines thetenderness of the tenderloin with the great flavor of the strip. Unfortunately, however, sometimes the bone can be half of the steak, leaving you with only small strips of meat.   Popular methods of cooking the T-bone are grilling and broiling. This cut of meat is condusive to the dry heat of either method, and the bone acts as a heat conductor. This allows the steak to cook more evenly and guards against drying out. Be sure to let the steak sit to finish cooking. Six ounces of this cut has 346 calories and a total fat content of 16.4 grams (6.6 grams coming from saturated fat). The T-bone is an old favorite, but was outdone by the strip because of the strip’s higher fat content and lack of bone.   While all of these cuts come from the loin or ribs area of the cow, they are inherently different. The rib-eye, the most flavorful and tenderest, also has the most calories and fat. The T-bone is a great combination of two cuts, the tenderloin and the strip, and is the lowest in caloric count. Taking apart the T-bone, you get the strip steak, which is known for its high marbleizing and great flavor, and the tenderloin, known for its tenderness and juiciness. Your best bet is to consider which cut fits the meal you wish to serve and remember the tips for purchasing steak. If you have any questions, take them up with your local butcher; he or she will be well-versed in meat talk. NO matter what cut of steak you pick, you’ll be most satisfied if you take the time to get to know the cow’s body and where your meat comes from.