With so many choices lined up behind the glass counter or in the refrigerated section of your local grocery store, it can be challenging to be sure that the steak you take home is the right choice.
Thankfully, we put together this guide to teach you how to pick a good steak at a glance. By drawing your attention to signs you can notice even from behind the counter, we will ensure that you will never need to second-guess your steak choice again.
General Tips for Buying a Good Steak
Even if you have a particular cut in mind for the steak you want to cook, each piece of steak is unique. You have to evaluate the steak on an individual level to find the cut in your market to give you the best results. When you choose which steak to take home, pay attention to these qualities.
Marbling is the white fat running through the steak that gives it juiciness and flavor. You typically want long lines of fat rather than chunks, letting it melt as you cook the steak. However, you should also be aware that these steaks are more expensive, and improper cooking can make them tough instead.
Filet mignon and other meats with less fat do not have as much flavor, but they are very tender.
The best choice for your steak’s marbling is usually in the middle, some marbling but not too much. You can choose between different cuts for more control over the flavor and texture.
The grade that the USDA gives steaks indicates its overall quality. Higher grades often coincide with more marbling. When you buy your steak, you have the four following options for grade, from the highest quality to the lowest:
Not only are thin steaks unsatisfying, but they are difficult to cook. Leaving a steak that is too thin on the grill for even a minute too long will overcook or burn it. You want to find a steak that is at least 1-inch thick. This measurement will give you some flexibility with the cooking time to make ruining your steak more difficult.
While higher prices generally promise more marbling, you should always judge individual cuts of steak to find the best product. Even expensive steaks will turn out unpalatable with imperfections like thick connective tissue in more tender cuts.
Buy Tender Cuts
Tougher meat is better for slow-cooking, so you want to find steaks cut from weaker muscles. The main characteristics to keep an eye out for are fine meat grain, little connective tissue, and the fewest possible muscle groups in a single cut.
You want to find a steak that is soft to the touch and has muscle fibers in fine clusters. When looking at marbling, you can choose from lean to medium concentrations of fat depending on your preference.
Having multiple muscles in the same cut of steak means that it will include more connective tissue and muscle fibers that run in different directions. Even traditionally tender cuts like strip steaks can consist of these imperfections, so you must choose carefully.
Unless you braise the meat or use other slow-cooking methods, these extra tissues will give you a tougher steak. When cooking your steak, there is not enough time or heat to break down the connective tissues, leaving you with a chewy meal.
Choosing the Right Cut
When you choose which cut to cook, there is never a “right” option. Steaks from different parts of a cow’s body have different flavor profiles, texture, and marbling, giving you various options to choose the right cut for the right occasion. The following are common cuts you can expect to find in a grocery store or butcher’s shop:
- T-bone: This bone-in cut is also known as a Porterhouse steak and includes both tenderloin and strip steak in the same piece. Two different types of steaks give you variety, but they cook at different speeds. Make sure to keep the tenderloin side farther from the heat and sear your steak before cooking it over lower heat. T-bone steaks are also a more expensive option.
- Ribeye: Ribeye steaks are cut from the ribs and can be bought as more expensive bone-in or cheaper boneless cuts. These steaks typically have a lot of marbling, contributing to their tenderness and flavor and keeping them juicy on the grill. Large amounts of fat cause your steak to drip as it cooks, so prepare accordingly.
- Filet Mignon: While this is one of the most expensive steaks on the market, it is also one of the most tender. Its lack of marbling tends to result in a steak that has less flavor than other cuts. This composition makes filet mignon pair well with steak butter or bacon.
- Top Sirloin: Sirloin hits the sweet spot where it is juicier and more tender than cheaper cuts while remaining more affordable than premium steaks. It makes up for being less tender than expensive cuts with a robust flavor that works well with light seasoning.
- New York Strip Steak: This cut is still tender with medium marbling, but less so than a tenderloin or ribeye steak. You should choose this steak if you want a cost-effective selection for frequent use without losing too much beef flavor.
- Prime Rib: With the most tenderness and juiciest flavor out of all of the cuts, prime rib steaks are an expensive option to save for holidays or other special occasions. Bone-in prime rib is juicer than the boneless option, but both include incredible amounts of marbling.
- Tri-Tip: While connoisseurs may still not include this cut in their list of desirable steaks, tri-tip is more popular than it once was. High temperatures dry out this steak too quickly, so you want to cook it low and slow to tenderize it and enhance the flavor. Smoking is probably the best way to prepare your tri-tip.
- Skirt Steak: This steak is thinner and has a low price tag, but it is heavily marbled. Marinating skirt steak and quickly cooking it makes it a delicious and cost-effective choice to include in recipes like fajitas or carne asada.