Despite the many articles we've published on how to cook steak well—how to grill steak, how to pan-sear it, how to reverse-sear it, how to sous-vide it, whether to rest it—few of those articles actually discuss what steak cut to choose in the first place.
We've separately covered many of the best inexpensive steak cuts, like hanger, skirt steak, and short ribs, in another article. This one will focus on some of the fancier, higher-end, birthday-dinner-at-the-steakhouse stuff—the cuts you'll have to spend good money on, and therefore will want to be sure you're cooking right.
What Makes a Steak?
First, a definition: Steaks are basically any piece of meat that falls under the category of "fast-cooking" cuts—cuts that are low enough in connective tissue that they don't require the long cooking times that "slow-cooking" cuts require.
The difference between a steak and a roast essentially comes down to size—any good roast can be cut into individual steaks (although, unfortunately, it's not possible to put together several steaks into a large roast without the aid of transglutaminase, or, at the very least, a reliable time machine).
The Anatomy Behind an Expensive Steak: The Longissimus Dorsi and Psoas Major
While cheaper cuts like sirloin, flank, and skirt, or cheffy cuts like hanger and flatiron, are becoming increasingly popular and available these days (my favorite is hanger), the kings of the steakhouse are still those cuts that come from the longissimus dorsi and the psoas major.
The longissimus dorsi muscles are a pair of long, tender muscles that run down either side of the spine of the steer, outside the ribs, all the way from the neck to the hip. The tenderness of a steak is inversely related to the amount of work that a muscle does during the steer's lifetime. So, as a relatively unused muscle, the longissimus dorsi (commonly referred to as the loin or the backstrap) is extremely tender, making it an ideal candidate for steak (and also quite expensive).
The psoas major is one of a pair of shorter muscles that start about two-thirds of the way down the steer's spine and run on the opposite side of the ribs to the longissimus—the inside. Commonly referred to as the filet mignon or tenderloin, they're by far the most tender pieces of meat on the steer. That coupled with their small size makes them the most expensive cut at the butcher (that whole supply-and-demand thing, you know?)
Out of these two muscles come a number of cuts. Here's what you'll find at the typical butcher shop.
High-End Steak Cuts, Defined
Also sold as: beauty steak, market steak, Delmonico steak, Spencer steak, Scotch filet, entrecôte
Where it's cut from: The front end of the longissimus dorsi, from the rib primal of the steer. The further toward the head of the steer you get, the more of the spinalis muscle you'll find in your steak—that's the cap of meat that wraps around the fatter end of the steak.
What it tastes like: The ribeye steak is highly marbled, with a large swath of fat separating the longissimus from the spinalis. Fat is where a lot of the distinctive flavor of beef comes from, making ribeye one of the richest, beefiest cuts available. The central eye of meat tends to be smooth-textured, with a finer grain than a strip steak, while the spinalis section will have a looser grain and more fat. Many people (including me) consider the spinalis to be the absolute tastiest quick-cooking cut on the cow.
The best way to cook it: Pan-frying, grilling, and broiling are all good options. Because its copious fat is prone to causing flare-ups, grilling ribeye steak can be a bit tricky. Have a lid ready, and stand by with the tongs in case you need to rapidly spring into action and retrieve the steak from the depths of a fireball. This is my favorite cut for pan-searing.
Also sold as: New York strip; Kansas City strip; top sirloin (which has nothing to do with the sirloin primal of the steer, or the sirloin steak, which is an entirely different cut); top loin; shell steak (when sold bone-in); contrefilet
Where it's cut from: The longissimus dorsi muscle, toward the rear end of the steer, in the short loin primal. That's the primal just behind the ribs.
What it tastes like: A tight texture with a definite grain means strip steaks are moderately tender, but still have a bit of chew. Good marbling and a strong beefy flavor. Not as robust as ribeye, but much easier to trim, with no large pockets of fat, making it an easy-to-cook, easy-to-eat cut. A favorite of steakhouses.
The best way to cook it: Pan-frying, grilling, broiling. Strip steak is easier to grill than ribeyes, as less fat means fewer flare-ups and less burning.
Also sold as: filet; filet mignon; fillet; chateaubriand (when cut as a large, center-cut roast feeding two or more); tournedo (when cut from the smaller, tapered section of the tenderloin closest to the rib primal)
Where it's cut from: The central section of the psoas major muscle in the short loin primal of the steer
What it tastes like: Extremely tender, with an almost buttery texture, the tenderloin steak is very low in fat, and correspondingly low in flavor. To be honest, unless you are looking for a low-fat cut or prize tenderness above all else, you're better off with one of the other, less expensive cuts.
The best way to cook it: Pan-frying or grilling. Because it's so low in fat, and fat conducts heat more slowly than muscle, tenderloins tend to cook much faster than other steaks and are far more prone to drying out.
Pan-frying in oil and finishing by basting with butter helps add some richness, as does wrapping in bacon before grilling (a very common approach). Even better is to purchase and roast or grill-roast it whole, as a chateaubriand—less surface area means less moisture loss.
Because of its mild flavor, tenderloin steak is often paired with flavorful sauces or compound butters.
Also sold as: porterhouse (when the tenderloin section is an inch and a half or wider)
Where it's cut from: The T-bone steak is a two-for-one cut—it's made up of a piece of tenderloin and a piece of strip, separated by a T-shaped bone. The regular T-bone is cut from the front end of the short loin primal, just after the tenderloin starts, giving it a smallish piece of tenderloin (between half an inch and one and a half inches wide).
A porterhouse steak, on the other hand, is cut from farther back and has a section of tenderloin at least one and a half inches wide.
See how the two steaks fit together?
What it tastes like: The strip section tastes like strip, and the tenderloin tastes like, well, tenderloin.
The best way to cook it: Grilling, broiling. Because of the irregularly shaped bone, pan-searing is extremely difficult with a T-bone. As the meat cooks, it tends to shrink down a bit, and the bone ends up protruding, preventing the meat from getting good contact with the pan's surface and inhibiting browning. Because of this, you're much better off grilling it.
Even grilling isn't completely straightforward, though. Remember how the leaner tenderloin cooks faster than the fattier strip? That problem is compounded by the fact that the tenderloin section of a T-bone or porterhouse is much smaller than the strip. The result is a tenderloin that ends up overcooking before the strip is even close to done.
But never fear! There's an easy way to fix this problem. When grilling or broiling, just make sure you position the steak such that the tenderloin is farther away from the heat source than the strip. Under a broiler, that means that the steak should be oriented so the strip rests closer to the heating element or flame.
On a grill, this means building a modified two-level fire (that's all the coals under one half of the grill, with the other half left empty; on a gas grill, light one or two of the burners, leaving the other one off), then positioning the steak over the fire so that the tenderloin sections are closest to the empty side of the grill
For complete instructions on effectively grilling T-bone (or porterhouse), check out Josh Bousel's article here.