Before you can grill a great steak, you have to buy a great steak. I have been asked many times how to buy a steak: what to look for when dropping dollars for a big slab of succulent beef. Most people can see a tomato isn’t ripe or salmon that’s too orange rather than red. But many people don’t know how to buy a steak when looking at the meat case with row upon row of steak deliciousness staring back.
First, let’s talk about the three major grades of ranking steak. Before you can know how to buy a steak, you have to know the grades. Before the grilling is the buying and before the buying is the grading. The lowest of the grades that one should ever consider to eat in steak form is Select which has little marbling of intramuscular fat and thus tends to be drier, tougher and less flavorful than higher grades, although it tends to be the healthiest alternative.
The next level, and of which the majority of beef is graded, is Choice which is moderately marbled and thus usually makes it more flavorful, tender and juicy than Select, but not on par with Prime. Within the grade of Choice are sub-grades making a highly rated Choice steak much better than a lower graded Choice steak, but often they all cost the same, so knowing what to look for between two cuts from the same category is the key to finding a great steak and saving some cash. That is the biggest part of how to buy a steak.
And finally we get to the king of all grades, Prime. Not Optimus Prime as my three year old would ask were he reading this, but a steak with heavy marbling of intramuscular fat which makes for the most tender, juicy, and flavorful steak. Once cooked, it should have a buttery texture and a rich beefy flavor. On a prime steak, even the fat is of a whole different level than the other grades and thus makes it the Optimus Prime of steaks.
With that out of the way, let’s look at some side by sides of a few steaks.
Let’s start with some Sirloin. Below is a picture of two sirloins. Can you guess which is the prime?
Here’s a close up of the top one:
And here’s the bottom sirloin:
The things to look at in the above pictures in terms of how to buy a sirloin steak is not size, although that happened to go in favor of the better cut, but marbling and color. The top steak is a choice cut while the bottom is prime. The choice has less marbling and is also darker in color. The prime has more striations of fat running through it than the choice and is a lighter color. Look for a light cherry color but avoid anything that is deep red. Also, the color gray in terms of beef is to be avoided entirely.
One thing about marbling with a sirloin is that this cut is pretty lean to begin with, so there isn’t a ton of marbling in any sirloin. While it may not look like there is a huge difference between the marbling of these two, take a look at that top picture again and you will indeed notice a considerable difference.
Let’s move on to a more expensive cut like the Filet Mignon or Beef Tenderloin (same thing). When spending that much money, it’s a good idea to know how to buy a steak. There is very little marbling in a filet because it is an extremely lean cut of beef. So what should you look for? These two steaks come from two different grades:
The marbling difference in the above picture is negligible. Again, look for the color difference. The steak on the right is lighter than that on the left. You can also look at texture. It’s hard to see the difference in texture from the pictures I took, but you can see that the one on the right as a much finer texture than the one on the left.
Again, looking at these two steaks, pick the lighter colored of the two, which also has a smoother texture:
Next up is the almighty Rib Eye. Here you will really see the difference between colors. Below is a choice rib eye and one that is ungraded, or lower than select:
Some are looking at that darker steak in the foreground and think that looks pretty good. Let me show you a shot from the top:
Some are still thinking that’s a pretty good looking steak with all that marbling. Let me show you a close up of the darker one:
There is good marbling and bad marbling. Fine striations of fat running uniformly throughout the meat is good marbling. Thick bands of fat (that glob in the middle excluded from this discussion as that is indicative of most rib eyes), like those in the steak above translate to a stringy, chewy steak. A beef jawbreaker if you will. Now let’s look at a closeup of the Choice rib eye, keep in mind that glob of fat in the middle of the one above:
See how much smaller that glob of fat is? Every rib eye, no matter the grade, has that glob to some degree. The higher on the cut, the smaller that vein of fat becomes and thus has a smaller footprint in the individual steaks. The darker, unclassified steak, has a bigger glob of fat because it was taken farther down the roast. When looking at two rib eyes, take into account that glob of fat as it costs the same per pound as the meat. Some meat cutters and grocery stores will cut that out for a fee because it’s not a simple procedure. Doing so practically removes the top of the steak from the rest. One can ask any good meat cutter to lop off a chunk of fat along the outside for no fee, but most won’t cut this out without charging more. Some cut it out, tie the steak back together with bakers twine and call it a Sarasota steak for an extra couple dollars per pound. Save the money and look for rib eyes taken from higher up on the cut and thus have less fat in the middle.
