What is a Ribeye Steak?

Ribeye steaks
Three ribeye steaks. In the steak at top left, you can clearly see the crescent-shaped ribeye cap along the top edge, the large longissimus muscle in the middle, and the small triangular lip at the bottom. Roberto A Sanchez / Getty Images

Ribeye steaks are steaks that are cut from the beef rib primal cut. And oh, are they tender.

And juicy. And flavorful, with just the right amount of fat. Could ribeyes be the perfect steak? You'll get no argument from me.

The best way to cook a ribeye steak is very quickly, over high heat, either on the grill, under the broiler, or in a cast-iron skillet.

Cooking it this way produces a flavorful brown crust on the exterior of the steak while leaving the interior tender and juicy.

In other words, perfect.

Boneless Ribeye Vs. Bone-In

Ribeye steaks can be boneless or bone-in, and the bone in question is the rib bone. Depending on how the beef rib is fabricated, the bone can extend inches beyond the tip of the ribeye muscle, or it can be trimmed more or less flush.

The bone adds flavor and moisture, but it can make cooking the steak more difficult. The meat next to the rib cooks more slowly, so by the time it's medium-rare, other parts of the steak might be closer to medium.

Fortunately, boneless ribeye steaks are pretty much the norm. If you go to a butcher and ask for ribeye steaks, nine times out of 10 you're going to get the boneless version.

(Also see: Why You Need a Great Butcher)

Longissimus: The Ribeye Muscle

The main muscle in a ribeye steak is the longissimus dorsi, a long, tender muscle that runs all the way from the hip bone to the shoulder blade.

It's tender because it doesn't get much exercise.

It's also a muscle where a good amount of intramuscular fat tends to deposit. This fat, also known as marbling, adds tons of moisture and flavor to a steak.

(The longissimus is also the primary muscle in strip steaks.)

Oddly enough, one of my favorite things about ribeye steaks isn't even the ribeye muscle.

It's another strip of muscle at the top of the steak called the spinalis dorsi, or ribeye cap.

I'll probably write an entire article about the ribeye cap one of these days, but until then let me just say that this tiny crescent of tender meat is so rich and buttery and juicy, I can't resist eating it first.

In fact, I fantasize about one day ordering a whole ribeye cap from my butcher — although I can't imagine why he'd be willing to do that, because he'd have to denude a whole rib roll, and I don't know what he'd do with it after that. He'd probably make me buy the whole thing.

Still, I can dream.

Other Muscles in a Ribeye

The rib primal cut is situated between the chuck (the shoulder) and the loin (further back toward the rear leg). And you can tell where a ribeye steak came from just by looking at it.

If the eye of the ribeye is small, like 3 to 4 inches across, and surrounded by a few other little blobs of muscles, it's from the chuck end.

One of those blobs will be the cap, which I just talked about, only it won't be crescent-shaped this far forward. Another is the complexus, and another is the multifidus.

Both the complexus and the multifidus get progressively smaller toward the rear of the rib primal, and the complexus actually disappears before we get to the short loin.

On the other hand, if the ribeye muscle is bigger, closer to 6 or 7 inches across, with the crescent-shaped cap muscle at the top, that steak is from the center or loin end of the rib.

If I had my choice, I'd go for one with a bigger ribeye muscle, mainly because it'll be slightly less fatty. But there's no such thing as a bad ribeye.

Finally, there's a section of ribeye steak called the lip, which is a long, roughly triangular strip of muscle (serratus dorsalis and longissimus costarum) that sits underneath the rib bones. Sometimes the lip is removed, but usually not — mainly because once it's off, there's not much it can be used for other than making ground beef.

Ribeye Vs. Rib Steak

Technically there is a difference between ribeye steaks and rib steaks. But notice that I said "technically." The difference is so minor, and the exceptions to the rule so numerous, that the distinction is meaningless.

It has to do with how long that lip muscle is, but I'm not even going to bother explaining it because it's a tedious explanation and not the least bit enlightening.

So just assume that they're the same thing. Whether it's boneless or bone-in, a rib steak is a ribeye and vice-versa. I promise, that's all you are ever going to need to know about it.

Other than how to cook one. For that, see: How to Cook a Ribeye Steak