The first step in cooking a perfect steak is choosing the right cut of beef. You want one that's tender and has plenty of marbling. In general, the best cuts of beef for steak come from the rib, short loin or tenderloin primal cuts. Examples:
- The strip steak (sometimes called a New York strip or Kansas City strip), which is from the short loin;
- The porterhouse and T-Bone steaks, which are comprised of meat from both the short loin and the tenderloin;
- The rib eye steak, which is from the rib primal cut;
- Filet mignon, which is a steak from the pointy end of the tenderloin.
Tenderloin steaks can also be taken from the butt or back end of the tenderloin where a small seam of connective tissue may run through the steak, making it less desirable than the filet mignon. Chateaubriand comes from the center cut of the tenderloin.
The reasons the cuts of beef described above make the best steaks is that they are from muscles that don't get much exercise and thus are very tender. This makes them excellent for dry-heat cooking methods such as grilling and broiling. Some cuts of meat are perfectly delicious when cooked using moist heat, but would be extremely tough and chewy if cooked using dry heat. (Think pot roast, for a good example of this.) That's why, for the best steak, we like to stick with the cuts of beef mentioned above.
A note on filet mignon is in order here. As we said, filet mignon is a steak from the beef tenderloin primal cut and a very tender cut of meat. Often you'll see filet mignon steaks prepared wrapped in bacon. There's a reason for this practice: filet mignon isn't that flavorful.
It's true. The tenderloin, you see, is quite lean, and it's the fat that imparts much of the flavor to a piece of meat. Thus, filet mignon is wrapped in bacon to give it more flavor. There's nothing wrong with that, but filet mignon is relatively expensive. To me, for that kind of money, a steak shouldn't need a strip of bacon wrapped around it for it to taste good.
How to Buy Beef
Not all steaks are created equal. You'll see all kinds of cuts of beef at the supermarket that have the word "steak" in their names but beware. Chuck steak, blade steak, round steak, tip steak, or even sirloin steak are not the best steaks for cooking the perfect steak. Usually, if it has the word rib or loin or strip in its name, it's going to make a good steak.
Certainly, it's possible to grill a nice flank steak or even a chuck blade steak. But in the case of a flank steak, you've got to marinate it first, and there's nothing wrong with that. Flank steak is really flavorful. But if you want that feeling of cutting into a thick, juicy steak, a flank steak won't give it to you.
Look for the Marbling
My personal favorite steak is a boneless rib-eye steak. It's incredibly tender and flavorful. You might prefer a different one, and your preferences might change with time. For years, my go-to steak was the New York strip, but I'm currently a ribeye man. But remember, not all steaks are created equal. You don't just want a ribeye, you want a good ribeye. Fortunately, you can easily distinguish a high-quality steak from a lesser one, simply by looking at it. You just need to know what to look for. And that something is called marbling.
The word marbling refers to the little flecks of fat that naturally occur within the muscle of the meat. The more marbling a steak has, the more flavorful it will be. (Take a look at the photo above for an example.) Chances are you'll notice a price difference, too. Conversely, if you've ever looked at two steaks at the butcher shop and wondered why one cost more than the other, you'll probably see that the pricier one had significantly more marbling.
Quality designations, such as prime, choice and select, can be helpful, but not every steak you buy at the store will have these designations. If they do, prime is the best quality, followed by choice, then select. Moreover, these quality designations are based in large part on marbling, so even if the meat hasn't been graded, you can identify a superior cut of meat by looking for the marbling.
How Thick Should a Steak Be?
If you're buying your steak at the supermarket, you may be limited to whatever steaks are on the shelf or in the meat case. But at a butcher shop or specialty meat store, the butcher might cut your steaks for you, which means you'll need to specify how thick you want them.
My preference is 1½ inches. To me, an inch is just a little too thin, while two inches might be too thick. I would never go thicker than two inches, nor thinner than an inch. Too thin and you're missing out on the luxurious experience of eating a perfect, juicy steak, and you also run the risk of overcooking it.
Too thick of a steak gives you the opposite problem: If you're not careful, you can cook the outside just fine but have the inside undercooked. Also, let's be serious: unless you have a huge mouth or one that comes off at the jaw hinges, more than two inches of steak is just going to be awkward to eat. An inch and a half are the perfect thickness for a steak.
For the Best Steak, Dry-Aged Beef
Finally, let's talk about aging. All beef is aged before it gets to the supermarket or butcher shop. There are two methods for aging beef, wet and dry. Wet-aged beef is simply aged in vacuum bags and it's the way most supermarket meat is aged. Dry-aged beef, on the other hand, produces more intense flavor and is the way the most high-end beef is aged.
Dry-aged beef has been hung in a cooler for a length of time—a few weeks, usually—under humidity-controlled conditions, which allows excess moisture to drain out, thus concentrating the flavor and also tenderizing it by allowing the meat's natural enzymes to break down some of the connective tissues that make a steak tough.
While it may be uncommon to find dry-aged beef at the supermarket, a better butcher shop or specialty food store should carry it. A warning, though: This superior quality and flavor are going to cost you. Dry-aged beef is more expensive, pound for pound because it has less moisture in it—and thus less weight—than a regular steak. Yes, if you think about it, that means you're paying for water. But, in the words of famed steak aficionado Frank Sinatra, that's life.
A dry-aged steak is also going to have to be trimmed more, which means the butcher is going to have to charge a little more to make up for the bits that were trimmed off. So a dry-aged steak will cost more, but it is absolutely worth it.
And the Best Steak Is...
And so (drumroll, please...), the best steak is a dry-aged steak from the rib, short loin or tenderloin primal cuts, with plenty of marbling and sliced about 1½ inches thick. Choose your meat wisely and you'll be well on your way to cooking the perfect steak.