Chefs are taught a lot about steak cooking, but one can still go to a restaurant and have a shocking experience.
At home, the game of serving a consistent tender and tasty steak gets even harder.
I'll follow with an article on cooking the perfect steak, but before we get to that, I'll address the most critical factor of choosing the right cut.
Here are some tips on selecting the right steak. Choosing the grade of meat will follow in a future article.
Choose a great cut
Steak varies a lot in quality.
Firstly you need to select the right cut for your needs, budget and appetite. Here's a quick list of beef cuts that we can that we can definitely classify as 'steak' as well as some common other names.
Tenderloin (fillet steak, tournedos, eye fillet)
This is the 'premium' cut and the most tender with the least fat.
A good quality grain fed or Wagyu tenderloin will have a lot of fat marbling through the meat, but this cut should be trimmed of all sinew and will have no fat on the outside. This is the most expensive cut and the most tender, but Rib steaks have more flavor.
Tenderloins are usually smaller steaks as well. Probably the smallest of all the cuts.
Restaurant portions average 180-250g and it's boneless and fat free.
A double cut from the head of the tenderloin is called a Chateaubriand ..
Seared Tenderloin can be baked in puff pastry, either whole or in individual portions, with mushroom duxelles or pate. This is called "Beef Wellington."
Rib Eye, Scotch fillet and Prime Rib
Rib steaks are extremely flavorsome and can be very tender.
The rib has a large piece of moist fat running through the center. This is normal. Leave it there as it gives the meat flavor and keeps it moist.
A rib eye is a fillet of rib – cut off the bone. This is also known as Scotch fillet or 'cube roll'
The Prime rib or "OP Rib" is a rib-eye with the bone still on it. Like a huge lamb cutlet, but from beef instead.
Cooking on the bone always gives a lot more flavor, but it does take a little longer to cook.
A prime rib is a premium cut. The Prime rib is up there with the Porterhouse as one of the largest of the steak cuts, and it's definitely the tastiest.
Expect a prime rib to be 450g to 550 grams.
A rib eye steak will be between 250 grams for a tin one, to 300 grams medium or 400g for a thick one.
Sirloin, Entrecote, striploin, New York strip
This is the 'third best' cut, and the best value.
It is normally sized somewhere between a tenderloin and a rib steak too.
The Striploin or sirloin has thick fat along the top which should be trimmed down to around 1cm thick. It should not be trimmed off completely as it bastes the meat while cooking and keeps it moist.
Sirloin is very tasty and a great cut, but can be tough if not very careful about choosing the brand or grade of meat. A 'standard' portion is 250 grams, with a large steak being 350 to 400 grams.
T-Bone and Porterhouse
These are a 'combination' steak on the bone.
The bone is a "T" shape. One side of the "T" is a fillet steak or tenderloin, the other side is a sirloin. Both are attached to the bone.
these are the same steak, except the Porterhouse is cut from the back of the shortloin where the fillet steak piece is large and meaty.
the front of the shortloin is where the fillet steak starts to get smaller, so these steaks with smaller tenderloin pieces attached are referred to as "T-Bone"
These are great steaks, usually large. A porterhouse cut thick is probably the largest steak of the lot. Expect around 550 grams
This is the 'bum' of the animal. A plump buttock with an external layer of fat which can be trimmed down to an acceptable level.
The rump is probably the 'driest' steak, with the least marbling through the meat compared to the other premium cuts above.
The rump can have great texture and flavor.
Often the rump is just sliced across the grain to give a large piece of tasty meat.
This can be a disadvantage because this way the grain will run in different directions through the different muscles in the rump.
This means that some bits will be tougher than others.
Steak should be cut across the grain of the meat for best results.
One solution to this is 'seam-cutting' or splitting a whole rump into different muscles and then cutting each across the grain into smaller steaks.
A rump will be around 250 grams if seam cut, to 400 or 500 grams cut across all the muscles.
Flank steak and Skirt steak
These are cut from the abdomen or belly of the beef and have a very specific texture. They're OK seasoned and seared over high heat, but they do not have the typical 'steak' appeal of the prime cuts above.
Any other cut is not a steak.
A lot of leg meat or shoulder cuts are passed off by supermarkets and 'creative' butchers as "steak"
They are not.
Round 'steak' for example, is a dry, tougher piece of meat not well suited to grilling or pan frying. You can break it down mechanically, or tenderise it, but it's not as well suited to barbecuing and will always be tougher.
Chuck steak is not steak. It's stewing beef.
Choosing a great grade of meat may give you an eating experience that is tender enough from an inferior cut, but the steak cuts from the same animal will always be tastier and a lot more tender.
A steak cut will not always guarantee tender meat either. Some animals just have tough meat. Even the fillet steak.
A steak is the tenderest part of the beef – what we call a 'first class cut' because it is suited to fast cooking methods such as grilling, barbecue or pan frying.
"BBQ steak" "Budget steak" and similar things are tricks. They are based on price, not taste or tenderness.
If that's ok with you, go ahead. But to get the best taste and a tender piece of meat, choose the cuts above.
My next article will be on choosing the right grade of beef to ensure that your steak will be consistently tender and flavorsome.