Now I want to talk about T-Bones and Porterhouses. What are they exactly? Well, they are two cuts of steak on either side of a T shaped bone, hence the name of one. On one side is the tenderloin or filet and the other is a NY Strip. To be a T-Bone it must have a least 1/2 inch of tenderloin but there is no defined maximum. A porterhouse must have at least 1.25 inches tenderloin. Of the three steaks below, all three can be classified as a T-bone, but only two can be sold as porterhouses:
Why am I explaining this? Because a porterhouse is usually sold for more per pound than a T-bone, yet I’ve seen many times a steak that should be sold as a porterhouse in with the T-bones. So if you see that steak above on the right in with the T-bones, buy it and any others like it with that thick hunk of filet and freeze what you don’t cook.
One more note on this cut. “Bone in,” anything is very much en vogue right now. Bone in filets are a big deal. And so are bone in NY Strips. All they are is the porterhouse cut in half down the middle of the bone. It’s nothing fancy other than the NY strip side of a porterhouse or T-bone. Still, bone in steaks are better steaks and more expensive because you are paying per pound for bones you aren’t going to eat. I prefer my steaks bone in and recommend paying a little extra for the added flavor.
Some of you are thinking, the moral of the story is to buy the most expensive cut of meat and it will be the best. Generally speaking yes, but that doesn’t mean the lower cuts can’t be made better. For one, they are actually healthier because they don’t have the extra fat. Second, they’re cheaper. Select cuts don’t have the flavor of a Prime because they don’t have the fat a Prime steak does, but then again, a filet doesn’t have the fat that a NY strip does. We compensate for the lack of fat in a filet, and it’s particular shape, by wrapping a slice of bacon around it. It’s hard to wrap a slice of bacon around a select porterhouse, but that doesn’t mean one can’t add flavor. A brush on steak sauce such as Andria’s added during the grilling process or a compound butter added to the top of a plated steak can add a lot of flavor. To counteract the toughness of a select steak, try an acidic marinade to break down the connective tissues. Never use an acidic marinade with a filet as it will take an already tender cut and turn it into mush, but a Select porterhouse (with that side of filet), marinated in an oil based marinade can compensate greatly for the lack of flavor from the fat and break down the connective tissue somewhat without turning the filet into mush.
After all that I have written here, my greatest bit of advice is this: get to know your meat cutter. Don’t be afraid to ask to lop off a glob of fat from the end of a rib eye or a the fat along the outer edge of a NY strip that’s too thick. You’re paying premium prices for that meat. Save a couple bucks and have that fat trimmed off. If the meat cutter won’t do that for you, find a new meat cutter. Tell them you want rib eyes from farther up the cut to minimize the glob of fat. Get to know them and when they find out you are a steak connoisseur. Then they will find you exactly what you are looking for.
I realize that I left out the NY strip, other than there’s a NY strip on one side of the porterhouse and T-bone, but the principles I laid out here apply to that cut as well. I could write an entire book on how to buy a steak and many have, but these are some of the basics to get you going. But I don’t want to stop there. We’re the Grillin’ Fools, not the Buyin’ Fools. Once you buy the best steak you can, then you have to grill it. I won’t go into specifics here other than: salt, let come up to room temperature, sear, flip, sear, pull to the side to bake until desired doneness and of course resting are the keys in a single sentence. Here are a few detailed grilled steak recipes that outline the process to a tee with step by step, picture by picture, foolproof instructions:
Teres Major (it’s not a constellation, but a cut of steak that is out of this world)
Flat Iron Steak (another less common, yet amazing steak)
Another excellent link is the thumb test to know when steaks are done.
Oh, I almost for got. I bought two of those steaks above. The rib eye and the filet. You didn’t think I was going to show you all these raw steaks without grilling at least one and putting pictures of beautifully grilled steaks on here did you? I actually tossed two on the grill. I grilled the filet for my wife who normally eats some of a filet and I get the rest. I’m a lucky guy on so many levels, but not this time. I seared it and brushed it with a little Andria’s and she ate it all. In fact she devoured it and raved about it:
And I’ll just show you one bite from my rib eye:
That sums it up nicely.
If you have any questions, feel free to leave them below or shoot me an email.
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