I wrote 9 Tips for Buying Steak to help with the daunting task of buying a steak. Factor in meat prices and the myriad of details to look for in a great steak and buying a steak can be debilitating. Everything would be a lot easier if the local butcher or grocery store carried cuts like this for reasonable prices:
That is A5 wagyu beef from Japan and is some of the finest steak in the world. The grocery stores and butchers near me don’t carry this stuff. Good thing, because if they did it just might bankrupt me. That being said, I’m here to help you look into the meat case and get the best steak of what’s available. We are talking about the big four here: Ribeye, NY Strip, Filet Mignon, T-Bone/Porterhouse. But stay tuned for our 7 Tips for Saving Money Buying Steak which covers cheaper cuts of steak that still have amazing flavor great flavor along with some tips on how to maximize the flavor potential.
1) What is Marbling?
Marbling is the fat that runs through the steak. There’s good marbling and bad marbling. Good marbling consists of small striations of fat that weave through the beef (see that pic above and the one right below this sentence). Bad marbling are large veins of fat or globs in the meat. Small striations evenly distribute the tasty fat and juicinenss throughout the muscle and makes every bite tasty. Big globs of fat or thick veins concentrate the fat and make for terrible mouth feel.
Another advantage of good marbling is that it gives a larger window to cook the steak and keep it juicy. In other words, even if you over cook the steak it will still be good thanks to it still being really juicy.
9 Tips for Buying Steak: Grades of Steak
2) Select, Choice, Prime and Wagyu
These are the main grades of beef (plus wagyu which I will go into a little farther down) and will tell a lot about how good the steak will taste and how much it will cost.
Select is not is not very good. The marbling is next to nothing meaning there is a very narrow window to get it right and even if you get the doneness perfect, it could still be lacking in flavor and juiciness. Select is betterground up into hamburger (with some fat added). It’s also not bad in fajitas or tacos, although I would highly recommend a marinade to add some flavor and slicing it thin across the grain.
Choice is what you normally see at your local grocer or butcher. There is decent amount of marbling and is relatively cheap compared to prime. This is the best combo of flavor and price. Choice is the steak for an average Wednesday when you have a hankering for a big slab of beef.
Prime has really good marbling but also comes at a price. Prime grade beef is amazing, but it could really put the hurt on the wallet. This is more of a special occasion steak like an anniversary or New Year’s Eve.
What is Wagyu?
Wagyu just means ‘Japanese Cow.’ The problem with wagyu is that all it has to have is 1% Japanese cow DNA to be labelled wagyu. While the labelling is not regulating, the grades (A1-A5) are very specific. A1 is iffy. It could look more like Choice. A2 is going to be like Prime grade or better. A3 and A4 are sublime and A5 just might ruin all other steaks for you, so be careful.
Some are going to freak out at the fat content of highly graded wagyu. Keep in mind this is normally eaten in 1 ounce portions and a most people don’t get more than 4 ounces. It’s really rich so eating 24 ounces of this is too much for the taste buds and the wallet.
No U.S. Sourced Wagyu can be graded A5
One note on A5. No wagyu produced in the U.S. can be graded as A5. The highest grade awarded for U.S. wagyu is A4. An A5 grade will only come from Japan with a certificate of authenticity and which may actually include a nose print of the cow (like a finger print but WAY bigger). That’s what is in the middle of the certificate below:
That doesn’t mean that there is no A5 wagyu produced in the U.S. It just can’t be graded that. A steak that is marbled enough to be graded A5 from Japan can be produced here in the States, it just can’t get that grade. So basically, the Wagyu thing is a bit convoluted. I highly recommend placing a small order from a wagyu purveyor to make sure it’s legit before committing a ton of dollars. Also, look for those USDA wagyu grades. They will help.
3) Is Grass Fed Beef Any Good?
Grass fed beef is very lean, low in cholesterol, and loaded with nutrients. The downside is that it’s not very tasty. All the health benefits come at a price. I realize that some people need to reduce fat and cholesterol. Go with grass fed and kick up the flavor with marinades, sauces and or a pat of compound butter. Soaking a grass fed steak in Worcestershire for 4-12 hours can go a loooonngggg way. Even better, grab some Andria’s and REALLY kick up the flavor profile:
Use Andria’s as a marinade or brush it on while cooking (or both) just don’t use it as a dipping sauce. It’s meant to be cooked with, not dunked in like that A-(not so)-Okay-Sauce we all used at one point or another to save an overcooked steak.
9 Tips for Buying Steak – the Big Four Steak Varieties
5) What is Spinalis?
The spinalis is the muscle that runs along the top and the side of a ribeye and is the tastiest part of the cow. Think Beef tenderloin but with lots of marbling. Beef tenderloin/filet mignon is super tender but generally doesn’t have much marbling unless it is highly graded wagyu which takes an already expensive cut and makes it crazy expensive (more on that below). The spinalis is also known as spinalis dorsii, ribeye cap, or ribeye cap muscle. More spinalis = better ribeye. For the two steaks below, the spinalis runs along the bottom of the steaks from this angle. The one on the left is the better steak because that spinalis is huge and the marbling is a bit better on the rest of the steak
It’s easy to see on two steaks side by side, but when ordering an unseen steak at a restaurant, ask the waiter to bring you a ribeye from the chuck end. That’s where the spinalis is the thickest rather than from the loin end.
