If you are an absolute steak lover, you’d know what makes a great steak, and how to identify one from afar- a big, fat, beautiful slab of beef. When coupled with delicious garlic pepper sauced, creamed spinach, some sautéed vegetables and perhaps, a glass of chilled drink, it is like a party in your mouth with your taste buds dancing all around with utter glee.
Have you ever noticed though, every time you go to a steak house in particular, you are asked two major questions about your steak: the temperature you want and your preference of the steak cut? While you’d know exactly what temperature you want your steak to be, that is, medium well, rare, well-done, etc, the latter question probably always intimidated you. And that’s where the important questions come in: what is the difference between a rib-eye and filet mignon? Or that why is tenderloin always so expensive on any steak menu?
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Cultural Significance behind Steaks
Back in the ancient times, local communities had to rely on what was available locally. And one of the most evident available foods was meat from animals. So, hunter-gathering communities basically cut steaks from indigenous and local animals.
For instance, the Sámi people relied on the meet of reindeers, while local Australians were big on kangaroo consumption.
This meet-cutting and eating culture significantly led to the onset of the tradition of meat consumption and also determined the various types of meat and cuts we have available today.
What Makes a Delicious Steak?
As soon as you bite into that sizzling piece of meat, if there is an explosion of flavor in your mouth, and the tenderness of the meat simply blows you away, you know it is going to be an amazingly delectable meal.
There are two key characteristics that give a good steak its due excellence: flavor and tenderness.
This doesn’t include the addition of seasonings and sauces but the flavor here is only referring to the inherent flavor of the steak.
The true flavor and taste of a steak comes from the diet of the animal where the steak came from, amount of fat present in the meat and the aging of the meat.
You have probably heard of the term “tenderizing” in the steak dictionary. The importance of tenderness just cannot be emphasized enough. It is the tenderness of the steak that makes it easy and enjoyable to chew. You probably don’t want to feel like you are chewing on a stubborn piece of leather!
There are two underlying factors that make a steak as tender as you could possibly imagine. Firstly, it is the amount of muscle that was used. The cut of the meat that you use will be super soft and chewy given that a lesser amount of a given muscle was used by the animal in question. For instance, the muscles in the backbone are used in lesser amount than the muscles in the shoulders.
Secondly, it is the ratio of the three main types of bodily matter contained in the steak: fat, muscle, and collagen. Fat essentially provides flavor, collagen gives structure, and muscle, well, it is the key substance of the steak.
Main Types of Steak
Now that you know what truly contributes to a delicious and luscious steak meal, you must familiarize yourself with the main types of steak there are.
Also called Filet Mignon, this has to be the tenderest cut of steak and is often compared to butter by most people because of how effortlessly a knife can slice through it. Tenderloin is sold and served boneless and is also the most expensive cut of steak among all other cuts.
In France, it is referred to as “filet de boeuf” and ‘mignon’ is French for “Dainty Filet”.
Interestingly though, as tender as this steak cut is, it is slightly opposite in terms of flavor and its level of tenderness doesn’t match its flavor. This is primarily because there is lack of fat and marbling in tenderloin which result in a very mild, buttery taste. However, the lack of taste is often compensated by wrapping the meat with a strip if bacon that basically turns into something like melt-in-your-mouth meat with added texture and zest.
The tenderloin basically starts out wide from under the ribs and then narrows down towards the end. Filet mignon is cut from the smaller, narrower end and is very lean and fine-grained in texture. This meat is also small and compact once the fat and gristle is removed so it is often cut thicker than most steaks.
This meat cut is also called “porterhouse” and mainly comes from the strip loin and tenderloin. To the naked eye, t-bone and porterhouse will appear almost identical; however, there is a slight difference in the way how both are distributed. The porterhouse has a smaller strip segment while the t-bone consists of a smaller tenderloin area. The porterhouse is basically a bone-in steak cut that is taken from the rear end of the short loin and the t-shaped bone is cut from the spine that intersects the tenderloin and top loin.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this meat cut was first served by the owner of a Manhattan porter (ale) house back in the 19th century.
This steak type is often described as the “best of both worlds” with is ever-tender and buttery tenderloin, along with an extremely juicy and beefy strip of steak.
Ribeye is known with several other names like Spencer, Scotch fillet, Delmonico, and Entrecôte. It is also often referred to as the “king of steak”, owing to its flavorful beef taste, and the high fat content that produces an utterly palatable and delicious steak.
