Let’s face it, there’s probably no food that’s more American in identity than a big ‘ol steak. And there’s no more experience more American in nature than sitting in the back yard on a hot summer day with a grill full of steaks sizzling away. Given our increased focus on healthy eating, it’s not as prevalent as it once was, perhaps, but it’s still an experience many look forward to.
It’s important to use the proper technique to cook a steak, whether it’s grilled, pan-seared, or pan-roasted. Each is a perfectly fine way to prepare steak, though grilling is the more iconic method, and adds a bonus of some smoky flavor to the meat as it cooks. And since you need high heat require to sear a steak properly, an outdoor grill is often the better choice, unless you have a very good hood in your kitchen with a strong fan.
As important as technique is to the perfect steak experience, it’s really the cut that matters most. Some cuts of beef just aren’t meant for grilling.
Steaks are graded by the USDA according to the fat content, amount of marbling, and overall quality. The highest grade (and most fatty) is Prime, which is very hard to find, as most is sold to restaurants. The next grade, Choice, is still very good, though with less marbling. The only other grade sold in stores is Select, which lacks the proper fat and marbling for grilling.
Wet-aged vs. dry-aged
Regardless of cut and quality, all steaks are aged, as the enzymes in the meat help break down the muscle fibers and add meaty flavor. Wet-aged beef is generally aged in a vacuum package, to prevent the moisture from escaping, and it’s the kind you’ll find in most grocery stores. It’s perfectly fine for grilling.
Dry-aged beef is aged without wrapping, which causes some of the moisture to escape from the beef. This doesn’t make it less juicy, as the juiciness is more a function of fat than water, but it does further concentrate the beef flavor, and makes for a slightly firmer piece of meat. The action of the enzymes creates a distinct flavor that is nutty and rich, and the steak often has a pleasant cheese aroma. This is off-putting for some, and since dry-aged steaks are much more costly, it’s best to only offer them to connoisseurs.
Note that you cannot dry age at home—you need the proper conditions, and primal cuts of beef. By the time you’ve aged the steaks long enough to have a discernible effect, they will be spoiled.
With one exception, the priciest cuts of beef are also best for grilling. In fact, it’s their suitability, flexibility, and quality that make them so expensive.
Rib-eye, for many people, is the clear winner in the grilling debate. It’s cut from the ribs just behind the shoulder, making it very tender, as it’s not used as much as the areas of the shoulder and hip (it’s the same cut as a rib roast, just in steak form). It’s very well marbled with fat, making it very juicy and giving it a rich, buttery flavor.
Also known as: Delmonico, cowboy cut, cowboy rib, entrecüöôte, Spencer steak, market steak
New York strip is also a very prized cut, and comes in just a notch below the rib-eye (though it’s our personal favorite). It’s a bit firmer than the rib-eye, though still quite tender. It’s a tiny bit less flavorful than the rib, as it has less fat, but it’s still a robust, meaty steak. It’s also easier to trim and carve, as it doesn’t have the “cap” that the rib-eye has.
Also known as: Kansas City cut, strip loin, top loin, strip steak. It is sometimes called a top sirloin, but there is another cut, from the sirloin portion nearer to the hip, also called the top sirloin, so be careful.
Tenderloin, as its name suggests, is a very tender cut. It’s found under the short loin, where it does very little but hold things together and look pretty. It’s a rather small muscle compared to other cuts, which is one reason it’s so expensive.
The tenderloin is on the lean side, which means it doesn’t have as much flavor as other premium cuts. In fact, it’s often wrapped with bacon to enhance the flavor. But since it’s so tender to start, it holds up well when grilled. Just don’t expect the deep, rich flavors you’ll get with other cuts.
Also known as: filet mignon, filet steak, tournedo, chateaubriand
Porterhouse and T-Bone steaks are related. They both come from the same primal cut as
both tenderloin and strip steaks, and the only real difference is that porterhouse steaks have a healthy piece of tenderloin attached, while t-bones do not. We prefer t-bone steaks, as the strip side and the tenderloin side don’t always cook at the same rate.
One of the classic techniques of cooking t-bone steaks is bistecca alla Fiorentina, or Tuscan-grilled steak. In this method, the steak is coated with oil, salt, and pepper, and grilled directly on the hot coals. If you do travel to Tuscany, it’s something to experience, as they use a special breed of beef that isn’t readily available in the U.S.
Bistecca alla Fiorentina (Tuscan-grilled steak)
Less pricey cuts
There are two cuts of beef that are slightly less pricey than the above, but still do quite well when grilled: flank steak and
hanger steak. Both come from the bottom of the rib cage, where the muscle fibers are tightly bundled, yielding a very wide grain that can be tough if not handled properly. However, with such a well-defined grain, it’s quite simple to cut across the grain in thin slices, which makes it much easier to chew, give it a much more tender feel than what you would expect.
Both flank steak and hanger steak need to be marinated to add flavor and to begin the process of breaking down the muscle fibers. And you should not cook these past medium (heck, you should NEVER cook a steak past medium, but that’s a matter of taste) or they will be tough.
Hanger steak is also known as hanging tender, butcher’s steak, butcher’s tenderloin, or onglet.
Simple marinade for flank and hanger steaks:
Chris’s Mom’s Marinade
- 6 oz. pineapple juice
- ¼ c. low-sodium soy sauce
- 2 T olive oil
- ½ medium onion, diced
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped medium
- 2 T finely chopped ginger
Mix all ingredients together in a container or gallon plastic bag. Marinate the steak for at least two hours and as long as six hours (any longer and the enzymes in the pineapple will render the meat mushy).