Written By Chef Peter Martin
Part I Choosing Your Steak
Yes, I know, it is still the middle of winter, so why am I writing an article on grilling steaks? Because, if you are like me, then grilling is a year round pursuit. Sure, my grills see almost constant use during the summer, but they are also in use for a good part of the winter. I have even been known to grill in subzero weather and with blizzards raging around me. What better way is there to chase the winter blues away than firing up the grill and grilling up some of your favorite foods? For me one of those favorite foods is grilled steak. I am passionate about my steaks. I am a carnivore and I make no apologies for that fact! While I have never turned down a steak, I have eaten many that were merely “Ok”, and a couple that were downright bad. Fortunately, it is not hard to cook a perfect steak every time. With just a little forethought and some simple guidelines, you too can cook the perfect steak.
The first step to grilling the perfect steak is to choose the proper steak. Now this is a combination of personal taste and of beef anatomy. Grilling is a quick method of cooking that uses dry heat, so first we must find what cuts are good for grilling. These cuts should have an inherent tenderness, have a good amount of marbling (fat interwoven into the muscle fibers) and be free of much connective tissue.
Above is a picture of a beef carcass, divided into its primal cuts, the large basic sections that beef is cut into. A good general rule of thumb is that the higher up on the animal you go, and the more towards the center you go, the more tender the meat becomes. This is because those areas get less use and are only used to support the animal. Thus they contain less connective tissue and the muscles don’t get worked as much. With a couple of exceptions the Rib, Short Loin, and Sirloin primals should yield the best steaks. It is from these primal cuts that the best mix of flavor and tenderness combine to produce the cuts perfect for steaks. From the Rib primal comes Ribeye steaks. One of the most flavorful steaks, it has a nice tenderness to it, but also usually contains quite a bit of fat, that not everyone enjoys, and tends to flare up while grilling. Next comes the Short Loin. Here we find the Strip Loin or NY Strip, one of the kings of steaks, combining flavor and tenderness with minimal amounts of fat and waste. This is also where the giants of the steak world are cut from, the porterhouses and T-bones. Next is the Sirloin. These steaks tend to be a little less tender, but more than make up for it in their flavor. The sirloin is also divided into 2 sections, the top loin (or top butt) and bottom loin (or bottom butt) with the top loin being a little more tender than the bottom. These sirloin steaks usually tend to be boneless though if cut towards the back end of sirloin, close to the hip, can contain bone. Just remember that the larger the bone the sirloin contains the closer it will be to the Round and thus the less tender it becomes. Finally, there is the Tenderloin, which lies just underneath the Short Loin and Sirloin. This is by far the most tender steak of all, but at a price. This steak sacrifices some flavor for its tenderness, and contains a relatively small amount of marbling, meaning that if it is cooked beyond medium it will end up being dry and tough.
All this seems straight forward enough, but things get complicated, because all these cuts can be called by different names, depending on where you live. A NY strip can be called a Delmonico, Strip steak, club steak, hotel steak or a Kansas City Strip (often times referring to a NY that has the bone), while a Ribeye can also be called a Delmonico, Spencer steak, an Entrecote, or Cowboy Steak, if it contains the bone. Also in recent years there as been a trend, especially in large supermarkets, to cut “steaks” from less desirable primals. “Steaks” are now being cut from the Chuck and Round primals because markets can charge considerably more for a package of meat marked as “steak” as opposed to one marked “roast”. These “steaks” are usually quite thin to help counteract their inherent toughness. Steaks with the name “round”, “chuck”, or “blade” should be avoided. Meats from these primals are best suited for roasting, braising and stewing.
Finally, mention must be made of the USDA grading system. Most meat sold in grocery stores and restaurants is graded, though the US government does not require grading. The government only requires that beef be inspected to ensure its wholesomeness. Most meat packers voluntarily participate in the grading system. The grading system basically looks at 4 things: the amount of marbling (fat woven throughout the flesh), texture, color and firmness. In the case of marbling, the more there is, the higher the grade. The grading system is divided into 8 tiers, though the consumer really is only concerned with the top five, the last three being used strictly in manufacturing. The top 5, in order, are Prime, Choice, Select, Standard and Commercial. Prime is the best of the best; unfortunately it is rarely available in markets. Most of it is sold to the restaurant industry. If you can find it, it will cost you quite a bit, but it is well worth the extra cost. For most of us out there Choice will be our best bet. You can find it in most markets and is only a small step down from Prime. It still makes a great choice for grilling the perfect steak. Next comes Select. It contains less marbling than Choice and might not have quite the same tenderness and texture as the better grades. Sometimes markets will also sell meat that they don’t list the grade for. These meats probably come from cattle graded as Standard or Commercial. While the meat is still good, it doesn’t make the cut for grilling the perfect steak. For purposes of grilling the perfect steak, choose a steak graded as Choice, or Prime, if you can find it.
So what steak should you choose to grill the perfect steak? That I can’t answer for you. It depends on your personal tastes but I can make some recommendations. First off choose a steak graded at least Choice. It should be bright red with nice white fat and marbling. If tenderness is your goal then a filet, or tenderloin, is for you, but remember it is not as flavorful as some of the other choices, and will get dry and tough if cooked beyond medium. For great flavor there are the sirloins, but they will be a little tougher. Still a great choice as they are not overly tough. Right in the middle combining the best of both tenderness and flavor lay the NY strip and Ribeye, and finally, if you can’t decide, then the Porterhouse is the choice for you. It contains both the NY strip and tenderloin, giving you the best of both worlds.
In Part II I will discuss what to do once you have chosen your steak; how to season it, how to cook it, how to test for doneness, and offer a recipe or two for topping your steak.