Some steak purveyors will remove the entire spinalis dorsii from the primal ribeye cut and roll that thin muscle up, tie it off every inch or so and slice into spiral medallions. Spinalis steaks are ridiculously good but can have the same effect as A5 wagyu. It can ruin the regular ribeye for some. Proceed with caution.
6) Is a Tomahawk Steak Worth It?
No it isn’t. With the cost of beef, paying so much for a massive rib bone that you won’t be eating is a huge waste. Sure, it is a very impressive in terms of presentation and it is the king of engagement on social media, but otherwise it is a waste. And this comes from a guy that cooks more tomahawks than just about anyone because of the engagement they get on my social media channels:
Pro-tip ~ wrap the bone in foil to keep it from blackening while cooking so your fingers don’t get dirty when gnawing on that massive bone. Or, in the case above, try to position the bones away from the fire so they don’t blacken.
Also, if you are going to spend the money on a tomahawk, we can help with a few recipes:
- Easy Reverse Seared Tomahawk Steak
- How to Grill a Tomahawk Steak IN a Cast Iron Pan
- Reverse Sear Tomahawk Steak ON a Cast Iron Pan
7) Porterhouse or T-Bone
A T shaped bone runs through the middle of the T-Bone/Porterhouse steak. On one side of that T is a filet mignon and on the other side is NY Strip. For example, in the pic below, the NY Strip is on the left and the filet is on the right:
A T-bone was once the epitome of steak indulgence, but now isn’t much more than a bone in NY Strip with a couple bites of beef tenderloin since it only has to have .51 inches of filet mignon on that side. The porterhouse is a T-bone with more than 1.25 inches of filet mignon. The filet can be 1.25 inches or 3 inches and both will be the same price per pound. Obviously, look for the porterhouse with the thicker filet mignon:
A fat porterhouse is the best of both worlds. It’s a bone in filet mignon attached to a bone in NY strip. Meat cooked on the bone is tastier than meat not cooked on the bone and Porterhouse has two steaks right next to the bone.
Pro Tip ~ When cooking the porterhouse, try to keep the filet side a farther away from the fire than the strip steak side. The filet has less fat and will cook faster than the striploin. As you can see below, the strip is closer to the hot coals and the filet is at the edge of the fire:
With a ribeye, a two inch thick steak could easily be 2.5 – 3 pounds and can cover an entire plate. But one can get a 1.5-2 inch thick NY strip in far smaller portions and at that thickness, lends itself well to reverse searing (smoking then searing). Basically, the NY strip is it is much easier to find a thick steak that has a smaller portion size. These are prime grade NY Strips:
There can be a thick layer of fat along one side (this can be on the T-Bone/Porterhouse or on a Ribeye as well). If that fat is too thick, ask the butcher to trim more off. The ones above are trimmed pretty tight.
Pro Tip ~ Whatever fat is left over, make sure to place that right on the grill grates or pan/griddle and crisp it up:
Cast iron (in the pic above) is GREAT at crisping up fat and making flavor crust. Here is the best crust I have ever cooked:
That steak looked pretty good on the inside too:
I made that with Wagyu Beef Tallow on cast iron
8) Filet Mignon/Beef Tenderloin
This cut is super tender and comes in really fantastic portions (see the paragraphs above about size of a strip vs ribeye). The problem is that the vast majority of filets in the meat case at any given grocer/butcher is going to have very little marbling. Have the meat cutter pull out all the trays and peel back the paper (if any). Inspect all of them and choose the one with the most marbling. They don’t wrap the filet mignon in bacon for presentation. They do it to make up for the lack of flavor. Don’t get me wrong. I love a good filet:
Slathering the filet with garlic and onion paste doesn’t hurt either as I did with the beef tenderloin in the above two pics.
My problem with the filet mignon is the price. If it is going to cost that much it needs to be more than tender. The fact is there are better and cheaper options. This is another good candidate for a sauce or compound butter. A rare/medium rare filet, with a great flavor crust, topped with a pat of compound butter is a little bit of Heaven on earth.
9) Artisanal Steaks
Want your steak fix but don’t want to pay Filet Mignon/Ribeye/NY Strip/Porterhouse prices? There are lesser known steaks that are fantastic and you might be surprised at how many of these your local grocery store or butcher carries once you know what to look for. We will go into the Teres Major, Flat Iron, Chuck Eye, Skirt Steak, Picanha and Tri Tip. I’ll have a write up soon on these tasty cuts that won’t break the bank.
9 Tips for Buying Steak Recap
To sum up:
- Marbling is the key to a good steak no matter what the cut.
- Spinalis size is the key to a good ribeye.
- Wagyu labeling doesn’t always mean the steak is great, but the grading (A1-A5) is really spot on.
- NY strips can be thick but don’t have to be ginormous.
- Porterhouses are both a bone in strip and a bone in filet mignon.
- Filet mignon/beef tenderloin are very tender but don’t have much marbling or flavor.
- Cast iron makes amazing flavor crust.
- Compound butter is a great way to improve any steak.
- Stay tuned for an article for about cheaper cuts of steak that are still ridiculously good.
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