“The only time to eat diet food is while you are waiting for the steak to cook.” — Julia Child
America has been called a “Red Meat Republic.” Meat lovers would have difficulty creating a more enticing summer meal than a sizzling, dry-aged, bone-in ribeye — considered by some to be the crème de la crème of steaks. A thick, juicy steak is satisfying in a way that a 2-inch slab of tuna can never be! Whether it’s a special occasion or casual backyard barbecue, a great steak starts with choosing the right cut of beef. Do you prefer a well-marbled cut or leaner cut? Grain-finished or grass-finished? Wet aged or dry aged? So many options are available. The basic information and useful tips in this article will guide you in choosing and preparing the best cut of steak for your tastes, cooking preferences, and budget.
Your favorite cut of steak can fit into a well-balanced diet. Choose the best quality of ethically produced meat you can afford; eat it in moderation. The cooked, 3-ounce serving (173 calories) recommended by U.S. dietary guidelines could be nature’s multivitamin pill. It provides 10 nutrients, including vitamins B6 and B12, phosphorus, zinc, and niacin, as well as iron (heme source); and half of the daily requirement for protein. Nutrient-dense beef is satisfying and leads to increased satiety or fullness. Recent research findings in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition report that a Mediterranean-style dietary pattern that incorporates beef can help reduce heart disease risk factors.
Beef Makes the Grade
In 1923, U.S. standards for grading meat quality started for the U.S. Shipping Board and Veterans Bureau Hospitals. A one-year trial for federal grading in 10 cities started May 2, 1927. Disappointed with their meat purchases, consumers demanded a system to identify meat by grade. The United States Department of Agriculture currently “applies a uniform grade standard to any breed based on the amount of marbling in the ribeye (between the 12th and 13th ribs) along with the maturity of the carcass.” Of eight recognized grades, the top three — USDA prime, choice, and select — indicate the finest meat. Within each grade are variations.
Prime is the gold standard with 8 to 13 percent fat. Prime rated with “abundant” marbling (“high prime”) goes to five-star steakhouses, hotels, and specialty butchers. Prime rated with “slightly abundant” marbling (“lower prime”) may be found at retail.
Choice is the most prevalent, quality consumer beef. With less marbling than prime, the fat ranges from 4 to 10 percent. The top tier of choice (“high choice” or “upper choice”) is the most tender and competes with prime’s “slightly abundant” grade.
Select, once USDA good, has uniform quality and is fairly tender, but it’s leaner with less marbling than choice. Select falls in the 2 to 4 percent fat range with a “slight amount” of marbling. Select may lack some of the juiciness and flavor of higher grades but benefits from a marinade and quick cooking or longer braising.
Standard and commercial fall below select grade. The beef is from older cattle and sold ungraded (“no roll”), often as a house brand.
Fat Equals Flavor
Marbling is a determinant of tenderness, juiciness, and flavor. Higher beef grades with more marbling result in superbly flavorful, tender meat. The small, white flecks and streaks of fat interspersed within the lean meat muscles, resembling striations in marble, are intramuscular fat. In contrast, intermuscular fat lies between the different muscles. All fat is not created equal. Finer-textured marbling is a hallmark of quality; larger, thick flakes don’t melt well during cooking, resulting in tough steak. The quality of beef and marbling is influenced by factors like genetics, growing regions, raising practices, diet, age, and even stress levels.
The Aberdeen Angus line was developed in Scotland in the early 19th century. Four cattle were imported to Kansas in 1873, and now Black Angus dominates all U.S. breeds. Certified Angus Beef® brand, a steakhouse favorite, is a branded breeding program that ensures exceptional prime or choice meat with superior muscling and abundant marbling. Meat from only three in 10 cattle makes the cut to earn this premium name; look for the signature logo. Meat labeled “Angus” may or may not be equal in quality to the branded beef; rely on USDA grade labels.
Wagyu — A Cut Above
Genetics makes a huge difference in producing a superior steak. The unique genetics of heritage breeds such as wagyu and Certified Piedmontese cattle produces a distinctive type of marbling in each one. Both offer some of the world’s finest beef and have a growing number of devotees in the United States.
You may have seen wagyu beef (“Japanese cattle”) at your grocery store. The name collectively refers to Japan’s four indigenous breeds — designated as a national treasure. The world-famous Kobe beef (Tajima gyu) comes from one of these breeds. The cattle are raised nearly as carefully as children are. The beef has an elevated ratio of spiderweb marbling that creates a melt-in-your-mouth tenderness and succulent flavor; pricing is in the stratosphere. That’s a lot of fat, but the webbed filigrees are genetically predisposed to produce a higher monounsaturated to unsaturated ratio than other beef, and it is higher in conjugated linoleic acid.