It is typically sold and served boneless or bone-in and comes from the upper ribcage. A Ribeye is essentially a prime rib or a rib coast sliced down into individual steaks.
Ribeye is marbled with fat that makes it the juiciest of all cuts. It also has a less tender texture as compared to tenderloin; however, it is still loved by steak enthusiasts because of the flavored chewiness it has to offer. It usually looks like large pockets of fat and meat that are interspersed throughout. While the outer section appears to be fattier and looser, the middle or the central eye consists of a finer grain texture.
Some of its other common names include top sirloin, Strip, Manhattan, contre-filet, Kansas City Strip, and top loin.
The New York Strip is usually sold and served boneless and is taken from the short loin behind the ribs. It is quite similar to a T-bone, considering how both of them use the same standard meat portion, that is, either the short loin or strip sitting on the underside of the cow.
This meat cut is super fine grained in terms of texture and consists of some amount of fat marbling minus large pockets of fat. It has a nice, beefy taste and is slightly tender too, owing to the decent fat content present in it, however, it is not as tender as a Ribeye or tenderloin is.
Also known as a Butcher’s Steak, this type of steak is often prized for its excellent flavor. It comes from a hanging muscle supporting the diaphragm of the beef cow. Because it is not connected to any bone, it has been given the nickname “hanging tender”.
It was once a very popular choice among butchers because of its supreme flavor which is why it is often difficult to commonly find it at the supermarkets.
The edges of the hanger steak are super zesty and tender while the center bears a more sinewy and slightly tough texture.
Most commonly used in steak-reliant dishes like a steak stir fry; Flank is a thick type of steak cut and is relatively large in size that comes from the abdominal region. It is very lean in texture and contains a large number of muscle fibers. In terms of tenderness, it falls somewhere in the middle since it is neither too tough nor very soft and chewy.
However, despite not being very tender, it is definitely among the most flavorful steak cuts because the right touch to it can bring out immense flavor, taste and essence from this meat and might even make it more tender than it usually is.
A popular way of cooking this meat is through moist heat cooking technique like braising that helps breakdown tough muscle fibers present in Flank, rendering it moist and tender.
This steak cut has recently gained some popularity whereas back in the days very few people would buy it and eat it. A Tri-Tip is also called Bottom Sirloin because it is a large boneless triangular-shaped meat that is cut from the bottom sirloin of the cow beef.
It has quite a low fat content as compared to a few other cuts of steak however, despite the low fat amount; it is nicely tender and immensely flavorful. The added flavor and taste comes from the use of slightly tougher parts.
It is also low in value and more affordable than a few other expensive cuts like t-bone and rib-eye steak.
A Prime Rib steak is often compared with Ribeye steak because they are believed to be the same thing. However, they are not quite the same.
Prime rib is also called “standing rib roast” and is considered to be the undisputed king of large beef cuts.
It basically comes from the primal rib section of the animal in question and a whole prime rib consists of 6 ribs. It is typically sold boneless or bone-in and usually contains a large “eye” of meat in the very centre.
This “meat eye” is believed to be the juiciest and the most tender meaty part that is greatly marbled with fat. The eye in particular is enclosed within a fat-marbled muscle and the entire beef cut has a thick cap-like layer of fat around it. Since this muscle layer isn’t heavily used, the prime rib results in great aroma, taste, flavor and zest.
Because of the size, amount of fat and flavor of prime rib, it is easily the most expensive cut of meat. It is also super thick which means it needs a generous amount of seasoning to get the full flavor out of it.
This type of steak is also known by many other names like Butter Steak, Shoulder Top Blade Steak, Boneless Top Chuck Steak and Top Blade Steak, to name a few.
The Flat Iron Steak is cut from the animal’s shoulder area called the ‘chuck’ and is usually cut with grain from the shoulder. This area yields extremely juicy and beefy cuts that are rich with flavor. However, it is a little tough since this piece has a gristly membrane layer but that can also be removed.
Lately, the Flat Iron has been gaining great popularity and is believed to be a good alternative to many other expensive types of steaks. It is also supposedly as tender as tenderloin and if cooked properly, it becomes even tender and juicer.
This is quite a versatile steak cut that you can easily grill with a dash of a delicious marinade!
Wagyu beef is one of the most highly prized meats because of its incredibly soft buttery flavor and extremely tender texture. This rich taste comes from the fat marbling in this meat that makes it one of those melt-in-the-mouth steaks.
Wagyu basically originates from Japan and is a generic name for beef there. Wagyu literally means ‘Japanese cow’.
