Foodie Friday: Beef Made Easy (Part One)

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Even some great servers have trouble explaining steak cuts.  There are so many terms used to describe beef that it almost becomes a case of contrived complexity.  Some terms are legitimate government sponsored grades while cattle ranchers create others as a marketing tool.  For a food that many of us eat for nearly every meal, we know remarkably little about what these terms mean.  With a few basic facts about steaks, you can easily look like an expert, impress your guests, and sell more expensive cuts.

Even if you are not a server, knowing about steak cuts will help you as a more educated consumer.  Guests ask me from time to time, “what is the best steak?”  This is like asking what the best type of soda is.  I have a definitive opinion, but it is a subjective question.  The “best” cut depends on your preferences.

Here are the basics of steaks:

Marbling: This is the foundation of the differences between steaks.  Marbling is the amount of fat in the cut and the consistency in which it is spread throughout the steak with.  Marbling means fat, but in a much more appetizing way.  The more marbling in the steak, the higher the quality.

Three Factors in Marbling: Cows are very similar to people.  The three things that contribute to a fat cow (or person) are diet, activity, and age.  Cows that eat a diet based in high fat food will have more fat. A steak is basically muscle on a cow.  The more the muscle is used, the firmer it becomes.  Therefore steak cuts come from areas that the cow uses it’s muscles less in.  Anyone over 30 will tell you that it is much easier to gain fat with age.  Most cows are killed as soon as their growth spurts have ended.  Allowing a cow a longer life of leisure and fatty foods is the recipe for a good steak.

While a fat, lazy, old cow might not be an ideal date, they do make for a great steak.

Types of Steak Cuts:

Filet: (AKA Filet Mignon or Tenderloin) Comes from the center rear of the cow.  This area is very low in fat, but also does not get exercised much.  This makes for a steak that is both lean and tender.  Unfortunately, this is a very small portion of the overall cow.  The tenderloin is a long tubular cut that weighs about 6-7 pounds on an adult cow.  This is why it is usually the most expensive cut.  When cut it becomes a Filet.  Because of it’s low fat content, a smaller cut of Filet can be much more filling.  Filets are also often wrapped in bacon to add flavor due to their lack of fat.

T-Bone: (AKA Porterhouse)  Is found near the middle of the cow where the tenderloin meets the short loin.  The T-Bone is two cuts of meat separated by a bone.  The smaller side is the front of the tenderloin too narrow to be cut for a Filet.  The larger side alone would be a Strip.  If it is cut further back (and hence the larger the “Filet” side)  it is called a porterhouse.  T-Bones are generally much larger cuts because the bone is measured into the weight, as is the fat that separates the meat from the bone.

Strip: (AKA KC Strip or NY Strip)  This is the other side of the T-Bone cut from the short loin.  This will generally have the layer of fat that separates the bone from the steak left on.  This fat will shrink at higher temperatures and add more flavors to the meat.  Strips are the middle ground of steaks.  More fat than a filet, less than a ribeye, and more tender than a sirloin.

Ribeye: (AKA Prime Rib or Delmonico) The Ribeye cut has the most marbling of commercial steak cuts.  This area receives little exercise and comes from the fattest part of the cow.  Ribeyes frequently can be 80% meat and 20% fat.  As the steak is cooked to higher temperatures (medium well or well) the fat will shrink and add flavor to the meat.  Ribeyes are often larger cuts because of the amount of inedible fat.  When cooked whole and sliced afterward cooking, it is referred to as Prime Rib.

Sirloin: (AKA Top Sirloin)  Sirloins tend to have more fat than a strip or filet, but are also less tender because the muscles are used more.  This is the largest portion of the cow that is turned into steaks, which keeps the price down.  The Sirloin will also vary in quality more than any other steak.  This means that it is particularly important to check the USDA grade on a sirloin.  (Can someone say “transition”)

The USDA Grading System: This is how many restaurants will refer to their steaks.  It is a voluntary program and not all steaks are graded.  Since this is the standard way to rate beef, most producers of high quality steaks choose to be graded.  Remember, It is all about marbling.  The grades are determined based on how much fat is in the particular cuts and how tender the meat is.

Here are the basics of the grades:

Prime: The highest grade.  It is based on the high amount of marbling in the meat.  This makes for a tender and more flavorful steak.  Less than 3% of all steaks receive this grade.

Choice: The second highest grade.  It is the most common grade among commercially produced beef.  The marbling is not as consistent as Prime.  Slightly over 50% of beef receives this grade.

Select: The third highest grade.  Has less marbling and tenderness than in choice or prime.  Lean, but of consistent quality.  Most commonly found in retail.

Standard:  Lowest grade of steak cuts.  Commonly used for hamburger.  Lack necessary marbling or tenderness for steak cuts.

That is all for this week.  Join us next week for part two.  Topics will include more random steak terms like: dry aged, wet aged, Angus, Kobe, American Kobe, Hereford, and more.  Can’t wait?  Check out this super cool steak site.

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About David Hayden

David Hayden is the creator of The Hospitality Formula Network, a series of websites dedicated to all aspects of the restaurant industry. He is also the author of the book Tips2: Tips For Improving Your Tips and Building Your Brand With Facebook.

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8 comments on “Foodie Friday: Beef Made Easy (Part One)

  1. House on said:

    Please include the other grades of meat. I think there are 7? Every time I see steak on a buffet line I wonder what grade it is. Likely Select or Standard. The ones that come after that are used for… hotdogs? sausage? dogfood? When I read about the different grades I questioned my desire for steak. Great steaks are regularly served, but I am glad I know more of what is required to make an informed decision.

  2. tipsfortips on said:

    You wouldn’t find anything less than standard in steak form. Anything sold in a restaurant as a steak is standard or better. More likely just a cheaper cut of standard beef than listed here. Also keep in mind that if you are raising beef that doesn’t even make it to standard, you probably aren’t going through the effort to get it graded.

    There are actually 4 other categories. They are Commercial , Utility, Cutter, and Canner. These are for hot dogs and hamburgers.

    I spent several hours reading about this over the last couple days. There were some unappetizing moments. I still went to the store tonight and bought some steaks to grill with a friend. I don’t like where it comes from, but man it tastes good.

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  8. Zach on said:

    Thanks for putting this together — this is very useful information all in one place and a great primer for anyone that wants to know more about cuts of beef.

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