Japan has allowed export of only 200 pure wagyu to the United States since the 1990s. Many have been crossbred with Black Angus to combine the best traits of both. In the United States, less than 5,000 cattle qualify as 100 percent, full blood wagyu with unadulterated bloodlines fully traceable to Japanese ancestry. This wagyu, of the highest genetic quality, is raised in South Carolina to the strict standards of the American Wagyu Association. Tender and succulent, the meat has a sublime, rich, beefy, full-flavored taste. It’s a more affordable cousin to the Kobe beef in Japan.
The term “American Kobe” is misleading. To hold the designation of Kobe beef, the cattle must be raised and processed in Hyogo Prefecture, where Kobe is the capital. However, authentic Kobe beef and Japanese wagyu cuts can now be imported from Japan and are sold in higher end dining establishments, specialty markets, and online. Costco offers a wide variety, including eight wagyu filet mignons from Kagoshima, Japan. Price tag: over $600.
“American Wagyu” usually refers to the crossbred variety. It is excellent beef but doesn’t have all of the superior qualities of 100 percent, purebred wagyu. Japan rates Kobe beef and other top wagyu with the highest grade of A5 — an indicator of quality.
Certified Piedmontese Cattle
Certain breeds produce superior-tasting meat without the associated increase in marbling. The Piedmontese breed, originating in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy, has a unique genetic makeup that naturally develops significantly greater muscle mass than conventional cattle. Cattle are individually DNA tested to confirm their unique heritage; muscle fibers remain tender without the need for excess marbling. With less fat, fewer calories, and higher protein per ounce, Certified Piedmontese cattle add up to a healthier beef option without sacrificing flavor. Bison also has a healthier fat profile with three to four times more anti-inflammatory omega 3 fats, particularly alpha-linolenic acid.
Grain-fed cattle spend a majority of their lives foraging in pastures. Four to eight months before butchering, they move to feedlots, where they are grain-finished with quality, corn-based rations. The cattle quickly gain their final weight. The intramuscular area is one of the last places fat is deposited; finishing completes the marbling process and develops flavor. Most U.S. cattle are of the grain-finished variety. In high demand, the meat tends to have a richer, sweeter, milder flavor.
Grass-fed/grass-finished cattle spend their entire lives grazing in pastures and receive winter supplements of quality, harvested forage (no grain). Many people prefer the leaner profile and “beefy” taste — the less fat, the more pronounced the muscle flavor. High beta carotene content in grass can cause nuanced flavors. The term grass-fed beef is no longer monitored by the USDA. Cattle started on grass and finished on grain are sometimes labeled “grass-fed.” American Grassfed Association labels designate 100 percent grass-fed cattle — born, raised, and finished on U.S. open-grass pastures. Such stamps of approval from third-party organizations help ensure that packaged beef is true to the claims on its labels.
A Cut Above
What’s the most popular cut of steak? A beef side is divided into seven primal sections. The loin primal provides well-marbled steaks like the New York strip (sirloin strip), porterhouse (bone-in strip with filet attached), T-bone (“junior porterhouse”), and tenderloin filet. The tenderloin lies on either side of the backbone (two per animal). The least-worked muscle with little connective tissue, it is meltingly tender. Its subtle beef flavor serves as a blank canvas for cooks to dress up with sauces, herbed butters, or other accompaniments. Tenderloin filet is recommended as a lean choice by the American Heart Association.
Rib-eye steaks come from the rib primal. The richly marbled cowboy rib-eye is a thick, bone-in steak with a short, Frenched rib bone. The dramatic-looking tomahawk steak is a ribeye specifically cut with at least five inches of Frenched rib bone. Ranging from 2½-inches to 3-inches thick, these hearty steaks could feed two or three people.
In the 1990s, beef industry research projects led to the discovery of numerous value-added cuts, including the Denver steak (chuck flap) and flat iron steak (chuck shoulder). Tri-tip (from the bottom sirloin) makes excellent steaks. These flavorful cuts are leaner with interesting textures and can be prepared in ways to make them extremely tender. Whichever you prefer, choose a steak that is firm to the touch with rosy, even-hued flesh; a good, sweet smell; and creamy, even intramuscular marbling without excessive outer fat.
A 4-ounce portion of nutrient-dense, uncooked bison is about 130 calories. Cook bison steaks on a direct heat grill or open flame. Don’t overcook to maintain the best texture and flavor. Imported water buffalo is occasionally marketed as “buffalo or wild buffalo,” but it is not 100 percent North American bison.
Marinades and Rubs
Leaner cuts might require some TLC — a marinade to help with tenderizing, plus careful cooking and slicing. Thin, flat cuts with great flavor such as flank steak, hanger steak, and skirt steak — the default choice for fajitas — benefit from marination. Bavette (sirloin flap) and coulotte steak (top sirloin cap) are good candidates too.