Wagyu steak is also one of the most expensive steaks that you fill find on most steak menus. This is because the wagyu meat is reared differently than other types of meat. For instance, in Japan, the rearing and feeding of the cattle have to be done according to very strict guidelines.
Despite the price factor, most steak lovers flip out at the very sight of Wagyu steak because it is considered to be unparalleled in taste.
Within wagyu beef, there are further subcategories dividing the meat according to the type of cattle breed. Some of these include fullblood wagyu, purebred wagyu, akaushi beef, crossbred wagyu and Kobe beef.
This is a lean steak cut that is also known as Boneless Top Sirloin Steak, Top Sirloin Steak Top Off, and Sirloin Butt Steak.
This piece is cut from the primal sirloin or the subprimal sirloin of the animal. It is also different from sirloin steaks in a way that the tenderloin, bottom round muscles and the bone are removed from this steak cut.
Top sirloin is considered to be an extremely versatile, tender and juicy piece of steak and is packed full of flavor. The best way to cook this beef and get the most flavors out of it is by grilling, pan-frying, sautéing or broiling.
This is also known as Philadelphia Steak or Romanian Steak and is cut from the plate section. It has quite a sinewy texture with an intense beefy and juicy flavor.
Skirt steak is basically cut from two separate muscles of the animal from the abdominal cavity and from inside the chest. The ‘inside skirt’ comes from the transverus abdominis muscle and the ‘outside skirt’ comes from the diaphragm muscle.
While both types are flat and long, the inside skirt is thin with an irregular shape and the outside skirt is thicker and much more uniform in terms of the shape.
Skirt steak is also one of the more flavorful cuts of beef and is excellent for grilling.
This steak cut comes from the breast which is just behind the foreshank. It is considered to be one of the leaner and tougher steak cuts with a lot of beefy, juicy flavor.
Brisket beef hails the title of “the king of braised beef” because it tastes delicious once it’s braised. Although it is a fairly tough cut of meat but when it is slow cooked, all the connective tissues are broken down, resulting in super tender, moist and rich cooked beef.
Interestingly, this is one of those beef cuts that taste better the next day because it gives the beef a chance to absorb all the flavor over night and then release it during the cooking process. Another benefit of leaving it in the fridge for a whole day is that all the solidified fat will be easier to remove the next day.
Every time you go to a steak house, once you are done deciding what type of steak you want, the next question is always about what temperature you want your steak to be.
That’s right. Different types of steaks are cooked differently according to various frying and temperature degrees. Thus hugely depends on the size and shape of the steak cut and also the method of preparation.
It is also about personal preferences. While some people love to see a slightly pink center in their steaks, others prefer a more brown than pink colored steak. However, there is some science behind steak cooking styles and temperatures, which says that the more cooked the beef is, the tastier it will be.
Below is a list of steak temperatures that primarily decide how well your piece of steak is cooked.
This is almost equal to being raw at a temperature of 115F. At this level, the steak is completely red and purple throughout with a slightly seared cover. Because it is barely cooked, the meat retains its gel-like texture, which makes it incredibly chewy. Also, the juices are still intact and don’t flow out of the meat.
This is cooked at 120F and is almost 75 percent red throughout with a seared outside. Once the steak is off the stove, it is allowed to rest for a while which completes the process of heat transfer. This results in an absolutely juicy and tender steak with some of the juices slowly flowing out. At this point, it is often called “The perfect steak”. It is bright red and warm in the middle.
At this temperature, the steak has crossed “the perfect steak” point and is seared with only 50 percent red centre. It has hints of pink with the red and hues of brown on the outside. The surface of this steak is firm but should have a springy middle.
This is cooked at 134F and is simply dry and chewy, however still palatable. It is charred and seared on the outside with a mix of brown and pink in the middle. In terms of texture, it is a mix of firm and soft.
At this point, the steak is past the point of no return with brown on the outside and very slight pink shades through the middle. It is also tougher to cut and chew due to being almost “done”. The temperature for this is 150F. It should feel stiff but also a little squishy in the centre.
This is the brownest of steaks that is completely cooked through with brown in the middle and the outside. It also feels solid to the touch and is surprisingly the hardest to cook.
Steaks, without a doubt, have to be the most filling, delicious and nutritional food option. An appetizing and flavorful steak hugely depends on the meat cut it is using, after which come the seasonings, sidelines and sauces.
The cooking method also plays a key role and is directly related to the temperature levels like medium rare, well done, rare, and medium well, etc.
Always remember though, the one with more fat content will always be the juiciest of all!