Bold marinades can add a burst of flavor. They are an emulsion of oil, acid, and aromatic seasonings. Start with olive oil and whisk in an acidic ingredient such as lemon or lime juice, vinegar, wine, pineapple juice, yogurt, or buttermilk to name a few. Add pizazz with your favorite herbs, spices, and condiments.
Rubs are blends of dried spices, herbs, salts, and other seasonings. They cling to the meat surface better than marinades, add a stronger punch of flavor, and create a great finish. Take rubs a step further and make a flavor paste. Coat the meat 30 minutes or refrigerate several hours. Papaya, an excellent meat tenderizer, has an enzyme called papain that breaks down protein. Puree green or ripened papaya to spread over the meat for a couple of hours or stir some into a marinade. Kiwi and fresh grated ginger root offer some tenderizing benefits too.
A quality steak’s potential for flavor and tenderness is predetermined before it hits the hot skillet; genetics plays a major role. Flavor fully emerges when it makes contact with searing heat. After buying an expensive steak, you do not have to use a fussy preparation. A great steak can fully speak for itself. Dry cooking methods are ideal for a steak whether you fire up the grill, cook it stovetop in a skillet, under the broiler, or take it from skillet to oven, or oven to skillet. Before cooking, rub in some kosher or sea salt and black pepper. Keep it simple … and don’t overcook.
Any thin, flat, less-tender cut like flank steak or top round steak — both often labeled as London Broil — is best marinated, grilled or broiled to medium-rare, then thinly sliced against the grain. Thin steak tends to overcook much faster. Avoid overcooking, or the meat will be overly chewy and dry. Medium-well is ideal. Cooked to medium, marinated hangar steak can be very tender.
The pan-sear, oven-finish method is excellent for thick steaks. A seasoned steak, such as boneless rib-eye, is quickly seared in a skillet, then finished in a hot oven. The reverse-sear is also excellent for thick steaks. The steak is started in a low oven until it nearly reaches the preferred temperature. Then it is seared in a hot skillet to form the crust.
Pan-seared Steak 101
Pan-searing is a quick, efficient method for cooking steaks. Deciding on thickness, degree of doneness, and even portion size is largely subjective. How thick should a steak be? Cattlemen quip it should be the distance between their upper and lower teeth — mouths wide open, I assume! Many people like well-marbled steaks cut 1½- to 2-inches thick. Large steak cooked in a skillet or on the grill is for sharing. If there’s a bone, it’s a win for the dog. The ideal thickness for most steaks is 1½ inches, but many supermarket steaks are cut ¾- to 1-inch. If not cooked properly, super-thin steaks can quickly turn into beef jerky. Leaner cuts tend to cook faster. To create a great crust on the steak, use a well-seasoned, cast-iron skillet. A cast-iron grill pan with ridges will leave attractive grill marks on the meat. Quality steak knives make the dining experience more enjoyable. Keeping price and style in mind, consider brands like Chicago Cutlery, Messermeister, Zwilling Porterhouse, or high-quality Shun knives crafted in Japan.
2 boneless rib-eyes or strip steaks 1¼- to 1½-inches thick
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon oil with a high smoking point (
anola, grapeseed, or avocado )
1 to 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, if desired
Fresh herb sprigs like thyme or 1 smashed garlic clove, if desired
Remove steak from the refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking. With paper towels, blot off any moisture to ensure a good sear. Sprinkle with salt and pepper just before cooking.
Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat just to the smoking point. Swirl in the oil. Sear steaks 3 to 4 minutes on each side, turning 2 or 3 times, to form brown, crusty exteriors. (Sear fatty steak edges too.) If used, add butter and herbs near the end of cooking. (Don’t allow garlic to burn.) Cook steaks about 10 minutes or to desired degree of doneness.
For juicy, tender medium-rare steaks, cook to 135 degrees F. For medium, cook to 145 degrees F. For medium-well, cook to 150 degrees F. For well done (little to no pink) cook to 160 degrees F. Cooking times and temperatures can vary. An instant-read thermometer will help determine doneness. The Thermapen brand is highly accurate.
Remove steaks from the pan and cover loosely with foil; rest the meat 5 to 7 minutes. The flavorful juices will be reabsorbed and not lost when the steak is cut. Residual heat causes “carryover” cooking within the resting meat. The temperature continues to rise 5 to 7 degrees for larger steaks and 3 to 5 degrees for thinner steaks. Factor this into your timing. The USDA recommends steaks should be cooked to 145 degrees F.
How steak is cut can have a big impact on tenderness. Cut against the grain, slicing perpendicular to the parallel lines of muscle fiber running down the meat. The grain is easily visible on cuts like flank steak, skirt steak, or tri-tip steak.
Japanese wagyu (A5 grade) is a big investment. Don’t expect to cook it like a large, beefy American steak. The rich, succulent fat literally melts in your mouth. The less cooking the better; cut into small pieces for quick pan-searing and tabletop grilling or into thin slices for swishing through a simmering broth like in the Japanese hotpot shabu shabu. The taste is sensational, so try it at least once. American crossbred and purebred wagyu are excellent for steaks.
Raising the Steaks
Two important chef-driven cooking methods for steak include the pan-sear, oven-finish method and the reverse-sear. For the first method, sear the steak rapidly in a smoking hot, heatproof skillet. Transfer it, still in the skillet, to a preheated, 400 degrees F oven to finish to the proper temperature. Some chefs sear the steaks and finish them under the broiler.
For reverse-searing, put the steaks on a rack inside a rimmed baking sheet. Cook in a preheated 275 degrees F oven until they reach a desired temperature. Remove from the oven. Heat a skillet until very hot, then quickly sear both sides of the steak. Multiple steaks can be partially oven cooked in advance then held for ½ hour or refrigerated. After bringing the meat back to room temperature, complete the final searing. This method can be configured to work on an outdoor grill with multiple heat zones.
Another technique worth exploring is sous vide technology. Steaks are sealed in a special vacuum bag and cooked several hours in a water bath to the desired temperature. They are finished by briefly searing them on both sides in a hot skillet. Steak consistently comes out amazingly tender and delicious.
Susan’s Mexican Mocha Rub
Outdoor summer grilling is the perfect solution for home cooks who have experienced pandemic cooking fatigue. Spice up your steak — and your meal — with this “south of the border” seasoning rub. From mole to muffins, coffee and chocolate make a glorious pairing, and chilies certainly liven things up too. Use this zesty rub on your favorite cut of steak. Sliced steak can be wrapped in tortillas with all the trimmings.
1 tablespoon finely ground espresso or French roast coffee beans
1 tablespoon pure ground ancho chile pepper (such as McCormick Gourmet) or ground Guajillo pepper for a hotter note)
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
1 to 2 teaspoons unsweet dark cocoa or Dutch-processed cocoa powder
2 teaspoons sea salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon ground fennel
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon garlic powder
Combine the ingredients; mix with clean fingers. For each steak, rub with about 1 tablespoon of the mixture. Rest steaks at room temperature for 1 hour or refrigerate several hours in an airtight, zip-top bag. Bring steaks to room temperature. Brush lightly with oil; cook over a hot grill about 4 minutes per side. Enough rub for four or five steaks.
Terms to Know
Wet Aging — All beef benefits from wet aging, especially lower grades like select with less intramuscular fat. Aging begins when beef cuts are placed in a hermetically sealed Cryovac bags at the processing plant and continues in transit to the grocery store. Enzymes in the meat juices break down collagen between the muscle fibers (proteolysis), which increases tenderness and flavor. Some steakhouses give wet-aged beef an extra period of dry aging.
Dry Aging — Dry aging takes beef to the next level! Dry-aged prime or choice steaks are the specialty of high-end steakhouses and restaurants. Beef is aged 21 to 28 days in a controlled environment that balances air circulation, temperature, and humidity. Natural enzymes break down connective tissues making the beef more tender. A dark, hard crust forms over the surface (think beef jerky). After carefully trimming, the meat is cut into steaks. Slight dehydration concentrates the beefy taste, creating intense, umami-rich notes of nutty, cheesy, or even mushroom flavor.
Certified Humane® — Humane Farm Animal Care is a nonprofit organization established to promote and administer its certification and labeling program, Certified Humane Raised & Handled, for meat, dairy, eggs, and poultry raised under its U.S. animal care standards. HFAC is dedicated to improving the lives of farm animals in food production from birth through slaughter. It’s the leading organization providing criteria for animal welfare beyond the USDA. CertifiedHumane.org
The Happy Butcher: USDA prime beef; high-grade choice; American wagyu; Certified Piedmontese beef; dry-aged USDA grade prime, complimentary house seasoning for steaks. TheHappyButcher.com
New York Butcher Shoppe: Certified Angus Beef®, NYButcher.com
Lowes Foods: In-house dry aged meat, LowesFoods.com
Costco, South Carolina locations: Costco carries a variety of authentic Japanese A5 wagyu cuts imported from Japan. Costco.com
Caroland Farms: The highest genetic quality of wagyu beef. Caroland is the largest full-blood wagyu farm in the Southeast. For restaurants and consumers, CarolandFarms.com.